White House budget office offers new legal justification for Ukraine aid hold-up

OMB counsel Mark Paoletta stated the agency's case in a legal memo.

The Office of Management and Budget's counsel wrote in a letter Wednesday that temporarily blocking hundreds of millions of dollars of military aid to Ukraine for months was justified, and that the office was under no obligation to tell Congress about the pause.

The memo does not explain why Trump first asked about the aid, though, and it does not address whether Trump used the freeze -- as Democrats contend -- to pressure Ukraine to investigate his political rivals. That allegation sparked the House's impeachment inquiry.

The letter was sent by OMB counsel Mark Paoletta in response to a request the U.S. Government Accountability Office sent on Nov. 25 asking the OMB to explain its role in holding up the funds. The released of the letter was first reported by the Washington Post.

In the letter, Paoletta said the office held up the funding when it learned, on June 19, that Trump "had asked about" the Department of Defense's plans for military funding set aside for Ukraine.

He wrote that the office blocked the funding in order to make sure the funds were being spent "in an efficient and effective manner, consistent with the purpose for which the funds were appropriated."

It was OMB's -- and the president's -- duty to do so, he wrote.

The Department of Defense reviewed the planned assistance earlier this year and in May certified that Ukraine had met necessary anti-corruption benchmarks in order to receive the aid.

The memo does not explain what steps, if any, OMB took to determine whether the funds were being spent efficiently and effectively, and it does not explain why the aid was eventually unfrozen.

Paoletta said that OMB wasn't obligated to tell Congress about the hold-up because the pause amounted to a "programmatic delay," which allows the executive branch "to conduct a process to determine the best policy for the efficient and effective use of funds consistent with the intent of the statute."

"Pauses in obligational authority are necessary for proper stewardship of taxpayer funds," Paoletta said, adding that pauses like this are different from "deferrals," which the president is prohibited from doing without notifying Congress.

"Pausing before spending is a necessary part of program execution: before obligating appropriated funds, it is incumbent upon the Executive branch to understand how an agency intends to execute a program -- and whether that option is the best use of those funds within the program authorization -- before granting it the authority to spend taxpayer resources," Paoletta wrote.

"It was OMB's understanding that a brief period was needed, prior to the funds expiring, to engage in a policy process regarding those funds," the letter said. "OMB took appropriate action, in light of a pending policy process, to ensure that funds were not obligated prematurely in a manner that could conflict with the President's foreign policy."