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GAO: Trump Broke Budget Law When He Froze Ukraine Funds


The White House broke the law when it withheld military aid to Ukraine last year. That ruling comes from a government watchdog agency. The nonpartisan Government Accountability Office announced their findings this morning as the impeachment proceedings against the president now go to the Senate. White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe's has been digging through the decision and joins us in studio. Hi, Ayesha.


MARTIN: First off, can you just remind us about the law in question here, the law that's been broken? This is the Impoundment Control Act, right?

RASCOE: Yes. So this is a law that reinforces that Congress has the power of the purse. That's a power that's obviously provided in the Constitution for Congress. And it says that the White House cannot rule - withhold money that Congress has appropriated and that the president has signed into law. And if the White House wants to delay or deny funds, it has to go through this detailed procedure with Congress.

MARTIN: Which they did not alert Congress.

RASCOE: Which they did not do.

MARTIN: So how did the investigation by the GAO - I mean, how did this even come about?

RASCOE: So when lawmakers found out about this freeze, they raised concerns. And Senator Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat from Maryland, he asked the Government Accountability Office to - this watchdog agency that works for Congress to look into the issue. And GAO looked at a portion of the aid that Congress had approved for the Defense Department to give to Ukraine. That was about $214 million of total aid.

And it found that the budget office - the White House - violated the law. It said that the Office of Management and Budget withheld the funds to ensure the money didn't conflict with the president's foreign policy. But the GAO says the law does not allow OMB to withhold funds for policy reasons.

MARTIN: Once Congress says you got the money, you got to spend it. The White House has to spend it.


MARTIN: So how is the White House - the OMB in particular - how are they explaining the hold?

RASCOE: So the GAO, when they got into this investigation, the OMB responded and sent this letter, laid out this kind of detailed explanation. And basically the general counsel said that the holdup was allowed because they called it a programmatic delay and that it followed the necessary rules. And the OMB also argued that the Pentagon had never said that spending the money would be a problem even if they delayed it because it would go out before the end of the fiscal year, and that the Defense Department never complained.

There has been reporting from a national security website, Just Security, that the Pentagon actually was complaining and warning OMB that the delays might put the funding at risk. The GAO did say that it tried to get more information from the Defense Department, but the Defense Department actually didn't respond to their request. And the GAO said that it's also still looking into a hold that was put on $26 million in State Department aid for Ukraine.

MARTIN: So this is landing as the Senate starts its impeachment trial. What does it mean practically that the White House broke this law? What difference does it make?

RASCOE: Well, I mean, it goes is this larger issue of separation of powers between the authority of the executive branch and Congress. Democrats will definitely be focusing in on this. From Republicans - we haven't heard much from Republicans yet. But we did hear from the White House adviser Kellyanne Conway, and she's kind of downplaying this. She's saying the aide did eventually get out to Ukraine, and that's really what matters.

MARTIN: All right. NPR White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe for us this morning. Again, this ruling by the GAO determining that the White House broke the law in withholding military aid to Ukraine. Thanks, Ayesha.

RASCOE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.