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OPINION

No, Trump hasn’t learned a lesson on misusing taxpayer funds

By SAM BERGER | Special to The Washington Post | Published: February 4, 2020

As President Donald Trump’s Senate impeachment trial winds down, more than one GOP senator has tried to justify plans to vote against removing him by suggesting that Trump has been chastened — he may have done something “wrong and inappropriate,” as Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, described it, but he’s learned a lesson, and that’s good enough. On Sunday in an interview for NBC News’ “Meet the Press,” Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said that “if a call like” Trump’s call with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy “gets you an impeachment, I would think he would think twice before he did it again.” On Sunday, when asked by CNN’s Jake Tapper whether she is “confident that he won’t do this again,” Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, replied, “I think he knows now that, if he is trying to do certain things … he needs to go through the proper channels.”

But Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., had it right on Monday when he argued before the Senate that Trump “will not change” and he will “do it again.” Why? Because Trump’s misuse of taxpayer funds, at the heart of his impeachment, is part of a pattern.

The Government Accountability Office, a nonpartisan government agency charged with overseeing the use of taxpayer money, found that the Trump administration’s hold on congressionally appropriated military aid to Ukraine was illegal, as it violated the Impoundment Control Act. And a series of emails between the Office of Management and Budget and the Defense Department’s acting comptroller show that the White House was on notice that it was acting outside the law. “In fact,” as the GAO noted in its decision: “Congress was concerned about exactly these types of withholdings when it enacted and later amended the ICA.”

It’s not the first time Trump has violated budgetary laws to further his aims. In 2018, Trump shut down the federal government, refusing to sign a government spending bill unless it included funding for his border wall. As the shutdown stretched on, however, he became increasingly concerned about the public response. So, ignoring the law, he began reopening parts of the government to try to reduce the political pain of his actions. Most notably, he recalled tens of thousands of IRS employees to ensure that processing of tax refunds would not be delayed.

The shutdown ended without Trump being able to secure the funding he wanted for his proposed border wall. But he was desperate to have the wall finished before Election Day, recognizing the political consequences if he failed to deliver on a central campaign promise. So he settled on yet another misuse of taxpayer money: declaring an emergency at the border — for circumstances that simply do not allow for the use of presidential emergency authority to siphon funding away from the military to use for his wall. He unilaterally granted himself the authority to turn the U.S. armed forces into his personal construction company, so he could build what amounted to a campaign backdrop on the southern border.

What happened next is instructive for the current impeachment debate: The House and Senate rebuked him on a bipartisan basis, passing legislation in March that would overturn the emergency declaration and protect military funding from being raided. Trump vetoed that legislation, so Congress again passed bipartisan legislation in September overturning the fake emergency declaration. Trump vetoed that legislation too.

Was the president chastened by the bipartisan outcry in the wake of his misuse of military funding for his own political purposes? No, he has continued his efforts to poach defense funding to build the wall and reporting in January revealed that he plans to take even more money from military projects in 2020.

Given that he ignored the bipartisan consensus against taking military funding to build his wall, there is every reason to think that Trump will see a tepid response from Republican senators as a green light to further misuse taxpayer funding, if the opportunity arises, to aid his reelection efforts. He won’t “think twice” — indeed, as The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake points out, the Zelenskiy call took place the day after special counsel Robert Mueller testified before Congress, effectively ending his inquiry into the activities of Trump’s 2016 campaign.

By putting the president, essentially, above the law, Republican senators will give him a blank check to misuse public funds again for his own gain.

Sam Berger is vice president for democracy and government reform at the Center for American Progress. He served as a senior attorney in the Office of Management and Budget during the Obama administration.

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