WASHINGTON - White House and Justice Department officials were angered Thursday after a combative news briefing by acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney in which he insisted President Donald Trump did nothing inappropriate, but seemed to confirm that Trump's dealings with Ukraine amounted to a quid pro quo.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., refused to put a timeline on the impeachment process, declining to say whether she agrees with the assessment of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., that the House would vote by Thanksgiving, setting up a Senate trial late this year.
"The timeline will depend on the truth line," Pelosi told reporters at the Capitol amid a busy day of developments.
One Trump adviser called Mulvaney's briefing "totally inexplicable."
"He literally said the thing the president and everyone else said did not happen," the adviser said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the situation frankly.
One person who spoke to Trump said, however, that he was pleased with Mulvaney’s performance.
Mulvaney also caught the Justice Department by surprise when he asserted that Ukraine's "cooperating in an ongoing investigation with our Department of Justice" was connected to aid money being withheld. A department official said, "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."
The official also disputed that the White House made the Justice Department aware of the July phone call between Trump and Ukraine's leader immediately after it occurred, saying the department wasn't aware of the call until mid-August.
A third outside official said it was incredible that in the middle of an impeachment inquiry and the chaos in Syria that the White House would also invite another emoluments issue.
"Clearly, they just don't care anymore," this person said.
But a person close to Mulvaney said the reaction inside the West Wing had been "positive," and this person disputed the notion that Mulvaney admitted there was any sort of corrupt quid pro quo.
During the combative session in the White House briefing room earlier Thursday, Mulvaney acknowledged that the Trump administration held up U.S. military aid to Ukraine in part due to the president's request for that country to investigate a Democratic National Committee server.
"We do that all the time with foreign policy," Mulvaney said when asked about criticism that the administration's dealings with Ukraine amounted to a quid pro quo.
People familiar with the president's thinking have told The Washington Post that Trump has come to suspect the DNC server hacked by Russian intelligence agents in 2016 may have been hidden in Ukraine.
Mulvaney maintained that Trump’s request of Ukraine was unrelated to Biden, even though Trump mentioned the former vice president in his July phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Meanwhile, Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, told House impeachment investigators that Trump urged him to work with the president’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani on matters related to Ukraine.
Sondland was testifying behind closed doors about Trump's efforts to pressure Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden at a time when nearly $400 million in military aid to Ukraine was being withheld.
Also on Thursday, Energy Secretary Rick Perry told Trump aboard Air Force One that he is planning to resign, according to a person with knowledge of the matter.
Two administration officials confirmed that the conversation occurred. Another said Perry gave Trump his resignation in writing. It was not immediately clear what Perry's effective end date would be; he had earlier signaled that he would step down by the end of the year.
The conversation comes amid increasing scrutiny of Perry's role in the administration's communications with Ukraine. House Democrats have given Perry a Friday deadline by which to produce documents related to the matter.
Trump has said Perry asked him to make his July call to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, but Perry told reporters last week he did it so that the two could talk about energy issues.
Perry also told the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday that he called Giuliani at Trump's direction to discuss Ukraine.
In the House on Thursday, Democrats had planned to block a Republican-drafted resolution to censure House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif. But lawmakers put off consideration of the measure in light of the death of Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., who members of both parties praised during speeches on the chamber’s floor.
Cummings was the House Oversight and Reform Committee chairman and a leading figure in the Trump impeachment inquiry. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., the second-highest-ranking Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, will become the panel's acting chair, according to a senior Democratic leadership aide.
The resolution on Schiff, introduced by Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., takes issue with Schiff's remarks at a Sept. 26 hearing. Schiff embellished the transcript of the July phone call in which Trump pressed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate the Bidens.
Schiff later said his remarks were intended as parody and that Trump and others who have criticized him should have recognized that. Pelosi praised Schiff's work in the impeachment inquiry in a Thursday news conference, saying, "I value the way he is conducting this."
Earlier in the day, Trump left the White House shortly before 11 a.m., to head to Dallas for a "Keep America Great Rally." In recent weeks, he has used such events to air grievances about the impeachment process and the Democrats who are leading it. He has several events scheduled in Texas before the rally Thursday night.
The rally comes a day after Pelosi and other top Democrats walked out of a meeting with Trump at the White House after the president disparaged Pelosi. It was the first time they had come face-to-face since Pelosi launched the impeachment inquiry.
In remarks outside the White House, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., told reporters that Trump had called Pelosi a "third-rate politician." Pelosi later clarified at the Capitol that Trump had called her a "third-grade politician."
- - -
The Washington Post’s Tom Hamburger, Ashley Parker, Philip Rucker Josh Dawsey and Matt Zapotosky contributed to this report.