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Trump can't dodge the GAO report bombshell

Updated 8:32 PM ET, Thu January 16, 2020

Editor's Note: Michael Bociurkiw is a global affairs analyst and a former spokesman for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. Follow him on Twitter @WorldAffairsPro. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his; view more opinions on CNN.

London (CNN) - In the months since news broke that the Trump administration temporarily withheld $400 million in military aid to Ukraine, the report on Thursday by the Government Accountability Office that the White House broke the law by its actions will rank as one of the biggest bombshells.

While there are no criminal penalties from the GAO ruling, it will certainly invigorate the Democrats' efforts to hold President Donald Trump and his accomplices accountable for their repugnant behavior. The process for Trump's impeachment trial in the Senate began Thursday with the presentation of the articles of impeachment.

The GAO ruling will also force the White House further into crisis mode. It is difficult to keep count of the number of times that many among us assumed there was enough solid evidence to turn the legal and political tide against Trump. But each time it looked like the administration was pushed to the edge of the cliff, it has managed to slip away in the court of public opinion.

But we may be getting to the point where even the Teflon President can't wriggle free.

There was also Wednesday's damning CNN and MSNBC interviews with one of the many shady characters circling the Ukraine scandal, Lev Parnas, who said Trump knew "exactly what was going on" with the efforts to pressure Ukraine into an investigation against former Vice President Joe Biden and his son. All these developments seem certain to further catapult the news cycle away from the crisis in the Middle East back to the machinations of an administration that behaves as if it is beyond reproach.

The GAO, a nonpartisan watchdog that reports to Congress, said that the White House budget office violated the Impoundment Control Act, which limits the White House from withholding funds that Congress has appropriated.

"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 GAO wrote.

The White House has dismissed the GAO decision.

According to an anonymous whistleblower complaint, the aid was put on hold around the same time as Trump's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, was attempting to shake down the new administration of Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky for political dirt on the Bidens.

That the White House withheld congressionally approved funds from an ally actively trying to fight a five-year conflict with Russian-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine -- one that has cost more than 13,000 lives and displaced millions -- was widely slammed by witnesses subpoenaed by the House of Representatives last fall, from former acting ambassador William Taylor and his predecessor Marie Yovanovitch to Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a National Security Council aide who worked on Ukraine.

Reaction in Ukraine:

News of the GAO report represented the second time Thursday that Ukraine figured front-and-center in news headlines. The Ukrainian foreign minister was with four of his counterparts in London facing international media on the downing of a Ukrainian jetliner in Iran last week.

But it will likely come as a relief to Ukrainian officials, who have largely remained silent throughout the entire Trump-Ukraine scandal, worried about upsetting the bipartisan support in Congress that Ukraine has traditionally relied on.

Immediately after the London meeting, Ukraine Foreign Affairs Minister Vadym Prystaiko told me: "We need all the aid we can have -- from the United States or anywhere else."

Also, Kiev announced a criminal investigation into allegations that Yovanovich was under surveillance during her time in Kiev.

The GAO ruling, coming after two weeks of impeachment hearings and 30 hours of testimony from 12 witnesses before the Democratic-led House, stands as a powerful indictment against the Trump White House.

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