Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, wants to change his story about Ukraine. On Thursday, at a press briefing, Mulvaney confirmed that when President Donald Trump suspended military aid to Ukraine in July, one reason was that Trump wanted Ukraine to help investigate Trump’s domestic opponents for conspiring against him in the 2016 election. “I was involved with the process by which the money was held up,” Mulvaney told reporters. There were “three issues for that,” he explained: “The corruption of the country; whether or not other countries were participating in the support of the Ukraine; and whether [Ukrainian officials] were cooperating in an ongoing investigation with our Department of Justice.”
A few hours after the briefing, prodded by Trump, his lawyers, and other administration officials, Mulvaney tried to take back his confession. “The media has decided to misconstrue my comments,” he declared in a formal statement. “There was absolutely no quid pro quo between Ukrainian military aid and any investigation into the 2016 election.”
But Mulvaney can’t take back the story he told at the briefing, because it wasn’t a misunderstanding or misrepresentation of what somebody else told him. No one was more personally involved in the aid suspension than Mulvaney. No one heard the president state his motives more often or more clearly. Mulvaney is the most direct witness. What he said at the briefing is eyewitness testimony.
In his exchange with reporters at the White House, Mulvaney cited specific meetings and conversations with Trump. He recalled hearing the president direct his subordinates, at a May 23 meeting, to “talk to Rudy”—Rudolph Giuliani, Trump’s lawyer and de facto private investigator—about what Ukraine should do to appease Trump. Mulvaney said of the president, “I’ve been in the office a couple times with him, talking about this. And he said, ‘Look, Mick, this [Ukraine] is a corrupt place.’ ”
That’s how Mulvaney was talking when he connected the aid suspension to getting help with investigations. He wasn’t delivering a message prepared by the White House. He was describing events he had directly witnessed. Mulvaney referred to one of Trump’s pet conspiracy theories, which has been thoroughly debunked: that a secret Democratic National Committee server, hidden by Ukraine, proves Russia didn’t hack the DNC in 2016. “Did he [Trump] also mention to me in passing the corruption related to the DNC server? Absolutely,” said Mulvaney. “But that’s it. And that’s why we held up the money.”
ABC’s Jonathan Karl checked to make sure Mulvaney understood the gravity of what he was saying. “What you just described,” said Karl, “is a quid pro quo. It is: Funding will not flow unless the investigation into the Democratic server happens as well.” Mulvaney replied in the affirmative. “We do that all the time with foreign policy,” he said.
Mulvaney wasn’t faking or exaggerating his knowledge of what happened. He personally transferred Ukraine policy from normal State Department channels to Giuliani’s “three amigos”: U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, special U.S. envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker, and Energy Secretary Rick Perry. Mulvaney talked with Sondland frequently, bypassing other officials. He arranged for Sondland to brief Trump just before a July 25 phone call in which Trump pressed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Democrats. And Mulvaney was the conduit for the aid suspension. He received the order from Trump and conveyed it to the Office of Management and Budget. OMB, which Mulvaney still directs, then repeatedly extended the suspension. When other officials questioned the suspension, Mulvaney defended it internally.
In his retraction after Thursday’s briefing, Mulvaney tried to distinguish between Trump’s interest in investigating Democrats, on the one hand, and Trump’s interest in the problem of Ukrainian corruption. “The only reasons we were holding the money,” said Mulvaney, were “because of concern about lack of support from other nations and concerns over corruption.” But that distinction is bogus. When Trump said he wanted an investigation of Ukrainian “corruption,” he just meant that he wanted an investigation of his enemies. And there’s lots of evidence that Mulvaney understood exactly what Trump meant.
Last week, in testimony before Congress, Volker confirmed that in the May 23 White House meeting, Trump said of Ukrainian officials, “They’re all corrupt, and they tried to take me down.” That’s a pretty clear equation of Ukrainian “corruption” with collaboration against Trump in 2016. At Thursday’s briefing, Mulvaney confirmed that he was present at this meeting and that he understood “corruption,” in Trump’s mind, as a reference to the election. “The look back to what happened in 2016,” Mulvaney explained, “certainly was part of the thing that he was worried about in corruption with that nation.”
In his retraction, Mulvaney also argued that Trump’s eventual release of the aid proved that the president hadn’t withheld it to extract an investigation. “There was never any connection between the funds and the Ukrainians doing anything with the server,” said the retraction. “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.” But the aid money was also delivered without any action by Europe to cough up more aid to Ukraine. So the reason cited in the retraction for the aid suspension—“lack of support from other nations” for Ukraine—would also be false by this standard. The retraction falsifies itself.
If you look closely at the retraction, it doesn’t really deny that Trump withheld the money in hopes of extracting an investigation, or that he conveyed this hope to Mulvaney. It just denies that Trump made the transaction explicit. “The president never told me to withhold any money until the Ukrainians did anything related to the server,” says the statement. That might be true. But by blocking the aid and telling Mulvaney he wanted Ukraine’s help with the investigation, Trump made his motive clear enough.
For weeks, Trump has complained that officials who accused him of a quid pro quo didn’t know what they were talking about. It was all hearsay from people who weren’t in the room, he said. Now the president has a much bigger problem. The man who was in the room at every stage of Trump’s corrupt pressure campaign has confessed to the quid pro quo. And the confession is on video.
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