WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump's acting chief of staff acknowledged Thursday that aid to Ukraine at the center of a House impeachment inquiry was withheld in part because of the president's desire for the country to investigate potential corruption regarding U.S. domestic politics.
Mick Mulvaney's assertion was the first time a White House official conceded Trump set up a quid quo pro scenario in which money approved by Congress for Ukraine was used as leverage. Hours after his remarks drew bipartisan criticism, Mulvaney said in a statement the money was withheld chiefly over concerns about corruption.
At a news briefing Thursday, Mulvaney had said the president told him he was concerned about corruption and the fact that other countries weren't chipping in more to help pay for Ukraine's security. Mulvaney said Trump mentioned "in passing" that he considered part of that corruption to involve claims about the 2016 election.
Among those claims: Trump sought Ukraine's help in finding out whether a hacked Democratic National Committee server and 33,000 emails from Democrat Hillary Clinton's tenure running the U.S. State Department "could be" in the country.
"Did he also mention to me in passing the corruption related to the DNC server? Absolutely," Mulvaney said during a briefing at the White House on Thursday, recalling a conversation he had with the president about corruption in Kyiv.
Mulvaney rows back
As Mulvaney's comments bounced around Washington and drew fire from at least one Republican on Capitol Hill, the top aide to Trump issued a statement saying his remarks had been misconstrued to "advance a biased and political witch hunt." Mulvaney said the money was withheld for two reasons: lack of aid from other nations and corruption.
"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 the statement. "The president never told me to withhold any money until the Ukrainians did anything related to the server."
Speaking to reporters as he traveled in Texas, Trump said he did not watch Mulvaney’s briefing but heard he did well.
“Mick is a good man," Trump said. "I have a lot of confidence in him."
House Democrats launched an impeachment inquiry last month regarding a phone call in July between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. A summary of the call released by the White House showed Trump raised the issue of interference in the 2016 election as well as former Vice President Joe Biden soon after discussing aid to Kyiv.
Democrats suspect Trump was trying to strong-arm Ukraine into an investigation to discredit Biden, a political rival.
Mulvaney said there is nothing wrong with threatening to withhold foreign aid to pressure a country to change a policy – in this case, he said, to fight corruption.
"We do that all that time with foreign policy," Mulvaney said, noting that the White House threatened to withhold money to Central America over immigration policies.
Trump has repeatedly asserted that he did not withhold the money in exchange for Ukraine's help in looking into political foes, and Mulvaney said, "The money held up had absolutely nothing to do with Biden." Mulvaney framed the issue as Trump calling on Ukraine to help Attorney General William Barr with an investigation into 2016 election interference.
"The look back to what happened in 2016 certainly was part of the thing he was worried about in corruption with that nation," Mulvaney said of the president.
A senior Justice Department official speaking on the condition of anonymity sought to distance Barr's probe from Mulvaney's remarks: "If the White House was withholding aid in regards to cooperation with an investigation at the Department of Justice, that is news to us,” the official said.
Trump sought Ukraine's help in finding out whether a hacked Democratic National Committee server and 33,000 emails from Democrat Hillary Clinton's tenure running the U.S. State Department "could be" in the country.
The president's phone call with Zelensky prompted a flurry of subpoenas sent to the Trump administration. Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, told lawmakers Thursday that withholding aid for political reasons would be wrong.
Lawmakers react to Mulvaney
When reporters told Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, of Mulvaney’s statements, she said: "That's news to me; I had not heard that. Yes, absolutely it's a concern. You don't hold up foreign aid that we had previously appropriated for a political initiative."
Asked whether it rose to the level of an impeachable offense, Murkowski said she needs to look at exactly what Mulvaney said.
Leaving a closed hearing in the U.S. Capitol, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said Mulvaney’s acknowledgment of a quid pro quo "certainly indicates that things have gone from very very bad to much much worse."
“It’s an admission of guilt from the president, there’s no denying that," said Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif. "Doesn't mean he's not entitled to a fair process."
Contributing: Kevin Johnson
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Mick Mulvaney acknowledges Ukraine quid pro quo, then reverses