President Donald Trump’s acting White House chief of staff contended Thursday the administration’s hold on a nearly $400 million military aid package to Ukraine had “absolutely nothing” to do with Trump’s desire for Kyiv to investigate his then-top Democratic rival. But it was linked to the 2016 U.S. election.
Mick Mulvaney acknowedged Trump held up the aid, in part, because of his concerns — rooted in conservative media — that Ukrainian officials worked to aid Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign and prevent him from winning the White House. Trump wanted Ukraine to investigate whether a hacked Democratic National Committee server that was penetrated in 2016 resides in that country. The conservative conspiracy theory has been widely debunked.
“The look back at what happened in 2016 certainly was part of the thing that he was worried about in corruption of that nation,” Mulvaney said, the first time a senior White House official has acknowledged what Democrats have been alleging for weeks.
Mulvaney told reporters during a rare White House press briefing that Trump held up the funds for the combat equipment because he was concerned “it was a corrupt place,” while also wanting to pressure European countries to give more than lip service to Ukraine’s attempts to ward off Russian aggression.
“Look Mick, this is a corrupt place. Everyone knows this is a corrupt place,” the former South Carolina GOP congressman recalled the president telling him as he was deciding this summer to block the aid package.
“We did an analysis of what other countries were doing. And, as vocal as the Europeans are as far as supporting Ukraine, they are stingy,” Mulvaney said.
He also defended Trump’s use of his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani to press Ukrainian officials to investigate Joe Biden and Hunter Biden over the former vice president’s work to oust what Western governments called a corrupt prosecutor while his son was paid for work on a Ukrainian energy firm’s board of directors.
“There’s nothing illegal about it,” Mulvaney contended. “And it’s not impeachable.”
Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, on Thursday told a House committee leading the impeachment inquiry that he disagreed with Trump giving Giulani such a large role on Ukraine policy, but followed the boss’ directions.
“We were also disappointed by the president’s direction that we involve Mr. Giuliani,” Sondland said, according to an opening statement released by his attorney. “Our view was that the men and women of the State Department, not the president’s personal lawyer, should take responsibility for all aspects of U.S. foreign policy toward Ukraine.”
House Democrats, however, believe Trump’s request of Ukraine’s new president during a July phone call to “do us a favor, though” after Volodymyr Zelenskiy mentioned wanting to buy more U.S.-made antitank systems might be a quid pro quo. They are conducting a formal impeachment inquiry.
Mulvaney had a message for his former House colleagues: “Get over it: there’s going to be political influence in foreign policy.”
“Obama did it in one way,” he said of former President Barack Obama. “We’re doing it a different way.”
What’s more, he noted the administration also was holding up funding for several Central American countries at the same time as it tried to compel changes in their immigration laws.
“The money held up had absolutely nothing to do with Biden,” Mulvaney said, adding he had a staff member on Trump’s call with Zelenskiy and “no one raised any difficulty about the call.”
But an intelligence community whistleblower did, and crafted a formal complaint for a top government watchdog that prompted House Democrats’ impeachment probe.
On Thursday, the head of the impeachment-leading House Intelligence Committee, Adam B. Schiff of California, wrote to his colleagues about what he called Trump’s “efforts to abuse his office for political gain.” He added the panel possesses a presidential call record and text messages already made public among senior American diplomats that show “the President’s illicit aim of digging up dirt on his political opponent.”
“We expect to obtain further evidence and interview additional relevant witnesses designed to fill out the context surrounding the President’s attempt to press Ukraine to initiate investigations and risk our election integrity and national security,” Schiff wrote.
Meantime, Mulvaney was asked earlier in the briefing about a possible House investigation into the administration’s decision to hold next year’s G7 summit at a Miami-area resort owned by the president. Attempting to cast the impeachment inquiry as a dam on legislation and typical oversight work, Mulvaney asked: “When would they have time?”