GAO report says Trump administration violated the law in withholding aid to Ukraine

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Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Director Mick Mulvaney (R) listens as President Donald Trump (L) meets with members of the Republican Study Committee

Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Director Mick Mulvaney (R) listens as President Donald Trump (L) meets with members of the Republican Study Committee at the White House in Washington, DC, March 17, 2017.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

At the heart of the impeachment inquiry into US President Donald Trump is the decision to withhold security aid from Ukraine. 

The first article of impeachment voted on by the House of Representatives on Dec. 18 charges the president with abuse of the powers of his office by pressuring Ukraine to launch an investigation that would benefit him in his reelection campaign. 

Part of that alleged pressure is tied to “the release of $391 million of United States taxpayer funds that Congress had appropriated on a bipartisan basis for the purpose of providing vital military and security assistance to Ukraine to oppose Russian aggression and which President Trump had ordered suspended,” according to the articles

A Government Accountability Office report released Thursday says the Trump administration violated the law when it withheld aid intended for Ukraine in the summer of 2019. The GAO is a nonpartisan watchdog agency that reports to Congress.  

Released just a day after the House sent articles of impeachment to the Senate for trial, Democrats have pointed to the report as an indication of the need for additional evidence and testimony to be included in the Senate proceedings. This has been a point of contention in the weeks leading up to the trial. 

“This reinforces again the need for documents and eyewitnesses in the Senate,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said at a Thursday press conference, adding that the administration is engaged in a “tangled web” of deceit. 

Related: Trial in the Senate: Where does impeachment go from here?

On June 18, 2019, the Department of Defense announced $250 million in security assistance to Ukraine. These funds extended congressional appropriations for the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative as part of the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2019. 

Ukraine is currently engaged in a hot war with Russia in the eastern region. More than 13,000 people have died in the conflict. The funds provided by Congress through the USAI were intended to “provide assistance, including training; equipment; lethal assistance; logistics support, supplies and services; sustainment; and intelligence support to the military and national security forces of Ukraine.” 

According to the GAO report, in the summer 2019, the Office of Management and Budget withheld around $214 million that had been appropriated to the Department of Defense to be disbursed to Ukraine under the USAI. More than $140 million in funds appropriated to the State Department was also delayed. OMB is an agency within the Executive Office that serves the president. It is headed by Mick Mulvaney. 

The Trump administration has argued that funds were withheld in order to investigate corruption in Ukraine. But before releasing the aid, DOD was required to certify that Ukraine met certain “defense institutional reforms.” That certification was made to Congress on May 23, 2019. 

Indeed, the June 18 DOD announcement notes, “This security cooperation is made possible by Ukraine’s continued progress on the adoption of key defense institutional reforms to align Ukraine’s national security architecture with Euro-Atlantic principles.”

Related: Politics aside, US support for Ukraine can't waver, veterans say

Testimony from the House impeachment inquiry indicates that a hold on aid may have been placed as early as July 3. But on July 25 — less than two hours after the infamous Trump call with Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy — OMB officially issued the first of nine holds on the aid in a footnote of OMB funding documents. The hold prompted some OMB officials to voice concerns and two to resign

According to the footnote, the aid was paused on July 25 “to allow for an interagency process to determine the best use of such funds,” but would not prevent the “timely execution of the final policy direction.” 

This hold was extended Aug. 6 and 15. The following six holds (Aug. 20, 27, 31 and Sept. 5, 6, 10) did not include language regarding the “timely execution” of delivering aid. 

Trump agreed to a release of the aid Sept. 11, just weeks before the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. A Sept. 12 apportionment was issued without the footnotes blocking the aid.