WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump withheld roughly $400 million in aid to Ukraine earlier this year in part to push 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 aid to Trump’s demand for Ukraine to investigate what, if any, role the country played in the 2016 U.S. investigation.
There has been no evidence that Ukraine interfered in the election, but Trump and his supporters suspect Ukraine is somehow linked to a Democratic National Committee server and the emails stolen by Russia that proved embarrassing to Hillary Clinton.
“Did he 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 was happening in 2016 was part of that thing.”
But Mulvaney insisted in a defiant briefing that there was nothing wrong with Trump’s actions, saying 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 Democrats’ 2016 server as well as the business activities of his potential 2020 rival, former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter. There is no evidence of any wrongdoing by the Bidens.
Trump had previously acknowledged making the request 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 because he wanted European nations to contribute more aid to Ukraine.
Mulvaney said those were also factors in Trump’s decision. But his statements are certain to give fuel to 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-Calif., called Mulvaney’s comments “a stunning admission.” But he quickly corrected himself, saying it is not surprising at all. “No, not stunning_ An admission.”
Separately Thursday, Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, 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 to congressional investigators, obtained as he appeared Thursday before the House impeachment inquiry.
Sondland, a hotelier and major donor to Trump and the Republican Party, 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.
“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.”
Sondland, who was not on the July call, 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 or look into Trump’s unfounded theories about the 2016 election and foreign interference.
“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.”
In his statement, 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.” In his Thursday statement, he claimed the “deliverable” was “a public embrace of anti-corruption reforms by Ukraine” consistent with long-standing 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.
By Sondland’s account, he and others pushed back against the president and Giuliani’s attempts to drag Ukraine into U.S. politics, but he felt they had little choice but to go through the president’s lawyer to achieve other foreign policy priorities.
Initially, as they pushed for a meeting with Zelensky in May shortly after his election, the ambassador said, “Trump was skeptical that Ukraine was serious about reforms and anti-corruption,” and told them to talk to Giuliani.
“We strongly believed that a call and White House meeting between Presidents Trump and Zelensky was important and that these should be scheduled promptly and without any pre-conditions,” Sondland said in the statement. “We could abandon the goal of a White House meeting for President Zelensky … or we could do as President Trump directed and talk to Mr. Giuliani.”
It was only later, he 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.”