Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney insists he did not admit to wrongdoing by President Trump after comments he made during a marathon press briefing Thursday were interpreted as evidence of a quid pro quo linking military aid to Ukraine with an investigation of potential Ukrainian involvement with Democrats during the 2016 election.
Democrats have accused Trump of temporarily delaying $391 million in aid in order to leverage Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky into helping the probe. Mulvaney seemed to indicate that the two were connected, but now he claims it was a misunderstanding.
“That’s what people are saying that I said, but I didn’t say that,” Mulvaney claimed on “Fox News Sunday,” insisting that his words were taken the wrong way. Mulvaney acknowledged that President Trump had mentioned concern regarding Ukraine and the Democratic National Committee’s hacked server, “but it wasn’t connected to the aid.”
The confusion over whether or not Mulvaney had admitted to a quid pro quo stemmed from an exchange with ABC News reporter Jon Karl. Karl asked if the investigation of Ukraine’s possible ties to Democrats during the 2016 election was connected to the withholding of the money, stating that this would be a quid pro quo.
“We do that all the time with foreign policy,” Mulvaney said. He later issued a statement saying that “there was absolutely no quid pro quo between Ukrainian military aid and any investigation into the 2016 election.”
The investigation request was part of a phone call between the two world leaders, but both Trump and Zelensky have insisted there was no pressure involved. The call was the basis for an anonymous whistleblower complaint that has become the basis for an impeachment investigation that has included several closed-door interviews with officials related to U.S.-Ukraine relations. The complaint also alleged that Trump wanted Ukraine to help Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani investigate Joe Biden and his son Hunter’s business dealings with Ukrainian energy company Burisma Holdings.
Sunday morning, Mulvaney claimed that the best proof that there was no quid pro quo is the fact that the Trump administration ended up turning over the money.
“The aid flowed,” Mulvaney said, stating that the money went through once the Trump administration was satisfied with two things: Ukrainian efforts to control corruption in the country, and other nations’ financial support for Ukraine.
“Once those two things were cleared, the money flowed,” Mulvaney said. He also pointed to the July 25 phone call between Trump and Zelensky that sparked interest in a possible quid pro quo, stating that nothing in the call connected the aid to the investigation.
“Go back to what actually happened in the real world," he said. “Go back to the phone call.”
Host Chris Wallace pointed out that during the briefing, Mulvaney said there were three factors, not two, and that they were corruption in the country, whether or not other countries were paying, and whether or not there was help with the investigation.
Mulvaney said that it was all part of "legitimate" areas of interest.
“No. 1, it is legitimate for the president to want to know what’s going on with the ongoing investigation into the server … it is completely legitimate to ask about that. No. 2, it’s legitimate to tie the aid to corruption, it’s legitimate to tie the aid to foreign aid from other countries. That’s what I was talking about with the three. Can I see how people took that the wrong way? Absolutely. But I never said there was a quid pro quo, because there isn’t.”
Mulvaney responded by focusing not on what he said, but “the facts on the ground.”
“Go back to what actually happened in the real world,” Mulvaney said. “Go back to the phone call.”
After Mulvaney’s Thursday briefing, a senior Department of Justice official said they had had no knowledge of any connection between the aid and any DOJ investigation.
“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 said.
Wallace asked Mulvaney if he ever considering resigning after Thursday’s briefing.
“Absolutely not,” he said.
Mulvaney also touched on the controversy surrounding President Trump's decision to withdraw American troops from northern Syria, which was followed by Turkish violence against Kurds in the region. The Trump administration negotiated terms for a 120-hour cease-fire, which both sides now accuse the other of violating.
Republican leaders have spoken out against Trump's decision to withdraw from the region, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell recently calling it a "grave" mistake.
Mulvaney said Trump "recognizes the fact that it's not politically popular in this town to make the decision that he made to move the troops out of Syria," but he promised to do it when he ran for president, and now he is doing it. Mulvaney downplayed any reduction in support for Trump among the GOP, pointing instead to what he said is an increase of support in swing states.