According to the Government Accountability Office, a non-partisan watchdog agency that conducts audits and investigations for Congress, the White House broke the law when it withheld military aid to Ukraine as part of Donald Trump's political extortion scheme. "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 found.
As part of its report, the agency emphasized that the executive branch can't block funds appropriated by Congress, even when legitimate policy differences drive the decision. In this sense, even if one is inclined to believe the pretextual White House argument -- Trump has a deep and abiding concern about "corruption" in Kyiv -- the administration's tactic was still illegal.
Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.), currently in his 45th year on Capitol Hill, said yesterday in reference to the GAO's findings, "I have never seen such a damning report in my life.... I read it twice.... To have something saying this is such a total disrespect of the law. It's unprecedented."
Republicans didn't quite see it the same way. Indeed, the question wasn't whether Trump's GOP allies would downplay the findings; the question was how they'd dismiss the determination that Trump broke the law. Politico highlighted one of my favorites:
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) went further, arguing that GAO got it wrong when the agency concluded the White House violated the Impoundment Control Act by declining to notify Congress of the delay in appropriated funds."I think they misunderstand the law. I think presidents withhold money all the time, move money around," Paul said. "I think there's a great deal of latitude to what presidents do. So I think they've misinterpreted the law."
Well, that's certainly one way to look at the scandal. After all, who are you going to trust to do a proper legal analysis of the Impoundment Control Act: the auditors and lawyers at the Government Accountability Office, whose job it is to make these kinds of determinations, or the legal opinions of a self-accredited ophthalmologist turned politician?
All joking aside, the Washington Post noted a slightly more substantive effort from another prominent GOP senator.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) tried to separate Trump from the GAO's findings, arguing that "obviously it is not directed at the president; it's the Office of Management and Budget, with whom I've had a few disagreements over the years about the withholding of money that's been appropriated by Congress." [...]"The GAO report identifies the OMB, not the president, and it says it was for 'policy reasons,' not for political reasons.... I don't think that changes anything."
What a curious perspective. Yes, Cornyn concedes, the Government Accountability Office scrutinized the administration's scheme. And yes, the Texas Republican acknowledged, the investigators determined that the scheme was illegal.
But, Cornyn argues, the GAO points specifically to the actions of the White House Office of Management and Budget, which executed the plan. It's why the senator is comfortable concluding that the findings point to a problem with OMB, not the Oval Office.
And this might actually be a terrific argument if there were any evidence that the White House Office of Management and Budget had gone rogue and started making illegal decisions all on its own. But in reality, we know the opposite is true: OMB was acting at the "clear direction" of the president.
It was Trump's illegal scheme that the budget office implemented, and Trump's devotees who are looking for excuses not to care.
Republicans knew the GAO's report was coming, and they had time to prepare talking points in the event that the watchdog agency reached these conclusions. The fact that they struggled so mightily to come up with good arguments suggests there simply isn't much of a defense.