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Sparking fresh calls for the Republican-controlled Senate to remove President Donald Trump from office, a federal watchdog agency announced Thursday that the White House violated the law by withholding congressionally approved U.S. military aid to Ukraine—a decision at the center of the impeachment probe.
"Will the self-proclaimed party of 'law and order' continue ignoring the fact that Donald Trump committed a crime?"
—Sean Eldridge, Stand Up America
In its official decision (pdf) on the matter, the Government Accountability Office (GAO)—an independent agency that reports to Congress—explained that "in the summer of 2019, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) withheld from obligation funds appropriated to the Department of Defense (DOD) for security assistance to Ukraine."
"The president has narrow, limited authority to withhold appropriations under the Impoundment Control Act of 1974," GAO general counsel Thomas H. Armstrong said in a statement. "OMB told GAO that it withheld the funds to ensure that they were not spent 'in a manner that could conflict with the president's foreign policy.'"
Withholding funds for a policy reason "is not permitted under the Impoundment Control Act (ICA)," the GAO report declared. "Therefore, we conclude that OMB violated the ICA."
The GAO report was released as the Senate was set to begin its trial Thursday for Trump's impeachment. The Democrat-majority House voted mostly along party lines in December to pass two articles of impeachment, charging Trump with abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.
Sean Eldridge, founder and president of the grassroots advocacy group Stand Up America, called the GAO's decision "undeniable evidence that Donald Trump violated federal law in his quest to pressure Ukraine to bolster his reelection campaign."
"This should be a call to action for every senator to put country over party and vote to remove Trump from office," he said in a statement Thursday.
Eldridge also specifically targeted the Republican Party. Although Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has vowed to work in "total coordination" with the White House regarding Trump's impeachment, national advocacy groups are pressuring key GOP senators to support Trump's removal.
"Will the self-proclaimed party of 'law and order' continue ignoring the fact that Donald Trump committed a crime? Or will they uphold the rule of law and their oath of office by voting to convict the criminal in the White House?" said Eldridge." History is watching, and voters are watching what senators like Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, and Mitt Romney do next."
Karen Hobert Flynn, president of the advocacy group Common Cause, also issued a statement Thursday welcoming the GAO decision. She said that "it took courage to issue that report in the face of a disturbing pattern of intimidation and retribution that the Trump administration has unleashed against any and all critics."
"We hope that the courage shown by GAO today will encourage others in government to stand up to the bullying tactics regularly utilized by the Trump administration," Hobert Flynn added. "We hope that courage will extend to Republicans the United States Senate in the coming weeks as they hold President Trump's impeachment trial."
"To date the vast majority of Senate Republicans have served as Trump apologists parroting hollow White House talking points," she said. "We strongly urge GOP senators to hold a fair and transparent impeachment trial calling witnesses from the president's inner circle and weighing all the available evidence before rendering judgement."
Meanwhile, according to the Associated Press, OMB spokesperson Rachel Semmel said in response to the report that "we disagree with GAO's opinion. OMB uses its apportionment authority to ensure taxpayer dollars are properly spent consistent with the president's priorities and with the law."
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Democrats in both chambers of Congress held up the report as further evidence of lawlessness by the Trump administration.
Sen. Chris Van Hollen tweeted that the "bombshell legal opinion" from the GAO "demonstrates, without a doubt," that withholding the aid was illegal. The senator also pointed to public evidence that Trump ordered the freeze himself—likely referencing the televised testimonies from the House's impeachment hearings last year.
This bombshell legal opinion from the independent @USGAO demonstrates, without a doubt, that the Trump Administration illegally withheld assistance from Ukraine and the public evidence shows that the president himself ordered this illegal act. pic.twitter.com/bkwyQ4Vk3K
— Senator Chris Van Hollen (@ChrisVanHollen) January 16, 2020
Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), chairwoman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, said in a statement Thursday that the GAO report "is extremely troubling because it documents in great detail President Trump's belief that he is above the law and his utter contempt for Congress as a co-equal branch of government."
"President Trump violated federal law when he withheld hundreds of millions of dollars that Congress appropriated on a bipartisan basis to help Ukraine combat Russian aggression," she said. "President Trump and his top aides refused to cooperate with this independent investigation, just as they obstructed the impeachment investigation conducted by the House of Representatives."
Maloney concluded that "today's report—issued by independent attorneys—erases any lingering question about whether the Senate must subpoena documents and witnesses in order to conduct a fair trial."
Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) tweeted that "any other president would have resigned by now," and called on Trump and "all who have been implicated" to step down.
GAO says Trump violated the law.
A Trump associate said Trump “knew exactly what was going on.”
Ukraine is investigating whether he surveilled his own Ambassador.
Any other president would have resigned by now.
Donald Trump and all who have been implicated must step down.
— Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) January 16, 2020
Sharing a report about the GAO's decision on Twitter, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) wrote that "the evidence speaks for itself. We know that Trump abused his power and broke the law—it's time for McConnell and the Senate to put country over party and #DefendOurDemocracy."