GOP senator attacks government watchdog for catching Trump's hand in the cookie jar

Republican senators criticized a report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) on Thursday which concluded the Trump administration broke the law by withholding military aid to Ukraine.

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) went so far as to attack the employees of the GAO for doing their job.

"I don't think they [the GAO] should be deciding who broke the law," Shelby told Politico.

Part of GAO's responsibility is to determine if administration officials broke the law.

According to the GAO's mission statement, the nonpartisan body "exists to support the Congress in meeting its constitutional responsibilities and to help improve the performance and ensure the accountability of the federal government for the benefit of the American people."

That includes "conducting financial audits" and issuing "legal opinions."

The GAO recently investigated the Trump administration's decision last summer to withhold hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid to Ukraine, even after Defense Department officials had certified the country had met all the anti-corruption requirements to receive the funds.

The GAO concluded that the Trump administration specifically violated the Impoundment Control Act, which requires the president to request permission from Congress in the event he or she wants to defer or cancel previously appropriated funding. Requests are limited to a narrow range of instances, including financial contingencies or the cancellation of programs.

In its report, the GAO specifically stated that the White House was barred from withholding funds for policy reasons.

Donald Trump has long claimed that he withheld aid to Ukraine over corruption concerns, and his allies have defended the move by arguing that presidents are allowed to set their own foreign policy.

"Faithful execution of the law does not permit the President to substitute his own policy priorities for those that Congress has enacted into law," the GAO wrote. "[The Office of Management and Budget] withheld funds for a policy reason, which is not permitted."

The report added that "unless Congress has enacted a law providing otherwise, the President must take care to ensure that appropriations are prudently obligated during their period of availability," noting, "The Constitution grants the President no unilateral authority to withhold funds from obligation."

The House of Representatives voted to impeach Trump in December on two articles, abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. The charges stemmed from Trump's efforts to pressure Ukraine to investigate his political rivals and his attempts to withhold information and block witness testimony in the earlier House impeachment inquiry.

Other GOP senators similarly dismissed the GAO's conclusions this week.

"I think that the president has the right to move money around and all the presidents have worked within this realm," Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) said, adding that the administration's activities did not rise to the level of an impeachable offense.

Sen. Mike Braun (R-IN) dismissed the legal conclusion from the GAO as just a "guideline."

On the other side of Capitol Hill, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy went even further during a Thursday press conference, describing the administration's actions as "the rightful thing to do."

Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) made a more legalistic argument to dismiss the findings, noting the GAO "identifies OMB, not the president" in its report.

The head of the OMB, Mick Mulvaney, also serves as Trump's chief of staff and was deeply involved in the decision to withhold the Ukraine funds.

In October, Mulvaney admitted publicly that the administration had blocked those funds in order to secure an investigation into Trump's political rivals.

Prior to the House impeachment vote, many Republicans argued that Trump could not be impeached because he had not committed a crime.

"The biggest difference in the Clinton impeachment and this one is that President Clinton committed a crime: perjury," Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH) told the Washington Post in December.

Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) echoed the sentiment, telling the Post that the House impeached Clinton for "lying to a grand jury, a crime and something that obstructs the ability of the courts to get to the truth. This is not what is happening here. Big difference."

With the GAO exposing a crime, Republican senators are either dismissing the conclusion or moving the goalposts.

Senators will soon hold a trial on whether or not to remove Trump from office, with many Republicans having already indicated they will not be impartial jurors.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation. Attribution: Dan Desai Martin.