WASHINGTON — Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, threw the Trump administration’s defense against impeachment into disarray Thursday when he said that the White House withheld nearly $400 million in military aid to Ukraine to further President Trump’s political interests.
Mulvaney told a room full of journalists in a White House briefing that was televised live that the aid was withheld in part until Ukraine investigated an unsubstantiated theory that Ukraine, not Russia, was responsible for hacking Democratic Party e-mails in 2016 — a theory that would show that Trump was elected without Russian help.
The declaration by Mulvaney, which he took back later in the day, undercut Trump’s repeated denials of a quid pro quo that linked US military aid for Ukraine to an investigation that could help Trump politically.
The comments sent Washington into turmoil as Democrats and some Republicans said they were deeply damaging to Trump.
At the White House, Mulvaney said that Trump had demanded that Ukraine investigate the theory, even though a former White House homeland security adviser had told Trump that the theory had been completely debunked.
“The look back to what happened in 2016 certainly was part of the thing that he was worried about in corruption with that nation,” Mulvaney told reporters, referring to Trump. “And that is absolutely appropriate.”
Mulvaney’s acknowledgment of a tie between military aid and a political investigation came as House Democrats were summoning a stream of witnesses to the Capitol to investigate whether Trump had pressured Ukraine for his personal political benefit in 2020.
Democrats called Mulvaney’s comments a potential turning point in their impeachment inquiry. “We have a confession,” said Representative Eric Swalwell, Democrat of California.
By day’s end, after Trump told aides to clean up the mess, Mulvaney had issued a statement flatly denying what he had earlier said, contending the media “has decided to misconstrue’’ his remarks.
“Let me be clear, there was absolutely no quid pro quo between Ukrainian military aid and any investigation into the 2016 election,’’ Mulvaney wrote.
But in his earlier remarks to reporters, Mulvaney pointed to “three issues” that explained why officials withheld the aid: corruption in Ukraine, frustration that European governments were not providing more money to Ukraine; and the president’s demand that Kyiv officials investigate the issue of the Democratic National Committee server.
“Did he also mention to me in passing the corruption related to the DNC server?” Mulvaney said, referring to Trump. “Absolutely. No question about that.” He added: “That’s why we held up the money.”
At the White House, staff members recognized that Mulvaney had created an entirely new controversy with his remarks. Jay Sekulow, one of Trump’s personal lawyers, said Thursday, “The president’s legal counsel was not involved in acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney’s press briefing.”
Mulvaney made his remarks after he stepped before the cameras to announce that leaders of the Group of Seven nations would meet in June at Trump’s golf resort in South Florida, even as he acknowledged the choice could be seen as self-enrichment.
And on Capitol Hill, Gordon Sondland, the president’s ambassador to the European Union and a wealthy donor to Trump’s campaign, was implicating the president in the Ukraine scandal by telling lawmakers that Trump had delegated Ukraine policy to his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani.
Sondland testified behind closed doors for more than six hours, the latest in a series of current and former diplomats and White House aides who have provided detailed accounts of actions by Giuliani and others related to Ukraine.
In wide-ranging remarks, Mulvaney told reporters at the White House that the $391 million in military aid was initially withheld from Ukraine because the president was displeased that European countries were not as generous with their assistance.
He also wanted more attention paid to Ukraine’s persistent political corruption.
Mulvaney denied that the aid for Ukraine was also contingent on its government opening an investigation into either former vice president Joe Biden, a leading Democratic candidate for president, or his younger son, Hunter Biden. Asked whether he did anything to pressure President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine to investigate the Bidens, Mulvaney said no.
But the president did pressure Ukraine to reexamine discredited theories that Ukraine, not Russia, had worked to sway the 2016 campaign. Mulvaney’s mention of a “DNC server” was a reference to an unfounded conspiracy theory promoted by Trump that Ukraine was somehow involved in Russia’s 2016 theft of e-mails from the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Mulvaney tied the server to the Justice Department’s review of the origins of the Russia investigation, led by the US attorney in Connecticut, John H. Durham, and closely overseen by Attorney General William Barr.
“That’s an ongoing investigation,” Mulvaney said. “So you’re saying the president of the United States, the chief law enforcement person, cannot ask somebody to cooperate with an ongoing public investigation into wrongdoing? That’s just bizarre to me that you would think that you can’t do that.”
The intelligence community and the special counsel found Russian military officers hacked Democratic servers to steal thousands of e-mails in 2016, and no one has uncovered evidence of Ukrainian involvement.
Justice Department officials were confused and angry when they heard that Mulvaney said the White House had frozen aid to Ukraine in exchange for help with the Durham investigation, according to a person familiar with their discussions.
“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,” a senior Justice Department official said. Durham was seen leaving the Justice Department around midday Thursday.
Mulvaney said holding up Ukraine’s aid was a normal part of foreign policy, and he compared it to the foreign aid to Central America that the administration froze until Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras agreed to adopt the immigration policies pressed by Trump.
Asked whether he had admitted to a quid pro quo, Mulvaney said: “We do that all the time with foreign policy.”
His answer ignored the distinction — raised by many of the president’s critics — between holding up foreign aid to further American interests and holding up foreign aid to further Trump’s personal interests.
Fiona Hill, the president’s former senior director for European and Russian affairs at the National Security Council, has testified that Mulvaney was part of a trio of Trump loyalists who conducted a rogue foreign policy operation in Ukraine.
In his remarks Thursday, Mulvaney said there is nothing wrong with Trump relying on Giuliani or others outside of the diplomatic corps to conduct foreign policy.
“That’s the president’s call,” he said. He added that “The president gets to set foreign policy and he gets to choose who to do so.”