Federal watchdog agency: Trump broke law with Ukraine scheme

Trump's Ukraine scheme wasn't just scandalous; according to Congress' non-partisan watchdog agency, it was also illegal.
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The White HouseANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS / AFP/Getty Images
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By Steve Benen

As Donald Trump's impeachment scandal has unfolded, one of the principal Republican arguments has focused on whether or not the president committed a criminal offense. This has long been an unfortune line of defense, which is suddenly quite a bit worse.

For one thing, impeachment is not dependent on statutory crimes. For another, there's fresh evidence that Trump's extortion scheme in Ukraine did, in fact, break the law.

The Trump Administration violated the law by withholding military aid to Ukraine, the U.S. Government Accountability Office said in a decision released Thursday.

"In the summer of 2019, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) withheld from obligation funds appropriated to the Department of Defense (DOD) for security assistance to Ukraine," the ruling said.

"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 (ICA). The withholding was not a programmatic delay. Therefore, we conclude that OMB violated the ICA."

Between the GAO, OMB, and the ICA, that's a whole lot of relatively obscure three-letter acronyms, so let's take a step back and take stock of the law and this investigation.

In 1974, Congress passed a law to constrain the White House's powers when it came to funding appropriated by lawmakers. The change stemmed from a dispute between Congress and the Nixon administration over the Clean Water Act: lawmakers approved funding for wastewater treatment plants, which the Republican White House didn't want to spend.

Lawmakers responded by reclaiming some of their legal authority related to the "power of the purse."

There are some exceptions under this specific law, called the Impoundment Control Act, but none of them seems to apply to Donald Trump's decision to delay aid to Ukraine, approved by Congress, as part of an extortion scheme to get campaign dirt on a domestic rival -- a scheme the White House's Office of Management and Budget helped implement at the president's direction.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) asked the Government Accountability Office -- a non-partisan watchdog agency that conducts audits and investigations for Congress -- to determine whether the Trump administration did, in fact, break the law.

Today, the GAO responded: yes, that's precisely what happened.

"This bombshell legal opinion from the independent Government Accountability Office demonstrates, without a doubt, that the Trump administration illegally withheld security assistance from Ukraine," Van Hollen said in a statement this morning.

In practical terms, the GAO may have broad investigatory powers, but it lacks enforcement authority: in a case like this one, it could go to court to force the White House to release the withheld funds. That, of course, is a moot point, since the military assistance, approved by Congress, is no longer being blocked.

But in political terms, today's findings are quite brutal for Team Trump: after months of arguing that Trump's scheme was perfectly legal, there's now a non-partisan government watchdog agency that's drawn the opposite conclusion.

I don't doubt that many of Trump's Republican allies will shrug off the latest evidence of presidential wrongdoing, but their indifference to his illegalities is suddenly even more difficult to defend.

MORE: Today's Maddowblog