In an attempt to retroactively justify President Donald Trump's decision to place a hold on nearly $400 million in congressionally-appropriated aid to Ukraine, top lawyers in the White House budget office—in concert with the Justice Department—reportedly developed an argument that Trump could simply override Congress and flout relevant laws by simply asserting his authority as commander-in-chief.
The New York Times reported Sunday that in the late summer, lawyers at the Office of Management and Budget—then run by Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney—argued the president "could ignore the requirements of the Impoundment Control Act and continue to hold the aid by asserting constitutional commander-in-chief powers that give him authority over diplomacy."
Legal experts and Democrats in Congress have argued that Trump's decision to place a hold on aid to Ukraine—a move at the center of the whistleblower complaint that ultimately led to his impeachment—constituted a violation of the Impoundment Control Act.
As the Washington Post reported last month, one OMB legal official resigned over Trump's decision to withhold the aid after raising concerns that the president's move ran afoul of the 1974 law.
Critics reacted with alarm to the proposed justification for freezing the Ukraine aid, which was not disclosed publicly.
"Every Republican lawmaker must be asked if they support this destruction of checks and balances," tweeted MSNBC legal analyst Joyce Vance.
(3) The WH was preparing to argue that "Trump’s role as commander in chief would simply allow him to override Congress." That's unconstitutional.
If they had a real legal justification, they wouldn't resort to such absurd claims.
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— Sam Berger (@SamBerger_DC) December 30, 2019
The Times reporting on the OMB lawyers' efforts was part of a broader story detailing the series of events that unfolded between Trump's order to withhold aid to Ukraine this summer and his decision in September to release the funds.
"What emerges is the story of how Mr. Trump's demands sent shock waves through the White House and the Pentagon, created deep rifts within the senior ranks of his administration, left key aides like Mr. Mulvaney under intensifying scrutiny—and ended only after Mr. Trump learned of a damning whistleblower report and came under pressure from influential Republican lawmakers," the Times reported.
Commentators said the detailed story paints a picture of a president bent on deploying the vast powers of government for his own personal and political gain with complete disregard for the law and, in some cases, the advice of administration officials.
"Everything in here—how Trump was personally involved in blocking the Ukraine money, despite the insistence of senior administration officials, and how the aid was only released after they learned of the whistleblower complaint—is incredibly damning," said HuffPost reporter Matt Fuller.
Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) tweeted late Sunday that the report "illustrates again that the only Ukraine corruption cases Trump ever raised involved his political opponents."
"The people Trump directed to carry out his scheme hid it from the public and refused to testify to Congress," said Beyer. "This was a clear and terrible abuse of power."