US President Donald Trump (right) talks with US supreme court chief justice John Roberts (left) in 2018. Picture: REUTERS/JONATHAN ERNST
US President Donald Trump (right) talks with US supreme court chief justice John Roberts (left) in 2018. Picture: REUTERS/JONATHAN ERNST

Washington — The White House violated federal law by withholding security aid approved by lawmakers for Ukraine, a non-partisan congressional watchdog said on Thursday, in a blow for US President Donald Trump as the Senate prepares to hold a trial on whether to remove him from office.

On Wednesday, the Democrat-led House of Representatives sent the Senate the two charges it passed last month accusing Trump of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress arising from his dealings with Ukraine, clearing the way for only the third impeachment trial of a US president to begin in earnest next week.

The abuse of power cited by the House included Trump’s withholding of $391m passed by Congress in security aid for Ukraine, a move aimed at pressuring Kiev into investigating political rival Joe Biden, the Republican president’s possible Democrat opponent in the November 3 US election.

“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 US government accountability office (GAO) concluded, referring to Congress having already voted to appropriate the funds.

While the agency’s assessment is a setback to Trump, it is unclear how or even if it will figure in his trial in the Republican-led Senate, given that key issues, such as whether witnesses will appear or new evidence will be considered, remain up in the air.

Taxpayer dollars

An arm of Congress, the GAO is viewed as a top auditing agency for the federal government that advises lawmakers and various government entities on how taxpayer dollars are spent. Its findings are not legally binding, but its reports are seen by lawmakers as objective, reliable and generally uncontested. The GAO has no prosecutorial power.

The $391m was approved by lawmakers to help Ukraine combat Russia-backed separatists in the eastern part of the country. After being withheld by the White House, the money ultimately was provided to Ukraine in September after the controversy had spilt into public view.

House members voted on Wednesday 228-193, largely along party lines, to give the Senate the task of putting the Republican president on trial. The Senate is expected to acquit Trump, keeping him in office, as none of its 53 Republicans has voiced support for removing him, a step that requires a two-thirds majority.

Trump denies wrongdoing and has called the impeachment process a sham. Ceremony, rather than substance, is expected to mark Thursday’s proceedings, with the seven House “managers” prosecuting Trump to present the articles of impeachment to the Senate at 5pm GMT.

The Senate will, later in the day, invite US chief justice John Roberts to the chamber to be sworn in to preside over the trial and, eventually, to swear in all 100 senators to serve as jurors. It will then formally notify the White House of Trump’s impending trial.

Reuters