The White House has acknowledged Donald Trump’s decision to hold up military aid to Ukraine was linked to his demand that Kiev investigate the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the 2016 US presidential campaign.
The admission from acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney undercut the President’s position that there was no quid pro quo during Mr Trump’s phone call with the Ukraine president that sparked the Congress impeachment investigation.
Mr Trump’s lawyer distanced the President from Mr Mulvaney’s account and the Justice Department said the explanation was news to them.
Democrats cast Mr Mulvaney’s remarks as further evidence of wrongdoing as Mr Trump sought a “favour” from Ukraine.
Mr Trump, traveling in Texas, appeared to stand by his top aide, calling Mr Mulvaney a “good man”.
“I have a lot of confidence” in him, Mr Trump said.
But Mr Mulvaney’s initial remarks, made during a rare appearance by an administration official in the White House briefing room, spun open a new phase of the impeachment inquiry.
He indicated that a quid pro quo was at play for the military aid — but a different one than Democrats initially highlighted as they probed Mr Trump’s efforts to have Ukraine investigate a company linked to the son of his Democratic rival Joe Biden.
Mr Trump, as shown in a rough transcript of the July call with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, sought help in investigating not only the firm tied to Mr Biden, but also a security company hired by the DNC that discovered that Russian agents had broken into the committee’s network.
The stolen emails were subsequently published by WikiLeaks ahead of the 2016 election.
“The look back to what happened in 2016 certainly was part of the thing that he was worried about in corruption with that nation,” Mr Mulvaney told reporters.
“Did he also mention to me in the past the corruption that related to the DNC server? Absolutely, no question about that,” Mr Mulvaney continued. “That’s why we held up the money.”
Mr Trump’s personal lawyer Jay Sekulow issued a pointed statement distancing the president’s legal team from Mr Mulvaney’s comments.
“The President’s legal counsel was not involved in acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney’s press briefing,” it said.
Within hours, Mr Mulvaney issued a separate statement claiming his remarks were misconstrued.
“Let me be clear, there was absolutely no quid pro quo between Ukrainian military aid and any investigation into the 2016 election,” he said. “The president never told me to withhold any money until the Ukrainians did anything related to the server.”
But it may be difficult to erase what Mr Mulvaney said as House Democrats dig into their investigation.
Democrat Adam Schiff, the chairman of the Intelligence Committee leading the impeachment probe, said, “I think Mr Mulvaney’s acknowledgment means that things have gone from very, very bad to much, much worse.”
Mr Mulvaney, who has already received a subpoena for documents in the impeachment probe, will now likely be asked by investigators to appear for a deposition.