One of the core defenses of President Trump’s behavior toward Ukraine is the “no harm, no foul” argument, and it goes something like this: Regardless of anything President Trump or his minions said or did, Ukraine got its security assistance without having to announce an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden. So move along, people!
But that’s never been entirely true; as the Los Angeles Times reported last month, Ukraine still hadn’t received more than $20 million of the military aid. And besides, some of Trump’s critics said, the administration didn’t have the authority to hold the aid the way it did.
Thursday morning, the Government Accountability Office made it official: The administration violated federal law by freezing the security aid Congress had appropriated for Ukraine. “When Congress enacts appropriations, it has provided budget authority that agencies must obligate in a manner consistent with law,” the GAO report notes, adding, “The Constitution vests lawmaking power with the Congress.”
Well, duh. Yet some of Trump’s defenders — notably, acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, who should know better — insisted that as long as the aid to Ukraine was released by the end of the fiscal year, everything would be hunky-dory.
The report by the GAO, the nonpartisan congressional agency that’s an all-purpose government watchdog, explains why that’s just not true. In the Impoundment Control Act, Congress reinforced its constitutional authority over the federal purse strings by setting rules for when and how a president could delay spending an appropriated amount. If the president seeks to delay or rescind spending, the report states, the law requires him to notify Congress. And he cannot slam the brakes on an appropriation simply because he thinks the policy is wrong.
“The ICA does not permit deferrals for policy reasons,” the GAO notes, and the White House Office of Management and Budget’s rationale for putting the Ukraine aid on hold “falls squarely within the scope of an impermissible policy deferral.” Put another way, Trump’s purported beliefs that Ukraine was corrupt and European nations weren’t paying their share were, under federal law, immaterial once Congress made the decision to provide the aid.
“Faithful execution of the law does not permit the president to substitute his own policy priorities for those that Congress has enacted into law,” the GAO report states, again underlining what should be obvious. “In fact, Congress was concerned about exactly these types of withholdings when it enacted and later amended the ICA.”
The report isn’t the sexiest Ukraine-related tidbit circulating these days; far more attention is being paid to the latest accusations from Lev Parnas, the Ukrainian American who was part of Rudolph W. Giuliani’s merry band of pranksters trying to dig up dirt against former Vice President Joe Biden. Parnas’ comments Wednesday on MSNBC — which should be taken with a grain of salt, considering his track record — add to the weight of evidence that Trump withheld the aid to Ukraine to pressure the government into investigating Biden.
The GAO, by contrast, has no credibility problem. And it just shot down the argument that the president didn’t do anything unlawful.