White House acknowledges Trump withheld Ukraine aid for political reasons
'We do that all the time with foreign policy,' acting chief of staff says
U.S. President Donald Trump's acting chief of staff on Thursday acknowledged that Trump held up $391 million US in military aid to Ukraine in part to make the money contingent upon the Ukrainians investigating a U.S. domestic political matter involving the Democratic Party.
Trump and administration officials had denied for weeks that it had demanded a "quid pro quo" — a Latin phrase meaning a favour for a favour — for delivering the U.S. aid, a key part of a controversy that has triggered an impeachment inquiry in the House of Representatives against the Republican president.
In a briefing with reporters, Mick Mulvaney, acting White House chief of staff, acknowledged that the U.S. aid was held up over Trump's concerns about a Democratic National Committee (DNC) computer server alleged to be in Ukraine.
Mulvaney has since backtracked on those initial remarks following attempts from Trump's lawyer, Jay Sekulow, to distance the Republican president from comments made by his chief of staff. Mulvaney now says there was "no quid pro quo" between Ukrainian military aid and that country's willingness to investigate the 2016 U.S. election.
In a July 25 call, Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for "a favour" to look into the server and another matter relating to the 2016 election.
Mulvaney added that Trump directed U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry to work on Ukraine policy with Trump's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani. Perry has since announced his resignation, one day before a deadline set by Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives for him to turn over documents in the impeachment probe.
Trump also asked Zelensky to investigate a domestic political opponent, Joe Biden, and Biden's son Hunter Biden, who had served as a director for Ukrainian energy company Burisma. Zelensky agreed during the call to carry out the investigation. The U.S. aid later was provided to Ukraine.
The DNC server issue is a debunked conspiracy theory that Ukraine and not Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. election and that a Democratic Party computer server was being held somewhere in Ukraine.
Mulvaney said Trump did not like foreign aid, thought Ukraine was corrupt and was annoyed at how little "lethal aid" European nations provided to Ukraine as it combated Russia-backed separatists in the eastern part of the country.
"Did he also mention to me in the past, the corruption related to the DNC server? Absolutely. No question," Mulvaney said, referring to Trump. "But that's it. That's why we held up the money."
"The look-back to what happened in 2016 certainly was part of the things that he was worried about in corruption in that nation," Mulvaney said, referring to Trump.
A reporter told Mulvaney that what he just described was a quid pro quo. "We do that all the time with foreign policy," Mulvaney responded.
Mulvaney's comments arrive at the centre of the Democrats' impeachment inquiry, which revolves around a whistleblower's complaint that Trump was pushing Zelensky into investigating the Bidens, despite it being illegal to solicit or receive foreign help in a U.S. election.
Ambassador to EU testifies
Meanwhile, Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the EU, on Thursday planned to tell House impeachment investigators that he was disappointed Trump directed him to work with the president's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, on Ukraine policy, and he believes it's wrong to invite a foreign government to conduct investigations for the purpose of influencing American elections.
Sondland is the latest in a series of witnesses to be interviewed behind closed doors by lawmakers. His appearance is especially anticipated, since text messages and other witness testimony place him at the centre of a foreign policy dialogue with Ukraine that officials feared circumvented normal channels and that is now at the centre of the House impeachment inquiry of Trump.
In prepared remarks obtained by The Associated Press, Sondland aimed to untether himself from any effort by the Republican president or Giuliani to have a political rival investigated, joining other current and former administration officials who have communicated to Congress misgivings about the Trump administration's backchannel dealings with Ukraine.
Sondland's pivotal role in the dialogue may make those assertions tough for House Democrats to accept.
The envoys, he will say, had a choice: They could abandon the goal of a White House meeting with Zelensky, something they saw as important in fostering U.S.-Ukraine relations, or they could do as Trump asked and work with Giuliani.
Though he will say the ambassadors chose the latter, he insists he did not know "until much later" that Giuliani intended to push for a probe of the Bidens "or to involve Ukrainians, directly or indirectly, in the president's 2020 re-election campaign."
'In a bad mood'
Sondland, whose name surfaced in the original whistleblower complaint, is certain to be asked about text messages that show him working with two other diplomats to navigate the interests of Trump and Giuliani.
The messages show the diplomats discussing an arrangement in which Ukraine's leader would be offered a White House visit in exchange for a public statement by Ukraine committing to undertake investigations into the 2016 U.S. presidential election and into Burisma, the gas company. Sondland is expected to insist he did not know until recently that Hunter Biden sat on the board of Burisma, the gas company at issue.
One text exchange that has attracted particular attention involves diplomat William Taylor telling Sondland he thought it was "crazy" to withhold military aid from Ukraine "for help with a political campaign." Sondland replied that Trump had been clear about his intentions and there was no quid pro quo.
Now, Sondland is prepared to tell lawmakers Trump told him by phone before he sent the text that there was no quid pro quo and he was simply parroting those reassurances to Taylor.
According to Sondland, the president denied any demands for a quid pro quo with the Ukrainians, at odds with Mulvaney's acknowledgement.
"I asked the president: 'What do you want from Ukraine?"' Sondland will say. "The president responded, 'Nothing. There is no quid pro quo.' The president repeated: 'no quid pro quo' multiple times. This was a very short call. And I recall the president was in a bad mood."
Read Sondland's opening statement:
With files from The Associated Press and CBC News