President Trump withheld roughly $400 million in aid to Ukraine earlier this year in part to pressure its new government to investigate Democrats, acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney said Thursday, a stunning confirmation that hits directly at the center of House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry.
It marked the first time a senior White House official has directly linked the decision to delay the congressionally approved aid to Trump’s demand for Ukraine to investigate what, if any, role that country played in the 2016 U.S. election, despite a lack of evidence.
Mulvaney insisted politics is always part of foreign policy. “I have news for everybody: Get over it. There’s going to be political influence in foreign policy. That is going to happen. Elections have consequences.”
In a July 25 phone call, Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for a “favor”: to help investigate the location of a Democratic National Committee server, which could shed light on the emails stolen by Russia that proved embarrassing to Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election. He also pressed Ukraine to look into the activities of his potential 2020 rival, former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter. The request came as Zelensky was expressing a desire for more U.S. military assistance and the chance to meet Trump in person, something that would enhance Zelensky’s political credibility.
Despite assertions by Trump and his supporters, there has been no evidence that Ukraine interfered in the election or the Bidens were involved in wrongdoing.
“Did [Trump] also mention to me in the past the corruption related to the DNC server?” Mulvaney said. “Absolutely. No question about that. But that’s it, and that’s 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.”
Trump had previously acknowledged making the request to Zelensky on the phone call. But he had always insisted that the delay in the aid was a separate issue, triggered by his desire to push Ukraine to fight domestic corruption and European nations to contribute more aid to Ukraine.
Jay Sekulow, one of Trump’s attorneys, quickly distanced himself from Mulvaney’s comments. “The president’s legal counsel was not involved in acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney’s press briefing,” he said.
Later in the day, Mulvaney tried to walk back his comments. “There was absolutely no quid pro quo between Ukrainian military aid and any investigation into the 2016 election,” he said in a statement. “There never was any condition on the flow of the aid related to the matter of the DNC server.”
On Thursday evening, Trump said he had not seen Mulvaney’s briefing, but heard he did a good job. “Mick is a good man,” Trump said. “I have a lot of confidence in him.”
But Mulvaney’s original remarks quickly fueled the impeachment inquiry of Democrats, who have characterized the phone call as a quid pro quo and abuse of presidential power.
Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Dublin) called Mulvaney’s comments “a stunning admission.” Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance) said Mulvaney “basically blew a giant hole in the legal defense of Donald Trump.”
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), a Trump ally, said Mulvaney’s comments shouldn’t be surprising because the administration routinely asks foreign governments to do something in exchange for contact with the administration. “We have those types of expectations of our allies,” Gaetz said.
Critics say the key difference, however, is that Trump was seeking to bolster his reelection chances, not U.S. relations.
“Normalizing criminal conduct doesn’t change the fact that it’s criminal conduct,” said Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough).
Others in the administration appeared baffled by Mulvaney’s comments. A senior official at the Justice Department — which is also looking into Trump’s suspicions regarding the 2016 election — was surprised by Mulvaney’s comments, telling The Times, “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.”
Trump has been eager to find evidence that would link Democrats to foreign election interference in 2016. Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report found that Russia interfered in the 2016 election to help elect Trump, and that Trump may have attempted to obstruct inquiries into whether his campaign participated in that interference.
Mulvaney’s remarks on Thursday came as the U.S. ambassador to the European Union joined the ranks of witnesses telling congressional investigators that they were troubled by the actions of the president and other officials to interject politics into U.S. foreign policy.
Gordon Sondland, appointed ambassador after serving as a major Trump donor, said he disagreed with Trump’s decision to delegate crucial foreign policy on Ukraine to the president’s personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, according to his opening statement.
Sondland said the president repeatedly directed him to coordinate with Giuliani, whom Sondland suggested may have had ulterior political motives, though he said he was not aware of them at the time. By Sondland’s account, he and others pushed back, but he felt they had little choice but to go through the president’s lawyer to achieve other foreign policy priorities.
“It was apparent to all of us that the key to changing the president’s mind on Ukraine was Mr. Giuliani,” Sondland said. “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 towards Ukraine.”
It was only later, Sondland said, that he understood Giuliani’s “agenda” to include investigating Biden and his son, and “involve Ukrainians, directly or indirectly, in the president’s 2020 reelection campaign.”
While seeking to downplay his interactions with Giuliani, Sondland described at least one instance in which the president’s lawyer “specifically mentioned the 2016 election (including the DNC server) and Burisma [a Ukrainian gas company that had hired Hunter Biden] as two anti-corruption investigatory topics of importance for the president.”
Mulvaney said routing Ukraine policy through Giuliani was up to Trump, and didn’t violate any law.
“You may not like the fact that Giuliani was involved, that’s great, that’s fine,” Mulvaney said. “It’s not illegal, it’s not impeachable … the president gets to set foreign policy and he gets to choose who to do so, as long as it doesn’t violate any law.”
Sondland, who was not on the July call with Zelensky, said in his statement that Trump assured him directly there was “no quid pro quo” connecting the withholding of military aid to Ukraine and a White House meeting with Trump’s demand for Ukraine to investigate his political rivals
“I asked the president: ‘What do you want from Ukraine?’ The president responded, ‘Nothing. There is no quid pro quo,’” Sondland recounted. “The president repeated: ‘no quid pro quo’ multiple times. This was a very short call. And I recall the president was in a bad mood.”
Sondland also said he disagreed with the delay of the aid to Ukraine.
“Inviting a foreign government to undertake investigations for the purpose of influencing an upcoming U.S. election would be wrong,” his statement reads. “Withholding foreign aid in order to pressure a foreign government to take such steps would be wrong. I did not and would not ever participate in such undertakings. In my opinion, security aid to Ukraine was in our vital national interest and should not have been delayed for any reason.”
Text messages released by House investigators show Sondland and other U.S. diplomats discussing Trump’s pressure on Ukraine to launch investigations that would help him politically.
In the text messages, Sondland says: “I think potus really wants the deliverable,” referring to the president of the United States. In his Thursday statement, he claimed the “deliverable” was “a public embrace of anti-corruption reforms by Ukraine” consistent with longstanding U.S. policy. “Nothing about that request raised any red flags for me,” or other diplomats, Sondland said.
Sondland’s testimony was in defiance of earlier attempts by the State Department and White House to block his appearance on Oct. 8, according to Sondland and his lawyers. House Democrats leading the inquiry then issued him a subpoena.
Congressional investigators have ordered Sondland to present “relevant documents” to the inquiry, but his lawyers said he would not bring them Thursday and they must be provided by the State Department.
While the administration’s blockade of the impeachment inquiry has broken down, with other officials testifying Friday and in coming days, the White House largely has been successful in withholding documents from congressional investigators.
Energy Secretary Rick Perry, who is under scrutiny for his role pushing natural gas and coal exports in Ukraine, told The Times this week that he’d be following the administration’s instruction not to comply with demands for documents. On Thursday, Perry told Trump he’d be resigning his Cabinet post.
Times staff writer Noah Bierman in Washington contributed to this report.