President Trump “mentioned to me, in the past, that the corruption related to the DNC server?” Mulvaney said. “Absolutely, no question about that. But that’s it. And that’s why we held up the money.”
He later drew a very careful boundary, though: The corruption that spurred the withholding of aid didn’t include the Trump team’s unfounded allegations about former vice president Joe Biden. That’s an important distinction to draw, given that soliciting foreign aid for a campaign is explicitly illegal.
Later, Mulvaney separated corruption from the DNC server more explicitly.
“I was involved with the process by which the money was held up temporarily, okay?” he said after his admission about the quid pro quo. “Three issues for that: The corruption in the country, whether or not other countries were participating in support of Ukraine, and whether or not they were cooperating in an ongoing investigation with our Department of Justice.”
There you go, straight from the West Wing.
Now here are the myriad reasons this rationale makes no sense.
First of all, it’s incredibly disingenuous to claim that corruption was a central reason for withholding the aid but that it had “absolutely nothing to do with Biden.” The most recent example of that being unlikely: On Thursday morning, E.U. Ambassador Gordon Sondland told House investigators that Trump had insisted that Sondland follow Trump attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani’s lead on Ukraine and that, when he spoke with Giuliani on the phone before aid was reinstated, Giuliani mentioned the company for which Joe Biden’s son had been working and which is at the center of those debunked allegations.
But that’s just what happened on the same day as Mulvaney’s statement. There’s a surfeit of evidence that Trump’s and Giuliani’s interest in corruption in Ukraine went no further than his Biden theory. His publicly stated concern about corruption broadly was all-but-non-existent before the emergence of the Ukraine issue. During his call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on July 25, Trump didn’t mention corruption at all. When Zelensky raised the subject, Trump offered one purported example of it: Biden. After the call became public, Trump was asked whether he’d ever called for a corruption probe that didn’t involve a political opponent. He said he would “have to look.”
Yet Mulvaney assures us that corruption was a rationale for halting aid and that Biden wasn’t.
Bear in mind that the line from the White House has for weeks been that the July 25 Ukraine call didn’t involve a quid pro quo. What Mulvaney’s saying is that the place where there appeared to be a quid pro quo actually was a quid pro quo. That was the exchange in which Zelensky floated buying more weapons from Trump — military aid — and Trump replied by saying he needed Zelensky to “do us a favor though”: Look into that server. The White House kept saying there wasn’t a quid pro quo. Now it says there was, and it was this, and it was good.
That brings us to the investigation itself. It is, according to Mulvaney, the probe announced by Attorney General William P. Barr in May, which is intended to look at the origins of the investigation into Russian interference that spanned the end of the 2016 campaign and the first two years of Trump’s presidency. Mulvaney claims that aid was halted in part to encourage Ukraine to assist that probe, specifically where it overlaps with the hacking of the DNC network.
By the way, the Justice Department told ABC News that it wasn’t aware of the effort to pressure Ukraine into aiding that investigation.
The other thing about Mulvaney’s claim is that there’s already been a robust investigation into the hacking of the DNC network: the one completed by former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. The Mueller team obtained an indictment against numerous Russian agents for having allegedly accessed the DNC network (among others), gotten into the email of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman and having then distributed that information both directly and through WikiLeaks. It’s a lengthy indictment, involving very specific information about what occurred, including search results from a Russian computer in which a hacker looked up terms that later appeared on a site sharing the stolen material.
Trump waves all of this away in his call with Zelensky.
“As you saw yesterday, that whole nonsense ended with a very poor performance by a man named Robert Mueller, an incompetent performance,” he said, referring to Mueller’s July 24 testimony before Congress. “But they say a lot of it started with Ukraine. Whatever you can do, it’s important that you do it if that’s possible.”
How did “a lot of it” start in Ukraine? It’s not clear that Trump can explain that, because what he asked from Zelensky was the following: “I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say Crowdstrike … I guess you have one of your wealthy people … The server, they say Ukraine has it. There are a lot of things that went on, the whole situation.” The ellipses are in the White House’s original rough transcript (and have prompted a number of questions of their own).
Trump is probably aware, however tangentially, of an existing conspiracy that suggests some sort of malfeasance or error on the part of CrowdStrike, a cybersecurity firm that conducted an initial analysis of the DNC hacking. In broad strokes, the theory — for which there’s no evidence — is not much more complicated than that CrowdStrike was looped in to cover up what actually happened. As journalist Marcy Wheeler explains, there’s a slightly more evolved theory involving an assertion about the exclusiveness of the tool CrowdStrike used to pinpoint Russia’s involvement — a determination rendered moot by the broader Mueller probe. (Wheeler also points out that Trump’s first homeland security adviser has stated publicly that the government attributed the hacking to Russia, independent of CrowdStrike.)
Trump overlays a more exotic theory linking CrowdStrike to a wealthy Ukrainian using multiple tenuous degrees of separation, an indicator that the president probably has only a vague sense of what he’s actually alleging. What’s particularly interesting about this is that it’s the only clear link Trump offers between the DNC hacking and “corruption.” For Mulvaney’s argument about how the quid pro quo was rationalized to make sense, there has to be some link between the hacking and some center of power in Ukraine. That link? A co-founder of CrowdStrike is a fellow with an organization that receives funding from a foundation linked to a Ukrainian oligarch. This, Mulvaney argues, is the corruption that was so important that it was a rationale for halting hundreds of millions of dollars of aid.
There’s no question that Russian actors have sought to propagate the idea that the country wasn’t involved in the hacking. (Here, for example, is a story to that end from Sputnik, which is linked to the Kremlin.) There’s also no question that Trump has repeatedly embraced that argument at least in broad terms, waving away multiple ongoing determinations about Russia’s efforts in 2016.
What Trump wants generally, it seems, is some new evidence that might cast doubt on evidence of Russia’s culpability. The rationale probably isn’t simply to exonerate Russia, but instead to impugn his perceived political enemies. There’s certainly a case to be made that a push for evidence that undermines Mueller’s investigation is itself political, given how Trump would use it both immediately and in 2020.
We’re at the point now where we must cut through the weeds a bit. Accepting Mulvaney’s presentation means accepting all of the above as rational or factual. Or we can accept a simpler idea: Trump wanted Ukraine to investigate a possible 2020 opponent and (indirectly) Mueller’s investigation, and he withheld aid out of pique and/or for leverage.
You may make your own determination about which makes more sense.