WASHINGTON — Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney acknowledged for the first time that President Donald Trump withheld aid from Ukraine until the country agreed to investigate Democrats, before walking back those comments hours later.
Mulvaney told reporters during a contentious press conference Thursday that the aid was “absolutely no question” withheld in part because Trump wanted Ukraine to look into “corruption that related to the DNC server."
Mulvaney said that the military aid was withheld for three reasons: Trump’s worries about corruption in Ukraine, his feeling that other countries were not contributing enough money to aid Ukraine, and “whether or not they were cooperating in an ongoing investigation with our Department of Justice” into Democrats and the origin of the probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Trump has particularly zeroed in on an unfounded conspiracy theory that the Ukrainians have access to a missing Democratic National Committee server, as part of the false theory that Democrats faked the hack of their servers to blame Trump and defeat him in 2016.
“That is it. And that is why we held up the money. … The look back to what happened in 2016 certainly was part of the thing that he was worried about in corruption with that nation. And that is absolutely appropriate,” Mulvaney said.
Pressed by ABC News’ Jonathan Karl on the fact that what he was describing was quid pro quo — something the president and congressional Republicans have repeatedly said did not happen with respect to military aid — Mulvaney suggested the administration’s actions were common and normal.
“We do that all the time with foreign policy,” he said, noting that the administration was also withholding aid to Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador at the same time “so that they would change their policies on immigration” — though not so those countries would help investigate the president’s political rivals.
Mulvaney denied, however, that the aid was withheld in relation to Trump’s request that Ukraine look into 2020 rival Joe Biden. “The money held up had nothing to do with the Bidens,” he said, though Trump specifically mentioned his desire that Ukraine look into Biden and his son Hunter during a July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Mulvaney said it was “completely legitimate” for Trump to withhold the aid to Ukraine while asking them to participate in the publicly known DOJ investigation into the origins of former special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe.
“I have news for everybody. Get over it, there is going to be political influence in foreign policy. That is going to happen,” Mulvaney said. “Elections have consequences. And foreign policy is going to change from the Obama administration to the Trump administration. And what you are seeing now, I believe, is a group of mostly career bureaucrats who are saying that I don't like President Trump's politics, so I'm going to participate in this witch hunt that they are undertaking on the Hill.”
In a statement from the White House several hours later on Thursday, Mulvaney said reporters were getting him wrong and walked back some of his initial remarks. "The president never told me to withhold any money until the Ukrainians did anything related to the server," he said. "The only reasons we were holding the money was because of concern about lack of support from other nations and concerns over corruption."
And for emphasis: “There never was any condition on the flow of the aid related to the matter of the DNC server.”
Mulvaney said during his press briefing that there was nothing wrong with Trump’s July 25 call with Zelensky in which Trump asked for a “favor” and said that if the White House had wanted to cover the call up, they would not have released a record of the call publicly. Mulvaney also said that the White House had given a transcript of the call to the Justice Department “almost immediately."
Justice Department spokesperson Kerri Kupec said last month that Attorney General Bill Barr wasn’t aware of Trump’s call with Ukraine until several weeks after it happened, after the director of national intelligence referred information about it to DOJ officials. Asked about Mulvaney’s statement Thursday, Kupec said the Justice Department was "first made aware" of Trump's call with Zelensky in mid-August.
A DOJ official later said, "If the White House was withholding aid in regards to the cooperation of any investigation at the Department of Justice, that is news to us," according to the Washington Post.
Several House Democrats said Thursday they want Mulvaney to testify as part of their impeachment inquiry. “I think Mulvaney has, you know, important information to share with the committees of jurisdiction,” said Rep. David Cicilline, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which is one of three committees leading the impeachment probe. “Also, apparently, based on that press conference, even more.”
“First of all, it's really important to constantly remind folks that a quid pro quo is not necessary,” Cicilline said. “The president of the United States, using the power of his office to leverage, or demand that a foreign leader interfere with an American presidential election is by itself, illegal, so it makes it particularly egregious when we know at the same time that that demand is being made, the president has held up … a million dollars in military aid to a country that was under attack by the Russians.”
Reps. Jackie Speier and Joaquin Castro, who serve on the House Intelligence Committee, agreed that Congress should hear from Mulvaney. “I think it's their game plan is to normalize what is criminal behavior. And I think it's really important for us to not allow this country to turn into some kleptocracy which is what it appears to be moving in the direction,” Speier said.
“I think Mulvaney should go to jail. Don’t quote me on that,” Speier said with a laugh.
Addy Baird and Zoe Tillman contributed to this story.
This story was updated with additional comment from the Justice Department.