(Bloomberg) -- Mick Mulvaney set out to offer an impassioned defense of President Donald Trump’s dealings with Ukraine, but he may have only made matters worse for his boss -- and himself.
Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, on Thursday seemed to admit what Trump had been denying for weeks: that the president offered Ukraine a quid pro quo for badly needed military aid in exchange for investigating his political opponents.
He later denied it, but his words from a press briefing -- “get over it” and “there’s always going to be political influence in foreign policy” -- belied his later statement.
Democrats quickly seized on Mulvaney’s comments at the briefing. One of Trump’s lawyers disowned them, people at the Justice Department expressed confusion and chagrin at what he said about its role, and Republicans expressed disquiet.
House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff of California, one of the leaders of the impeachment inquiry against Trump, tweeted, “Things just went from very, very bad to much, much worse.”
Some Republicans also expressed concern. Representative Francis Rooney said Friday that “it’s painful for me to see this kind of amateur diplomacy running roughshod over our State Department apparatus.”
‘Etch a Sketch’
Saying that Mulvaney can’t just take back what he said, the Florida lawmaker added, “It’s not an Etch A Sketch.”
When Mulvaney was asked about Ukraine, he commented as a key player in a disputed chain of events: He suspended aid to the country shortly before a July phone call where Trump told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy that he wanted him “to do us a favor” and that “there’s a lot of talk” about Vice President Joe Biden’s son, and that Biden had stopped” a prosecution in Ukraine. The uproar over that phone call led to the impeachment inquiry.
In his news conference Thursday, Mulvaney insisted that he never held up U.S. aid to get Ukraine’s president to investigate Biden. But he was more forthright about another quid pro quo: that the president used the funds partly to force Ukraine to look into a conspiracy theory about Democrats plotting to manipulate the 2016 election and a missing computer server.
“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. “And that is absolutely appropriate.”
Hours later, Mulvaney denied his own remark. “Let me be clear, there was absolutely no quid pro quo between Ukrainian military aid and any investigation into the 2016 election,” Mulvaney said in a statement emailed by the White House. “The president never told me to withhold any money until the Ukrainians did anything related to the server. The only reasons we were holding the money was because of concern about lack of support from other nations and concerns over corruption.”
Those remarks were released after Trump’s personal lawyer Jay Sekulow issued a terse statement that “the president’s legal counsel was not involved in Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney’s press briefing.”
Many Republican lawmakers have been ducking questions about whether tying aid to a political goal was appropriate, but Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski was more direct after Mulvaney’s performance.
“You don’t hold up foreign aid that we had previously appropriated for a political initiative. Period,” she told reporters. She said she hadn’t heard Mulvaney’s remarks and wanted to study them before commenting on whether the situation he described amounted to an impeachable offense.
But Representative Mark Meadows of North Carolina, a leading House conservative and Trump supporter, said Mulvaney’s statements at the news conference were at odds with testimony before lawmakers probing the issue. “As of today, every single witness, every single fact, has not supported any aid pause, or holdup in foreign aid being attached to any conditions,” he said.
Mulvaney had called the White House press briefing to make an unrelated announcement that itself was sure to touch off an outcry -- that Trump would host next year’s Group of Seven summit at his Doral golf resort in Miami. Word of the decision immediately reignited claims that Trump is violating a constitutional prohibition against profiting from the presidency.
When questions turned to Ukraine, Mulvaney tried to rebut half the Democrats’ case against Trump. Mulvaney said the delay in aid to Ukraine was related instead to what he described as Trump’s legitimate concerns about “corruption of the country,” which he said included “corruption related to the DNC server.”
Trump and other conservatives have suggested that Ukrainians and Democrats -- not Russian operatives -- were involved in the breach of a Democratic National Committee server in 2016 that resulted in the release of internal emails. On his call with Zelenskiy, Trump brought up “the server -- they say Ukraine has it.”
Thomas Bossert, Trump’s first homeland security adviser, has said he told the president there was no basis for the idea that Ukraine was somehow involved with the server and that he was “deeply disturbed” that Trump couldn’t distinguish truth from fiction.
Mulvaney said one reason Trump ordered aid withheld from Ukraine was to get the country to cooperate with a continuing investigation by U.S. Attorney John Durham, who is looking into Republican assertions that the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election was tainted in its early stages by anti-Trump bias.
But the Justice Department has no idea what Mulvaney was referring to, according to a department official who said that Attorney General William Barr hasn’t been asked by the White House to investigate anything concerning Ukraine. The department has never said whether Durham is looking into the DNC server.
Officials at the department were confused and angry that Mulvaney invoked the Justice Department inquiry, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Mulvaney, who technically remains the White House budget director, cited assertions that holding up the aid “would be illegal.” He allowed that there’s “a little shred of truth in it” and that the budget office was concerned that the holdup in funds would amount to a prohibited “impoundment” if it had continued past the end of the fiscal year in September without “a really, really good reason.”
Mulvaney also defended the role of Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, in Ukraine-related matters. “You may not like the fact that Giuliani was involved. That is great, that’s fine. It’s not illegal, it is not impeachable,” he said. “The president gets to use whoever he wants to use.”
He said Trump’s biggest reason to withhold aid is that “as vocal as the Europeans are on supporting Ukraine, they’re really, really stingy when it comes to lethal aid. The president did not like that.”
(Updates with Republican Rooney in sixth paragraph)
--With assistance from Chris Strohm, Billy House, Steven T. Dennis and Daniel Flatley.
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