WASHINGTON - Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney told reporters Thursday that President Donald Trump blocked nearly $400 million in military aid to Ukraine in part to force the government in Kyiv to investigate his political rivals, a startling acknowledgment after the president’s repeated denials of a quid pro quo.
Mulvaney defended the maneuver as "absolutely appropriate."
"Did he also mention to me in the past the corruption related to the DNC server? Absolutely, no question about that. But that's it, that's why we held up the money," Mulvaney said, referring to a conspiracy theory that a hacked Democratic National Committee computer server was taken to Ukraine in 2016 to hide evidence that Kyiv, not Moscow, interfered in the last U.S. presidential election.
Mulvaney also said the funds had been withheld because European countries were being "really, really stingy when it comes to lethal aid" for Ukraine, and over whether Ukraine's leaders "were cooperating in an ongoing investigation with our Department of Justice."
But he characterized the decision to leverage congressionally approved aid as common practice, citing other instances in which the Trump administration has withheld aid to foreign countries and telling critics to "get over it."
“I have news for everybody: get over it. There’s going to be political influence in foreign policy,” Mulvaney said. “Elections do have consequences and they should, and your foreign policy is going to change . . . there’s no problem with that.”
Mulvaney's bold defense of Trump's Ukraine actions comes as the House's impeachment probe is closing in on the president's most senior advisers, to determine whether Trump abused his power and pressured a foreign government to conduct investigations that could help his chances of reelection in 2020.
To the Democrats on the three panels conducting the impeachment probe, Mulvaney's words marked a significant turning point.
"We have a confession from the president," said Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., a member of the House Intelligence Committee, referring to Trump's July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, during which Trump pressured his counterpart to open investigations into the 2016 election and former vice president Joe Biden's son, who sat on the board of Ukrainian energy company Burisma.
Mulvaney, Swalwell said, “co-signed the president’s confession,” adding that the administration was still engaging in “an ongoing coverup.”
Privately, some Republicans were incensed, calling Mulvaney’s comments a strategic mistake in the midst of the impeachment probe.
"Totally inexplicable," said one GOP lawmaker, complaining of the "damage" Mulvaney's words caused. "He literally said the thing the president and everyone else said did not happen." The congressman spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid.
During his Thursday news conference, Mulvaney said the decision to withhold military aid from Ukraine had "absolutely nothing to do with Biden." He also denied assertions that the administration had tried to hide anything by moving the transcript of Trump's call with Zelensky to a more secure server.
"Let me ask you this, If we wanted to cover this up, would we have called the Department of Justice almost immediately and have them look at the transcript of the tape, which we did, by the way?" Mulvaney said. "If we wanted to cover this up, would we have released it to the public?"
But in the wake of his comments, other administration officials, as well as Trump's legal team, attempted to distance themselves from Mulvaney.
A Justice Department official took issue with Mulvaney's remarks, stating that "if the White House was withholding aid in regards to the cooperation of any investigation at the Department of Justice, that is news to us.
And in a statement, Trump's lawyer Jay Sekulow said "the President's legal counsel was not involved in acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney's press briefing."
While Mulvaney spoke Thursday, members of the House Intelligence, Oversight and Foreign Affairs committees - which are conducting the impeachment probe - met behind closed doors with U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, who told them that Trump had outsourced official U.S. policy on Ukraine to his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani.
Sondland was uncomfortable with that decision, he testified, though he still carried out the strategy.
"I would not have recommended that Mr. Giuliani or any private citizen be involved in these foreign policy matters," Sondland said, according to his prepared remarks.
Mulvaney dismissed those concerns, defending the president's right to put foreign policy in the hands of his personal lawyer.
"You may not like the fact that Giuliani was involved, that's great, that's fine," Mulvaney said, referencing Sondland's remarks. "It's not illegal, it's not impeachable . . . the president gets to set foreign policy and he gets to choose who to do so, as long as it doesn't violate any law."
Sondland, a major Trump donor who has became a focus of the impeachment inquiry due to his outsize role in U.S.-Ukraine policy, criticized the president's temporary hold on aid and the recall of Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. Sondland called her an "excellent diplomat" and said he "regretted" her departure, which followed a campaign by Giuliani to paint her as disloyal to the president.
Democratic lawmakers emerging from Sondland's deposition said that while they found him to be generally credible and were glad that he chose to testify despite White House pressure not to, they thought Sondland was being selective and cagey with details.
"He doesn't answer the questions with the specificity that we've seen from the other witnesses and the recall of detail," said Rep. Harley Rouda, D-Calif., a member of the Oversight Committee.
"I think he's clearly trying to defend his reputation and his own behavior," said Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee. Cicilline also criticized some of Sondland's testimony as "not credible to me, with respect to his sort of not understanding all the things that were happening around him, and in full view of the American people."
In his prepared remarks, Sondland, a hotel magnate who came to the job with no diplomatic experience, depicts himself as a well-meaning but in some cases out of the loop emissary for the president who tried to do what he could to prop up the government of Ukraine as it fends off Russian-backed separatists.
Sondland said that in principle he opposes any "quid pro quo" that would exchange U.S. support to a friendly nation for an investigation into the Bidens.
But he said he became aware only recently that Trump's efforts to investigate the Ukrainian energy company Burisma were due to its associations with Biden, whose son Hunter sat on its board.
"I did not understand, until much later, that Mr. Giuliani's agenda might have also included an effort to prompt the Ukrainians to investigate Vice President Biden or his son or to involve Ukrainians, directly or indirectly, in the president's 2020 reelection campaign," he said, explaining that he "understood that Burisma was one of many examples of Ukrainian companies run by oligarchs and lacking the type of corporate governance structures found in Western companies."
Sondland's apparent failure to connect the dots between Burisma and the Bidens occurred as Giuliani made several televised appearances over the spring and summer criticizing Hunter Biden's involvement on the board, and numerous newspaper and magazine articles questioned whether his role at Burisma could prove to be a drag on his father's presidential campaign.
"Withholding foreign aid to pressure a foreign government to take such steps would be wrong," he stated in his prepared testimony. "I did not and would not ever participate in such undertakings."
But that testimony appears to conflict with what other current and former Trump administration officials told House investigators over the past two weeks. Fiona Hill, the National Security Council's former senior director for Russia and Europe, told House investigators that she was concerned by Sondland's talk of investigations in a July meeting, concerns she eventually relayed to a lawyer for the National Security Council.
And Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia George Kent testified that Sondland was deputized, along with former special U.S. envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker and Energy Secretary Rick Perry, be one of "three amigos" running Ukraine policy. The move came during a May meeting that Mulvaney organized after Yovanovitch's ouster.
Last week, Volker provided impeachment investigators with text messages showing that Sondland had said Trump, before agreeing to meet in person with his Ukrainian counterpart, wanted the "deliverable" of a promise from Zelensky to investigate Burisma and the 2016 election.
Sondland said his pursuit of investigations in Ukraine were always in line with long-standing U.S. policy to push for transparency and anti-corruption efforts in the country. He added that he was never aware of objections to the plans for Ukraine policy from Hill or her boss, national security adviser John Bolton. Hill testified Monday that Bolton was livid that Giuliani was directing a shadow Ukraine policy.
"I have to view her testimony - if the media reports are accurate - as the product of hindsight and in the context of the widely known tensions between the NSC, on the one hand, and the State Department, on the other hand," Sondland said.
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The Washington Post’s Josh Dawsey, Matt Zapotosky and Carol D. Leonnig contributed to this report.