After earlier on Thursday, acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney set off a media firestorm when in a press briefing he said that the the Trump administration held up military assistance to Ukraine in part because Trump wanted Kiev to investigate allegations about Ukraine’s involvement in the hack of the Democratic National Committee server in 2016, later on Thursday Mulvaney revised his remarks, maintaining that there had never been any quid pro quo between the hold the administration put on aid to Ukraine and Ukraine’s cooperation on an investigation into allegations surrounding the DNC server.
In a statement late on Thursday afternoon, Mulvaney accused the media of “misconstruing” his earlier remarks to the press at the White House “to advance a biased and political witch hunt against President Trump”, and explained that the aid was held over concerns about a lack of financial support from other nations, especially in Europe, for Ukraine: the “only reasons we were holding the money was because of concern about lack of support from other nations and concerns over corruption.” He had cited that rationale in the earlier briefing before adding that the server was an issue that the president wanted investigated before aid was forthcoming.
“Multiple times during the more-than 30 minute briefing where I took over 25 questions, I referred to President Trump’s interest in rooting out corruption in Ukraine, and ensuring taxpayer dollars are spent responsibly and appropriately,” Mulvaney said in the statement.
“There was never any condition on the flow of aid related to the matter of the DNC server,” Mulvaney said in the later statement, which is reposted below:
Mulvaney’s earlier comments represented the first official acknowledgement of a link by the White House between the aid and investigations the president wanted Ukraine to pursue. He said then that Trump’s concerns about corruption in Ukraine— including an unfounded suspicion the president has expressed that the hacked DNC server from the 2016 U.S. election has since been hidden in Ukraine — were partly responsible for Mr. Trump’s order to withhold nearly $400 million in aid to Ukraine in July.
“Did [Trump] also mention to me in the past that the corruption related to the DNC server? Absolutely, no question about that. But that was it. That’s why we held up the money,” Mulvaney told reporters at the earlier afternoon briefing.
Another factor in the decision to withhold the aid, Mulvaney said in his earlier comments, was whether Ukraine was cooperating in a Justice Department review of the origins of the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election, a probe that was later taken over by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
“The look back to what happened in 2016 certainly was part of the things that he was worried about in corruption with that nation. And that is absolutely appropriate,” Mulvaney continued, suggesting Trump wanted assistance with an ongoing investigation by the Justice Department.
However, according to the WSJ, a senior DOJ official said the department wasn’t aware of any effort to hold up aid in return for better cooperation by Kiev in its review. If the White House was withholding aid for that reason, “that is news to us,” the official said. The official declined to say whether the DNC’s computer server is a focus of the review.
And in another outburst of truthiness, Mulvaney also told reporters that there would be “political influence in foreign policy” and that they needed to “get over it.” Needless to say, that comment did not go over well:
The “it” in “get over it” is the U.S. Constitution. Just so we’re all clear about the stakes here.
— Binyamin Appelbaum (@BCAppelbaum) October 17, 2019
Mulvaney’s earlier comments surprised senior aides in the White House, where officials said they had never heard Mulvaney describe Trump’s decision to suspend military aid as conditioned on new investigations by Ukraine. Mulvaney had been tasked by Trump with halting that aid.
A media firestorm erupted on Monday afternoon, after Mulvaney’s initial claim that the held aid was explicitly linked to investigations came in stark contrast to Trump’s repeated denial of any quid pro quo—a central focus of House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry. In recent days, several U.S. diplomats have testified to House committees that they believed it was necessary for Ukraine to commit to certain investigations before Mr. Trump would agree to meet with Ukraine’s president.
Trump’s personal legal team also distanced itself from Mulvaney’s remarks on Thursday: according to the WSJ, Jay Sekulow, a lawyer for Trump, said: “The president’s legal counsel was not involved in acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney’s press briefing.”
Trump has repeatedly said that the driving force behind his decision to hold up the aid was that he felt European nations weren’t doing enough to help Ukraine, a concern that Mulvaney repeated on Thursday. The Europeans are “really, really stingy when it comes to lethal aid,” Mulvaney said.
That said, Mulvaney also noted that Mr. Trump’s desire for Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden wasn’t related to the hold on aid. That call prompted House Democrats to begin an impeachment inquiry last month.
Mulvaney’s backtracking was prompted by the vocal response by Democrats to his original comments. Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and the de facto leader of the impeachment inquiry, said Mulvaney’s comments on Thursday indicated that “things have gone from very, very bad to much, much worse.”
In addition to denying the existence of a quid pro quo publicly, Trump also did so in at least two private conversations. He told Sen. Ron Johnson in August that there was no link between the hold on aid and new probes by Kiev regarding U.S. elections, Johnson told The Wall Street Journal. Johnson said Mr. Trump told him: “No way. I would never do that. Who told you that?”
Trump also told Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, that there was no link between investigations and aid, Mr. Sondland told House committees Thursday. He said he asked the president: “What do you want from Ukraine?” Mr. Trump responded, “Nothing. There is no quid pro quo,” Mr. Sondland said.
At the same time, Mulvaney said that quid pro quos and political considerations are a standard practice in foreign policy. “We do that all of the time with foreign policy,” he said. “I have news for everybody: Get over it,” he added. “There is going to be political influence in foreign policy.”
Mulvaney also defended the administration’s right to discuss the president’s political opponents with foreign leaders, and said that the White House in no way tried to cover up Mr. Trump’s July phone call with Ukraine’s president.
Attention also turned to Rudy Giuliani, as several diplomats in House committees have raised concern about the former NYC mayor’s efforts to conduct “shadow diplomacy” and cut out the State Department, National Security Council and the Department of Defense in dealing with Ukraine.
Mulvaney said the president is free to appoint anyone he wants to conduct foreign policy. He noted that Mr. Trump never asked him personally to work with Giuliani, but confirmed that the president asked Energy Secretary Rick Perry to work with Giuliani. On Thursday, Rick Perry officially handed in his resignation.
Also on Thursday, Sondland, in his testimony to House committees, criticized Mr. Trump over his efforts to enlist Ukraine in investigating a political rival and said he and other U.S. officials were “disappointed” by the president’s directive to work with Giuliani on Ukraine matters.