Last updated 1/16/2019 at 11:13 a.m. ET.
The White House violated federal law by withholding security aid approved by lawmakers for Ukraine, a nonpartisan congressional watchdog said on Thursday, in a blow for U.S. President Donald Trump as the Senate prepared to hold a trial on whether to remove him from office.
The Democratic-led House of Representatives on Wednesday 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 president to begin in earnest next week.
The abuse of power cited by the House included Trump’s withholding of $391 million 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 Democratic opponent in the Nov. 3 U.S. 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 Government Accountability Office (GAO) concluded, referring to the fact that Congress had already voted to appropriate the funds.
While the agency’s assessment was a setback to Trump, it was unclear how or even if it would 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.
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 $391 million 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 spilled 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, was expected to mark Thursday’s proceedings, with the seven House “managers” prosecuting Trump to present the articles of impeachment to the Senate at noon (1700 GMT).
The Senate will later in the day invite U.S. 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.
(Reporting by Richard Cowan and David Morgan; Additional reporting by Susan Heavey, Susan Cornwell and Patricia Zengerle; Writing by Sonya Hepinstall; Editing by Will Dunham)