WH Rebuffs GAO on Ukraine Aid: 'We Are Not Legally Bound'
The president has been saying the same thing since last September. “There’s no crime,” he insists in one variation or another when asked about his impeachment. During a speech three days before Christmas, he expanded on this: “There’s no nothing.” Because no law was broken, in his legal estimation, Donald Trump concluded, “How do you impeach? You had no crime.”
But there was a crime, said the Government Accountability Office on Thursday.
Less than a day after the House delivered two articles of impeachment to the Senate, the GAO released a report asserting that the White House budget office broke the law when it froze aid to Ukraine.
“Faithful execution of the law does not permit the President to substitute his own policy priorities for those that Congress has enacted into law. OMB withheld funds for a policy reason, which is not permitted under the Impoundment Control Act,” the report read.
After withholding those monies, according to the congressional watchdog agency, OMB began withholding information from oversight officials, a step that could have “constitutional significance.”
"The OMB, the White House, the administration broke — I'm saying this — broke the law," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said at her Thursday press conference, citing the GAO report as more evidence to support the calling of “documents and eyewitnesses in the Senate.”
The administration saw all this and essentially shrugged its shoulders. OMB spokeswoman Rachel Semmel told RealClearPolitics that “we disagree with GAO's opinion.”
The White House has long insisted that aid to Ukraine was delayed in order to assure the congressionally appropriated funds would be well spent in a nation where corruption has long been rampant. House Democrats have concluded that the delay was part of an effort by Trump to pressure that country into opening an investigation into the family of a potential political rival, Joe Biden. It was “an abuse of power” they concluded, a charge that makes up the substance of the impeachment articles.
Republicans responded with an attack on institutional legitimacy. “The ‘nonpartisan’ GAO is run by someone confirmed to a 15-year term in 2010 under a Democrat president, Democrat-controlled Senate and Democrat House,” complained New York Republican Rep. Lee Zeldin.
The oversight organization was meddling, complained one senior administration official, by attempting “to insert themselves into the media’s controversy of the day.” And besides, the official continued, it’s not like the GAO always gets it right.
“They have a history of flip-flops, reversing 40 years of precedent this year on their pocket rescission decision. They were also forced to reverse a legally faulty opinion when they opposed the reimbursement of federal employee travel costs. In their rush to insert themselves in the impeachment narrative, maybe they’ll have to reverse their opinion again.”
It isn’t clear what affect the GAO findings will have other than boosting progressive spirits. White House aides comforted themselves Thursday with the fact that such reports are often little more than press releases.
The nonpartisan agency, for instance, reported that the Obama administration broke the law when it exchanged five Taliban prisoners for Bowe Bergdahl, who had been captured after deserting his Army unit. There were no legal repercussions. When the GAO found that the George W. Bush administration had violated the law by paying journalists to promote government programs, Congress just asked for a reimbursement from the private firms. Even further back, during the Clinton administration, the watchdogs discovered that the D.C. Financial Control Board had illegally overpaid staff members. Congress voted to retroactively approve the raises.
This history has left some in the White House contemptuous of the GAO. The agency is weak, they have concluded, prompting the question of what it could do anyway in this case. “Nothing,” a senior aide said. “We are not legally bound.” Besides, the aide noted, the GAO is just “an arm of Congress.”