In a news conference, Mulvaney for the first time conceded that the lack of a Ukrainian inquiry into the origins of the Russia investigation played a role in the United States withholding military aid from it over “corruption” issues.
“[Did] he also mention 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. ... The look back to what happened in 2016 certainly was part of the thing that he was worried about in corruption with that nation. And that is absolutely appropriate.”
Mulvaney said Trump had not, however, had a similar quid pro quo involving the other investigation he desired — the one involving the Bidens. “The money held up had absolutely nothing to do with Biden,” he said.
Mulvaney didn’t directly use the phrase “quid pro quo,” but he didn’t take issue with it, either.
“We do that all the time with foreign policy,” he said when it was pointed out that he appeared to be describing a quid pro quo. He added: "I have news for everybody: Get over it. There’s going to be political influence in foreign policy.”
The White House issued a statement from Mulvaney late Thursday afternoon, in which he claimed the media misconstrued his remarks.
“Let me be clear, there was absolutely no quid pro quo between Ukrainian military aid and any investigation into the 2016 election,” he said in the statement. “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 . . . There never was any condition on the flow of the aid related to the matter of the DNC server.”
But in the moment, instead of disputing it, Mulvaney suggested this particular quid pro quo was par for the course when it comes to foreign policy. He compared it to withholding aid to the Northern Triangle countries in Central America — El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala — to get them to reduce the flow of undocumented immigrants. He also likened it to Trump complaining about giving aid to Puerto Rico, which, like Ukraine, has issues with corruption.
“That’s absolutely ordinary course of business. This is what you do,” Mulvaney said, adding: “This is the ordinary course of foreign policy.”
The parallels with the Northern Triangle countries and Puerto Rico, though, are limited. The United States has an obvious interest in protecting its border, which was particularly the case earlier this year when the flow of people rapidly accelerated. There is a clear policy interest — and one that administrations of both parties would share. Similarly, there are legitimate issues involving Puerto Rico and corruption (regardless of whether you think such aid should be withheld from a U.S. territory over it).
In the case of the origins of the Russia probe, by contrast, there is a much more obvious personal angle for Trump. Trump has lodged a number of conspiracy theories about Ukraine allegedly falsely implicating Russia in the 2016 election interference, despite the U.S. intelligence community and special counsel Robert S. Mueller III having found Russia culpable. Trump may argue there is a public and governmental interest in finding out how the probe was launched, but there is absolutely no question this is his personal hobby horse — and an investigation that he could use to his great personal advantage.
There is also no question that Trump and the White House have previously denied any kind of a quid pro quo. Trump has stated that and referred to supposed evidence that there wasn’t one.
“There was no quid pro quo,” Trump said Sept. 22. “There was nothing.”
“There was no quid pro quo, but there was with Biden, and there was with these senators,” Trump said Sept. 25.
“There was no quid pro quo,” he said again Oct. 2.
He also repeatedly tweeted other people who said the same.
The fact that Mulvaney sought to separate the now-acknowledged quid pro quo from the issue of the Bidens is also telling. In that case, Trump’s personal interest is even more obvious, because it involves the candidate who led in 2020 Democratic primary polls until recently and fares the best against him in early general election polls.
The issue involving Ukraine and the origins of the Russia probe is more complicated. There’s also a U.S. Justice Department investigation into it, with Attorney General William P. Barr getting involved. But it’s important to note that however opaque that issue might be, Trump’s own personal interest in it is completely transparent. He has been calling the Russia investigation a “witch hunt” for two years and has repeatedly highlighted Ukraine as a place where that could be proved.
The Democrats “get hacked, and the FBI goes to see them, and they won’t let the FBI see their server,” Trump said in April 2017, adding: “They brought in another company that I hear is Ukrainian-based. That’s what I heard. I heard it’s owned by a very rich Ukrainian.”
He brought it up again in an interview with the Washington Examiner. Then, in July 2017, he tweeted about “Ukrainian efforts to sabotage the Trump campaign.”
People familiar with the president’s thinking said he has come to suspect the DNC server hacked by Russian intelligence agents in 2016 may have been hidden in Ukraine. The president has been known to embrace conspiracy theories, but it wasn’t immediately clear how he reached that belief about the DNC server or how that would even have been physically possible.
In June 2017, the conservative news site Daily Caller said “a cloud of doubt (was) hanging over the DNC’s Russia narrative” in part due to the involvement by CrowdStrike, which it said was “Funded By Clinton-Loving Google $$." A month later, the conservative Washington Times wrote that “CrowdStrike’s evidence for blaming Russia for the hack is thin."
That theory has been boosted by [Roger] Stone, Trump’s longtime adviser, who has argued in legal filings this year that CrowdStrike’s analysis was fatally compromised. Stone and others in Trump’s orbit have alleged without evidence that Democratic insiders spearheaded the breach.
Trump’s mention of CrowdStrike suggests he still doubts the intelligence community’s findings of Russian involvement.
So why did Mulvaney come out and admit it? It seems likely because the evidence increasingly points in that direction. Better to get ahead of it and combat the idea that what did happen was corrupt.
But that doesn’t change the fact that this disclosure was slow-coming — and apparently it was slow-coming for a reason.