A top White Hosue official said a decision to withhold military support to Ukraine was tied to the president's demand Kyiv investigate the 2016 US presidential election. He later said his statements were misconstrued.
White House acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney admitted on Thursday that the Trump administration withheld military aid to Ukraine as President Donald Trump pressured the Ukrainian government to look into the actions of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) during the 2016 US presidential election.
Shortly after the press briefing, Mulvaney backtracked on the admission, and one of Trump's personal lawyers, Jay Sekulow, distanced the president's legal team from the statements.
Mulvaney had told reporters on Thursday that Trump said he was concerned about providing support to Ukraine because of corruption there, but Mulvaney said that was not the only reason the aid money was withheld.
"Did Trump also mention to me in passing the corruption related to the DNC server? Absolutely," Mulvaney said. "No question about that."
Trump held up $391 million (€351 million) in military aid to Ukraine while demanding Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy do him "a favor" by looking into allegations of a Democratic Pary computer server in Ukraine. US intelligence agencies and a special counsel investigation said Russia, not Ukraine, was behind attempts to influence the 2016 presidential election.
Asked whether that sounds like a quid-pro-quo arrangement, Mulvaney said: "We do that all the time with foreign policy." He went on to justify the president's action by saying Trump was soliciting help investigating a prior election rather than seeking support in the upcoming 2020 election.
All a misunderstanding?
In a statement, one of Trump's lawyers said the president's legal team was not involved in Mulvaney's comments.
"The president's legal counsel was not involved in acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney's press briefing," the statement said.
Mulvaney also later issued a statement claiming his comments had been misconstrued by the media to advance a "political witch hunt" against the president.
"Let me be clear, there was absolutely no quid pro quo between Ukrainian military aid and any investigation into the 2016 election," he said.
Trump on Thursday said he continues to have confidence in Mulvaney as his acting chief of staff.
"From bad to worse"
For weeks, Trump and his administration's officials had denied the accusation that plays a crucial role in the impeachment inquiry against Trump in the House of Representatives.
"Things have just gone from very, very bad to much, much worse," said Adam Schiff, chair of the House Intelligence Committee, who is leading the impeachment inquiry.
Gordon Sondland, the US ambassador to the European Union, reportedly told a committee seeking to impeach the president that Trump instructed him and other envoys to work with his Rudy Giuliani, Trump's lawyer, on Ukraine policy, adding that he felt "disappointed" and disagreed with the requests.
Mulvaney defended Trump's decision to tap Giuliani to take the lead on US policy toward Ukraine.
"You may not like the fact that Giuliani was involved," Mulvaney said. "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."
Three committees in the House of Representatives are currently engaged in an impeachment inquiry aimed at the president and are hearing testimony concerning accusations Trump withheld military aid from Kyiv until Ukraine agreed to investigate Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden's business dealings in the country.
mvb/sms (AP, Reuters)