In that initial statement, Mulvaney blithely admitted the military aid had been withheld partly to get Ukraine to investigate “what happened in 2016.” The fringe conspiracy theory long subscribed to by Trump holds that a Democratic National Committee server in Ukraine shows that Ukraine hacked Democrats’ emails and set up Russia to take the blame for sabotaging the election for Trump.
When a reporter pointed out to Mulvaney that this is a “quid pro quo,” he responded: “We do that all the time.”
There was absolutely no quid pro quo between Ukrainian military aid and any investigation into the 2016 election. The president never told me to withhold any money until the Ukrainians did anything related to the server. The only reasons we were holding the money was because of concern about lack of support from other nations and concerns over corruption.
Many have poked holes in this by noting that Mulvaney frankly admitted to the quid pro quo at just the moment when he didn’t realize how damning it was.
But there’s another reason this walkback is highly implausible: The timeline of events shows that again and again, over many months, Trump and his lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani publicly talked about this very conspiracy theory or variants and offshoots of it — in some cases calling on Ukraine to investigate them — along with another set of lies designed to debilitate potential opponent Joe Biden.
Given this public record, it’s impossible to imagine that this wasn’t on Trump’s mind when he froze the aid.
Let’s go to the timeline
Trump floated this theory as early as April 2017. In an interview with the Associated Press, Trump noted that the DNC brought in cybersecurity firm Crowdstrike, “owned by a very rich Ukrainian,” to investigate the hack, asking: “Why didn’t they allow the FBI to investigate the server?”
We also know Trump privately obsessed over this theory for a long time. Former Homeland Security adviser Thomas Bossert recently told ABC News that Giuliani has “repeatedly” bombarded Trump with it, lamenting that it “sticks in his mind when he hears it over and over again.”
Giuliani, too, has repeatedly aired this theory in public for months. In early April, he floated a version of it on Fox News, and also aired the debunked idea that Biden improperly tried to get a prosecutor in Ukraine removed to protect his son.
In early May, Giuliani talked extensively to the New York Times about his elaborate plan to get Ukraine to investigate yet another aspect of the conspiracy theory — the debunked notion that Ukraine colluded with Hillary Clinton by digging dirt on former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort — as well as the Biden angle. Giuliani flatly declared this would be “helpful to my client,” i.e., Trump.
Later in May, Trump railed on Fox News about the debunked Biden narrative. Giuliani publicly demanded Ukraine investigate the Bidens in May and in June. And on his July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Trump explicitly pushed for investigations into the Crowdstrike and Biden theories, and not for an investigation of “corruption.”
The bottom line
Given this long-running public obsession with getting Ukraine to investigate this bundle of theories, it’s simply impossible to believe Trump withheld the military aid only because of a generic concern about corruption.
We’re actually supposed to believe that suddenly, at the very moment when he acted to maximize his leverage over Ukraine — by freezing the aid — these theories were nowhere present in his mind, which was then preoccupied only with that generic corruption.
And then there’s Ambassador Gordon Sondland’s testimony. He admitted to House investigators that Giuliani, acting at Trump’s direction, demanded that Ukraine publicly commit to investigate the debunked Crowdstrike and Biden theories as a condition for a White House meeting.
We’re supposed to believe Trump was willing to use the meeting to secure those things, but at the very moment when he really cranked up his leverage, he suddenly wasn’t thinking about them?
In this broader context, Mulvaney’s walkback is more incriminating than it first appears. By frankly conceding that the military aid was frozen out of “concerns over corruption,” he’s admitting it was used as leverage. Taken alongside the implausibility of the idea that the animating concern was corruption, this opens the door to the broader conclusion.
Given the overwhelming public evidence that what Trump and Giuliani really wanted investigated was that bundle of conspiracy theories, that conclusion is increasingly inescapable: Hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid were leveraged to pressure Ukraine to help corrupt the factual record about the 2016 election, and to corrupt the 2020 election on Trump’s behalf as well.