(Bloomberg) -- Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney denied saying that President Donald Trump withheld military aid to Ukraine as a quid pro quo to get the country to investigate Democrats.
“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 on Thursday evening. “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.“
Mulvaney’s statement runs counter to remarks earlier Thursday when he effectively acknowledged that Trump offered Ukraine a quid pro quo for military aid, but tied it to demands that the country investigate the origins of the Russian election interference probe -- and not Joe Biden and his son.
“Get over it,” Mulvaney said at a White House press briefing, adding there’s always “going to be political influence in foreign policy” and “elections have consequences.”
The top aide, who placed the hold on aid to Ukraine, provided some of the administration’s most extensive comments about the uproar over Ukraine that has fueled an impeachment inquiry by House Democrats.
“The money held up has absolutely nothing to do with Biden,” Mulvaney said.
But Democrats zeroed in on Mulvaney’s earlier comments that the decision to hold back funding was connected to Trump’s determination that Ukraine investigate what he maintains was Democratic wrongdoing during the 2016 campaign.
Adam Schiff, the California Democrat who’s head of the Intelligence Committee and is one of the leaders of the impeachment inquiry, tweeted that “Things just went from very, very bad to much, much worse.”
In an indication that Mulvaney’s effort to justify Trump’s actions backfired, Jay Sekulow, the president’s counsel, said in a statement that “the president’s legal counsel was not involved in Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney’s press briefing.”
Many Republican lawmakers have 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 how he described amounted to an impeachable offense.
Mulvaney suspended aid shortly before Trump told Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in a July 25 phone call that he wanted him “to do us a favor” and that “there’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped” a prosecution in Ukraine.
Trump has embraced discredited claims that Biden sought to oust a prosecutor to halt investigations about his son Hunter’s service on the board of a Ukrainian gas company.
Mulvaney said at the briefing that the delay in aid to Ukraine was related instead to what he described as legitimate concerns about “corruption of the country,” including “corruption related to the DNC server.”
But his statement later said: “There was never any connection between the funds and the Ukrainians doing anything with the server -- this was made explicitly obvious by the fact that the aid money was delivered without any action on the part of the Ukrainians regarding the server.”
Trump has 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, who served as Trump’s first homeland security adviser, has said that he told the president there was no basis for the conspiracy theory that Ukraine was involved with the server and that he was “deeply disturbed” that Trump couldn’t distinguish truth from fiction.
Mulvaney said that “a look back to what happened in 2016 certainly was part of the thing he was worried about in corruption with that nation, and that is absolutely appropriate.”
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 angle.
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 Mulvaney comments in 15th paragraph.)
--With assistance from Chris Strohm, Billy House and Steven T. Dennis.
To contact the reporters on this story: Jennifer A. Dlouhy in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org;Ben Brody in Washington at email@example.com
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