WASHINGTON—The Government Accountability Office is reviewing the Trump administration’s hold on nearly $400 million in security assistance to Ukraine after a Democratic senator asked if the freeze violated appropriations law.
The pause on the aid to Ukraine this summer is at the center of the impeachment investigation Democrats are conducting in the House. The review by Congress’s nonpartisan investigative arm, confirmed by a GAO spokesman, adds another layer of scrutiny to the freeze.
At the State Department, Pentagon, and on Capitol Hill, officials tried to understand why the aid had been frozen and called for it to be released, according to testimony from current and former administration officials before impeachment investigators and people familiar with the matter. Lawmakers and aides didn’t receive clear answers about the reason for the hold, and Congress received no formal notification about it, according to the people. The money was released in mid-September after bipartisan pressure on Capitol Hill.
Mr. Trump has repeatedly denied that the hold on the money was related to his request to Ukrainian President
to investigate presidential hopeful
and his son, as well as alleged interference in the 2016 election. He and members of his administration have said that they paused the money to resolve concerns about corruption in the country and to ensure other countries were contributing to Ukrainian defense.
Several administration officials have testified as part of the impeachment inquiry that they understood the release of the money to be conditioned on Ukraine investigating Democrats. The Defense Department had previously certified that Ukraine was sufficiently addressing corruption and could receive military aid.
At a Senate Budget Committee hearing last week,
Sen. Chris Van Hollen
(D., Md.) asked Gene Dodaro, the U.S. comptroller general, if the administration’s failure to formally inform Congress about the hold ran afoul of legal notification requirements.
“If you could just get back to me on whether you agree, and number two, what’s our recourse as a Congress if they don’t do it,” he asked. Chuck Young, a spokesman for the GAO, said that the government watchdog is conducting its review to answer Mr. Van Hollen’s questions.
Rachel Semmel, a spokeswoman for the Office of Management and Budget, said the administration followed proper procedures in its handling of the Ukraine aid.
“As has been well documented, we fully complied with the law and decades of precedent with respect to these funds. Congress is notified if the Administration intends to rescind, defer, reprogram, or transfer funding, but in this case none of those things occurred and the funding was obligated as planned,” she said.
The Government Accountability Office often opens reviews into various matters at the request of lawmakers, closely monitoring the use of federal funds. The agency does not have subpoena power.
Short of a subpoena, GAO has several other options to try to compel cooperation from the executive branch, including reporting to the president and Congress that the agency didn’t produce documents. The GAO also can file a lawsuit demanding materials, though a judge dismissed a GAO lawsuit seeking information about then-Vice President
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The president has the ability to hold up money approved by Congress under limited circumstances, according to the Congressional Research Service. But without any policy reason for the hold, some career budget staffers questioned whether the Office of Management and Budget had the authority to indefinitely hold up the money.
The Pentagon also conducted a legal review of the administration’s hold on the money, concluding that funds approved by Congress needed to be released. Pentagon officials expressed concern to officials at the National Security Council that the money could expire at the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30 if the hold was not lifted, according to people familiar with the matter.
Corrections & Amplifications
President Trump met with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Sept. 25. A caption accompanying a photo in an earlier version of this article incorrectly said the two had met at the White House. Also, a previous version of this article misspelled the surname of Gene Dodaro, the U.S. comptroller general. (Nov. 7, 2019)
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