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Trump Broke Budget Law In Withholding Ukraine Aid, Says Government Watchdog

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The Senate took up President Trump's impeachment today. The senators, the House managers and the chief justice of the United States gathered in the Senate chamber to prepare for that trial.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The Senate will come to order. The Senate will come to order.

CORNISH: The impeachment grows out of, in part, President Trump's decision to order a freeze on aid to Ukraine. And while the Senate prepares to decide whether the president should be convicted, the Government Accountability Office says freezing that aid was against the law. NPR's White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe has more on what this may mean for those proceedings.

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: President Trump says it was a perfect call when he spoke with Ukraine's president in July and asked him to look into former Vice President Joe Biden. But that same day, the White House budget office put a hold on $214 billion in military funding for Ukraine. The White House has offered various reasons for this, including concerns about corruption in Ukraine and about other countries paying their part.

Whatever the reason, the Government Accountability Office, a watchdog agency, today says the move was illegal. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi read the key findings to reporters.

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NANCY PELOSI: And these are their words. These are the words of the GAO. (Reading) Faithful execution of the law does not permit the president to substitute his own policy priorities for those that Congress has enacted into law.

RASCOE: At issue is the fact that this aid had been appropriated by Congress and signed into law by Trump. The Constitution gives Congress the power of the purse, and Congress has set strict rules in the Empowerment Control Act about exceptions. The president can only block funds with congressional input. The GAO said that did not happen with the aid to Ukraine. Pelosi pointed to the GAO report as more evidence of wrongdoing for the impeachment trial.

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PELOSI: When I was in grade school, there was a sign on the wall in one of the corridors. It said, what a tangled web we weave when we first practice to deceive. You see this more and more and more.

RASCOE: The White House budget office is rejecting the GAO's assessment. Spokeswoman Rachel Semmel said the White House was just making sure that taxpayer dollars were spent lawfully and in line with the president's priorities. Republicans in Congress are defending Trump and downplaying the significance of the decision. House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy says he does not think Trump did anything wrong.

KEVIN MCCARTHY: These are taxpayer dollars going to another country that people believe there was corruption with the new administration. I think it was the rightful thing to do.

RASCOE: That's not what some current and former officials said during the House impeachment hearings. They testified they were worried the hold was being used to pressure Ukraine to carry out investigations against Trump's rivals. Trump and his supporters say this was not the case. White House adviser Kellyanne Conway stressed to reporters the hold was only temporary.

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KELLYANNE CONWAY: Well, then, it's a good thing that the aid that Congress approved got to Ukraine intact, and it got there because this president released it.

RASCOE: Ultimately, the Impoundment Control Act is not a criminal statute, and it's not clear what further repercussions might follow. But it will likely get a lot of attention at the Senate trial that starts next week. Senator Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat from Maryland, requested the evaluation from the GAO. He said the report strengthens the argument for allowing witnesses at the trial, a step many Republicans have resisted.

CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: We now have a GAO decision stating conclusively that the Trump administration violated the law. We know the president ordered that violation. It's all the more important that Republican senators support a trial - a fair trial.

RASCOE: Meanwhile, the GAO is still seeking more information about the delays in aid last year. But so far, the Pentagon and State Department are not cooperating. The agency says it will continue to pursue the matter.

Ayesha Rascoe, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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