Newell: Watchdog group concludes Trump broke law with Ukraine hold

Newell Normand
January 20, 2020 - 5:32 pm
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Did President Trump break the law when he withheld aid to Ukraine? An independent, non-partisan watchdog group, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) says yes, in no uncertain terms. To help explain what that group does and what it means for the President’s impeachment case, Newell turned to CATO Institute Vice President Gene Healy.

“The GAO comes out and says that Office of Management and Budget (OMB) withheld funds for a policy reason, which is not permitted under the Impoundment Control Act. What are they talking about?” Newell began.

“The Impoundment Control act was passed in June 1974, a month or two beore Richard Nixon was driven from office as a result of the impeachment process,” Healy answered. “After some of the abuses of executive power in the Nixon administration, and after some past Presidents used impoundment and declined to spend funds that Congress had appropriated lawfully, Nixon, it was felt, had gone beyond what his predecessors had done, to the point of using the ability to hold up funds as a policy weapon, and not enact programs he disagreed with. I generally support lower spending, but that’s Constitutionally problematic. As amended, that Act still allows the President to apply, defer or zero out appropriations, but he has to notify Congress and Congress has to vote on it. What the GAO report says is that that wasn’t done here, and the funds for Ukraine were withheld on what they call a policy ground, which the Act doesn’t allow.”

“Really what we have here then is a technical violation,” Newell said. “There was some discretion on the part of the President where he could have notified Congress if there were issues he was trying to work out, and asked for some kind of deferment or additional time in order to provide the funding, right?”

“Right,” Healy agreed. “But a lot of the reporting suggests that within OMB and the Administration itself, people were scrambling around because this was an unusual request. The certification that the law required the Pentagon to make had already been made, and they were trying to keep this on the down-low. It adds a little color to the general Ukraine story, but as they say, an impeachment charge of Abuse of Power is really not about the President violating a particular Federal statute. So it matters, but I don’t think it’s transformative in terms of the debate.”

“Is it unusual for OMB to be at odds with the Department of Defense over a particular issue, for DOD at odds with some other branch of government over the interpretation of a rule?” Newell asked.

“My reading of the reporting about what was going on at OMB is that people there and at the Pentagon were worried about whether or not they could do this legally, precisely because of the Impoundment Control Act. I think the whole thing is rather unusual. That’s not to say there aren’t occasions in the past when Presidents wanted to hold up funds for genuine policy reasons.”

Listen to the entire interview in the audio player below.

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