U.S. Senator Joni Ernst has brushed off as "moot" a new finding that the Trump administration broke federal law by withholding security assistance to Ukraine during the summer of 2019.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office said in a January 16 report that the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) violated the Impoundment Control Act when it withheld funds from the Defense Department. "Faithful execution of the law does not permit the President to substitute his own policy priorities for those that Congress has enacted into law."
Ernst has long advocated increasing our country's military support for Ukraine. But speaking to Iowa media this morning (audio), she suggested the GAO findings were not relevant, since Ukraine eventually received the assistance Congress approved.
The Des Moines Register's Nick Coltrain sought comment on the GAO report and whether it indicates a need for the Senate to call witnesses in the upcoming impeachment trial. Here's how Ernst responded:
So, with the information that came from GAO, one thing to remember, folks, is that the president did actually provide aid to Ukraine. So that point is moot, I believe [laughs]. So he did actually provide lethal aid, and not just aid to Ukraine. He actually did follow through on what our intentions as Congress were.
And in the previous administration, we had also provided aid to Ukraine, and it was certainly our intent as Congress to have that lethal aid. But the Obama administration did not provide lethal aid as we had requested from Congress.
So, you know, we can say this, that, or the other, but the only one that actually followed through with Congressional intent was President Trump. And he provided lethal aid to the Ukrainians. So again, I think the point is moot.
So no, I don't believe that we need to hear from additional witnesses based on that information. Because he got the aid to Ukraine, and in the way that was specified by Congress. So he actually did follow through on Congressional intent. So that in itself I don't believe is a qualifier for additional witnesses.
Ernst glossed over some inconvenient facts. Documents and witness testimony uncovered during the House impeachment investigation showed that the president ordered the delay OMB executed. The hold continued even after some senior officials urged Trump to let the money go through, telling him the policy was in U.S. national security interests. Furthermore, the administration released the funds to the Defense Department in September only after some media had reported on the hold, and the president had been told about the whistleblower complaint that later sparked the impeachment inquiry.
I had a few follow-up questions along those lines, and also wanted to ask about new documents and public statements from Lev Parnas, which connect some dots about Trump's direct involvement in seeking a political favor from the newly-elected Ukrainian president. But as usual, the senator's staff (who control access to the microphone during conference calls) did not give me the opportunity to ask Ernst anything.
When other reporters brought up the impeachment trial, Ernst repeatedly referred to senators hearing the record from the House, suggesting no interest in further fact-finding. For instance,
All we can do is take the record that has been prepared by the House and we will see what they have to present to us. If they did their job in the House, then they will present a compelling argument with that record.
It's a safe bet that Ernst will vote against any proposal to hear from witnesses who have direct knowledge of Trump's actions but refused to testify before the House Intelligence or Judiciary committees. She is also a near-certain vote to acquit the president. In today's call, she again characterized impeachment as a "political exercise," claiming that House Democrats were determined to impeach Trump even before he took office.
Full audio from Senator Joni Ernst's January 16 conference call with reporters.
Full text of U.S. Government Accountability Office decision on OMB withholding security assistance to Ukraine: