Washington (CNN) – White House acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney made a stunning admission Thursday by confirming that President Donald Trump froze nearly $400 million in US security aid to Ukraine in part to pressure that country into investigating Democrats.
Mulvaney insisted that he only knew of a US request to investigate the handling of a Democratic National Committee server hacked in the 2016 election, but text messages between US diplomats show efforts to get Ukraine to commit to an investigation into Burisma, the company on whose board former Vice President Joe Biden’s son sat. There is no evidence of wrongdoing in Ukraine by either Biden.
“That’s why we held up the money,” Mulvaney said after listing the 2016-related investigation and Trump’s broader concerns about corruption in Ukraine.
After weeks during which Trump denied the existence of any political quid pro quo in his withholding of security aid to Ukraine, Mulvaney confirmed the existence of a quid pro quo and offered this retort: “Get over it.”
“We do that all the time with foreign policy,” Mulvaney said of the influence of politics in the Trump administration.
In an unusual statement expressing public distance from the White House, a senior Justice Department official responded: “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.”
Trump’s attorney Jay Sekulow told CNN’s Jim Acosta: “The legal team was not involved in the acting chief of staff’s press briefing.”
Mulvaney’s admission came after current and former Trump administration officials revealed in congressional testimony that a White House meeting between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was also being conditioned on Ukraine launching politically charged investigations.
Mulvaney said he does not recall any “serious” conversations about setting up a White House meeting, but a senior White House official told CNN that Mulvaney was likely aware that the meeting was being conditioned on investigating matters related to the 2016 election, although not about the Bidens.
Efforts by Trump administration officials to pressure Ukraine into carrying out investigations into 2016 and the Bidens alarmed diplomatic and national security officials across the government.
For then-national security adviser John Bolton and Fiona Hill, Trump’s top foreign adviser on Europe and Russia, July 10 brought the clearest sign yet that politics was troublingly being injected into US foreign policy toward Ukraine.
Meeting with Ukrainian officials that day, Gordon Sondland, the US ambassador to the European Union and a top Trump donor, made clear that the Ukrainian President could secure a White House visit if his government opened investigations — including one into Burisma, the energy company on whose board Biden’s son Hunter once sat — that would be a political boon for Trump.
The apparent quid pro quo so alarmed Bolton that he described the interaction at the time as “a drug deal” and urged Hill, who attended the meeting, to report their concerns to White House lawyers.
It would be just one of several instances where National Security Council and intelligence officials raised concerns with attorneys inside the Trump administration, believing they were witnessing a hijacking of Ukraine policy by the President’s political allies for his political gain.
The ultimate inflection point — which prompted an intelligence officials to file a whistleblower complaint that triggered the current House impeachment inquiry — came during a phone call between Trump and Zelensky on July 25, in which Trump urged Zelensky to investigate 2016 election matters and Biden, the former vice president and the leading Democratic candidate for President at the time.