The White House on Thursday acknowledged that US President Donald Trump’s decision to hold up military aid to Ukraine was linked to his demand that Kiev investigate the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the 2016 US presidential campaign, a shifting new explanation about events at the heart of the impeachment inquiry.
The admission from White House Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney undercut the president’s position that there was no quid pro quo during Trump’s phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy that sparked the investigation by the US House of Representatives.
The sudden turn of events had immediate fallout. Trump’s lawyer distanced the president from Mulvaney’s account. The US Department of Justice said the explanation was news to them. And Democrats cast Mulvaney’s remarks as further evidence wrongdoing as Trump sought a “favor” from Ukraine.
Trump, traveling in Texas, appeared to stand by his top aide, calling Mulvaney a “good man.”
“I have a lot of confidence” in him, Trump said.
However, Mulvaney’s initial remarks, made during a rare appearance by an administration official in the White House briefing room, spun open a new phase of the impeachment inquiry.
He indicated that a quid pro quo was at play for the military aid — but a different one than Democrats initially highlighted as they probed Trump’s efforts to have Ukraine investigate a company linked to the Hunter Biden, son of Democratic presidential aspirant Joe Biden.
Trump, as shown in a rough transcript of the July call with Zelenskiy, sought help in investigating not only the firm tied to Biden, but also a security company hired by the DNC that discovered that Russian agents had broken into the committee’s network.
The stolen e-mails were subsequently published by WikiLeaks ahead of the 2016 election.
“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.
“Did he also mention to me in the past the corruption that related to the DNC server? Absolutely, no question about that,” Mulvaney said. “That’s why we held up the money.”
Trump’s personal lawyer Jay Sekulow issued a pointed statement distancing the president’s legal team from Mulvaney’s comments.
“The President’s legal counsel was not involved in acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney’s press briefing,” it said.
Within hours, Mulvaney issued a separate statement claiming his remarks were misconstrued.
“Let me be clear, there was absolutely no quid pro quo between Ukrainian military aid and any investigation into the 2016 election,” he said. “The president never told me to withhold any money until the Ukrainians did anything related to the server.”
However, it might be difficult to erase what Mulvaney said as Democrats dig into their investigation.
US Representative Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House Committee on Intelligence eading the impeachment probe, said: “I think Mr. Mulvaney’s acknowledgment means that things have gone from very, very bad to much, much worse.”
Mulvaney, who has already received a subpoena for documents in the impeachment probe, is now likely to be asked by investigators to appear for a deposition.
“I believe that they’re getting closer to basically admitting a crime,” US Representative Joaquin Castro said, adding that Mulvaney should testify.
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