To be sure, there have long been grounds for suspecting Trump froze $391 million in military aid to leverage Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky into carrying out Trump’s political bidding. But the new reporting gets closer to confirming it.
The key revelation is that Mulvaney was the official who carried out Trump’s directive to freeze the funds. This came a week before Trump’s July 25 call, in which he pressured Zelensky to carry out “investigations” designed to undercut the fact of Russian sabotage of the 2016 election, and to manufacture smears of potential 2020 opponent Joe Biden.
As the Times puts it, Trump “directed” Mulvaney “days ahead of the call to place a hold on the aid.”
But did Mulvaney know why Trump had done this? The Times answers that question as follows:
Mr. Mulvaney has told associates that the administration paused the aid to try to push Ukraine to more robustly fight corruption, not in connection with pressuring Ukraine to uncover dirt on of Mr. Trump’s political rivals.
This is supposed to be exonerating, but it’s an important concession. If true, Mulvaney has privately acknowledged a direct link between the freeze of the military aid and Trump’s pressure on Ukraine to fight “corruption.”
Mulvaney is still maintaining that he didn’t understand Trump’s demand to investigate “corruption” as a demand to carry out the political scheme Trump had hatched.
But there is already extensive evidence out there on the public record that renders this highly implausible.
The public statements
First, there are the multiple public statements from Trump lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani — and Trump himself.
In early May, Giuliani laid out the whole plot in an interview with the Times. Giuliani confirmed he planned to urge Zelensky to pursue investigations designed to fortify a conspiracy theory undercutting the fact of Russian interference, and to push a false narrative involving the role of Biden’s son on the board of Ukrainian company Burisma.
Giuliani claimed these things would be “very helpful to my client,” i.e., Trump. And at the time, Giuliani repeatedly tweeted demands that Ukraine investigate Biden. Trump himself railed on Fox in May about the invented narrative of Biden corruption in Ukraine.
All that occurred before Mulvaney carried out Trump’s directive to freeze the aid. It deeply strains credulity that Mulvaney would not have known about these things, or would not have understood their relevance to Trump’s subsequent demands for an investigation of Ukraine “corruption.”
Second, there are the texts released by Democrats. They show that just before the July 25 call, Ambassador Kurt Volker told an aide to Zelensky that the White House had indicated Zelensky could get a White House meeting — if he did an investigation that would uncover the supposed truth about 2016.
That confirms that just after the military aid was frozen, the White House and Volker were communicating that Trump’s demand for investigations of “corruption” was actually a demand to fortify Trumpworld’s favorite conspiracy theory about 2016 — a key Trump political demand.
And in multiple subsequent texts, Volker and Ambassador Gordon Sondland, who was operating at Trump’s direction, worked to get what Sondland called the “deliverable,” a statement from Ukraine pledging to investigate Burisma, the fabricated tale about Biden. Sondland is expected to testify Thursday that for months before the call, he was working to secure that commitment from Ukraine — to investigate Biden.
In these particular cases, the quid pro quo discussed was for the meeting. But what all this also confirms is that, by “investigate corruption,” Trump really meant, “investigate Biden.” Indeed, Ambassador William Taylor twice objected to what was happening on precisely those grounds.
Mulvaney almost certainly knew of all of this.
Mulvaney’s role in meetings
Underscoring that further, The Post reports that Mulvaney was directly involved in numerous discussions with Sondland about the evolving plot, and sat in on meetings between Trump and Giuliani at precisely the time Giuliani was explicitly pushing for the Ukrainian investigation of Biden.
In this larger context, Mulvaney’s private admission that the freeze in military aid was tied directly to Trump’s demand for an investigation of “corruption” becomes a lot more important. Because Mulvaney surely knew what “investigate corruption” really meant, it strongly suggests Mulvaney knew that for Trump, the military aid — which Mulvaney himself froze — also turned on whether Zelensky carried out the politically-motivated investigations Trump wanted.
For this not to be true, Mulvaney would have had to be unaware of numerous public statements from Giuliani and Trump. He would have had to be clueless about what Sondland, Volker, Giuliani — and, of course, Trump — really wanted after being involved in multiple discussions with them that directly concerned how to make Trump happy with what Ukraine was doing for him.
That seems unlikely at best. And it suggests we’ll be learning more soon enough — perhaps confirming that Sanders got the bigger story exactly right.