A government watchdog on Thursday said the White House broke the law when it blocked Congressionally-approved military aid to Ukraine last summer.
The non-partisan Government Accountability Office said a temporary hold on $391 million of assistance placed by the White House's Office of Management and Budget was "not permitted," writing, "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 decision by the GAO delivers a blow to the president just as his impeachment trial gets underway.
Democrats accused Trump of abusing his office by withholding the aid in order to pressure Ukraine into digging up dirt on his political opponents.
(SOUNDBITE) (English) U.S. DEMOCRATIC SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE NANCY PELOSI, SAYING: "Today, the Government Accounting Office [sic] confirmed that the president's actions at the center of our impeachment articles, withholding Congressionally-approved military aid from Ukraine, was illegal." The White House's decision back in July to suspend military aid quickly raised alarms at the Pentagon, the State Department, and in Kyiv.
(SOUNDBITE) (English) LAURA COOPER, DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF DEFENSE FOR RUSSIAN, UKRAINIAN AND EURASIAN AFFAIRS AT THE U.S. STATE DEPARTMENT, CONTINUING TO READ FROM HER OPENING STATEMENT: "On July 25th, a member of my staff got a question from a Ukraine embassy contact asking 'what was going on with Ukraine's security assistance’?" [FLASH] (SOUNDBITE) (English) DAVID HALE, UNDER SECRETARY OF STATE FOR POLITICAL AFFAIRS, SAYING: "We were told in that meeting by the OMB representative that they were objecting to proceeding with the assistance because the president had so directed through the chief of staff, the acting chief of staff." Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, who also leads the Office of Management and Budget, said Donald Trump wanted the aid withheld because he was concerned about corruption in Ukraine.
(SOUNDBITE) (English) ACTING WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF MICK MULVANEY SAYING: "I was--, I was involved with the process by which the money was held up temporarily." But U.S. officials testified they believed the president was after something specific: He wanted Ukraine to open corruption probes into a firm called Burisma, linked to his rival, U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden's son.
Those efforts, they say, were led by the president's personal attorney Rudy Giuliani.
(SOUNDBITE) (English) GORDON SONDLAND, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE EUROPEAN UNION, SAYING: "I later came to believe that the resumption of security aid would not occur until there was a public statement from Ukraine committing to the investigations of the 2016 elections and Burisma, as Mr. Giuliani had demanded." Democrats say the president violated his oath of office trying extort an ally into doing his political bidding.
(SOUNDBITE) (English) U.S. HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE TOP INVESTIGATOR, DANIEL GOLDMAN, A FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR, SAYING: "Have you ever seen another example of foreign aid conditioned on the personal or political interests of the president of the United States?" (SOUNDBITE) (English) ACTING U.S. AMBASSADOR TO UKRAINE WILLIAM TAYLOR, SAYING: "No, Mr. Goldman, I have not." The aid was released after a whistleblower complained that domestic political considerations were tainting Ukraine policy.
The White House points to the fact that the aid resumed and Ukraine announced no investigations as evidence there was no wrongdoing.
And the president's Republican allies defended Donald Trump's right to suspend the assistance.
(SOUNDBITE) (English) OHIO CONGRESSMAN, REPUBLICAN JIM JORDAN, SAYING: "He's not a big fan of foreign aid.
He might be a little concerned about sending the hard-earned tax dollars of the American people to Ukraine." The president has denied wrongdoing and called the impeachment proceedings a sham.
(SOUNDBITE) (English) U.S. DEMOCRATIC SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE NANCY PELOSI, SAYING: "The OMB, the White House, the administration, broke - I'm saying this - broke the law." The GOA is a non-partisan arm of Congress.
Its findings have no legally binding authority and it has no prosecutorial power.
But the timing is notable, coming the same day the U.S. Senate takes the first steps toward a trial over whether to remove the president from office.