Amid questions of legality on delaying Ukraine aid, White House shifted authority: report

The White House earlier this year authorized a politically appointed official to withhold military aid meant for Ukraine after budget staff members questioned the legality of delaying the congressionally approved funds, The Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpThe Memo: Biden seeks revival in South Carolina Congress eyes billion to billion to combat coronavirus Sanders makes the case against Biden ahead of SC primary MORE's mid-July decision to freeze nearly $400 million in aid to Ukraine came just days before his highly scrutinized July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in which the president asked Zelensky to investigate former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenThe Memo: Biden seeks revival in South Carolina Sanders makes the case against Biden ahead of SC primary Sanders holds 13-point lead in Fox News poll MORE and his son, Hunter Biden.

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Trump has said that he froze the money because he wanted other European countries to lend more aid to Ukraine, and that he feared rampant corruption in Kiev. He also denies that he made the aid contingent on whether Zelensky investigated the Bidens.

But a whistleblower complaint at the center of House Democrats' impeachment efforts alleges that the move was meant to pressure Ukraine into helping Trump get an edge in the 2020 election, for which Biden is a leading Democratic contender.

According to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, the president does have the power to withhold foreign aid under certain conditions, including if there has been a significant change in the circumstances warranting the aid. 

However, in this instance, the Journal reported, career officials at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) became apprehensive that they didn’t have the legal authority to hold up the funds.

The withholding of aid was originally carried out by career OMB officials, but eventually Michael Duffey, associate director of national security programs in OMB, was given the authority to continue holding the funds after staffers made their concerns over the legality of the matter known, the Journal reported.

Duffey was previously a high-ranking Pentagon official and the executive director of the Wisconsin Republican Party.

Former OMB officials told the Journal that it's highly unusual for a political officer like him to gain such power.

At least five House committees are reportedly looking into the holding of the funds. The Foreign Affairs, Intelligence and Oversight and Reform committees subpoenaed acting OMB Director Russell Vought and Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperOvernight Defense: Watchdog investigating VA chief | Allegations claim Wilkie tried to discredit aide who reported sexual assault | Dem chair working to restore Pentagon funding taken for wall | Navy chief says loss of shipbuilding funds 'not helpful' House Armed Services chairman working on bill to restore Pentagon funding taken for border wall Bipartisan senators say Pentagon's effort to improve military housing falls short MORE for records regarding the funds this week. The Budget and Appropriations committees also requested related documents from the OMB, although they've received only some of the requested documents.

Ukraine finally received the promised aid in mid-September.