A few days prior, we had walked through all the points at which administration officials hinted at or explicitly identified an effort to trade either a White House meeting or that aid for investigations into former vice president Joe Biden or an element of the probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
There is that whistleblower, who indicated he had heard that a meeting between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky depended on his “playing ball” with the investigations. There was Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland following Mulvaney’s lead in tying a meeting to new investigations at a July 10 meeting, as reported by a former administration official. There was Trump himself in his July 25 call with Zelensky, responding to Zelensky’s mention of buying weapons with a request for a favor: investigating a theory Trump has embraced about the hacking of the Democratic National Committee three years ago.
That was just through the end of the July. We identified eight other possible links or expressed concerns through the middle of last month.
So when Mulvaney said Thursday that military and economic aid to Ukraine was withheld in part because of “corruption related to the DNC server,” it wasn’t a stunning revelation but a stunning admission. An admission that seemed as if it might even be calibrated to undercut concerns central to the impeachment inquiry hanging over the White House: Arguing that the DNC server issue was the predicate for the aid being halted meant that the predicate wasn’t that investigation into Biden. Mulvaney explicitly denied a connection between aid and a desired Biden investigation when speaking on Thursday. By focusing on just the DNC hacking, perhaps Mulvaney hoped to undercut allegations of Trump’s having violated campaign finance law by seeking information central to the 2020 race from a foreign power.
If that was the goal, it didn’t work. Mulvaney’s admission simply served to undercut the “there was no quid pro quo” claims that had been a key part of Trump’s defense. Mulvaney tried to argue a few hours later that he had never used the term “quid pro quo,” as though that was somehow exculpatory, but it doesn’t seem to have convinced anyone.
On Sunday, he gave it another go. Appearing on Fox News’s “Fox News Sunday” with host Chris Wallace, Mulvaney was pressed to explain his clumsy rationalization for the halting of the aid.
“There were two reasons that we held up the aid,” Mulvaney said: corruption concerns and funding from foreign countries. When the White House was satisfied that other countries were giving aid to Ukraine, the aid was released. That this decision occurred on Sept. 11, shortly before the whistleblower complaint centered on Ukraine came to light, was simply a coincidence.
In the news conference, Mulvaney identified that DNC investigation as a third reason. In fact, it’s the reason he most directly linked to withholding the aid. Wallace pointed this out, playing that portion of Mulvaney’s news conference.
“I did then mention that in the past, the president had mentioned [to me from time to time] about the DNC server,” Mulvaney said. “He had mentioned the DNC server to other people publicly. He even mentioned it to President Zelensky in the phone call, but it wasn’t connected to the aid.”
That’s not actually true. Zelensky mentioned aid in the form of Ukraine buying U.S. antitank missiles. Trump responded by saying he needed a “favor, though” — referring to that investigation into the DNC server.
An “investigation into the DNC server” is what we’re calling it, but it’s actually less straightforward than that phrase would suggest. Trump and his allies are looking for evidence that would undermine the origins of the investigation into Russian interference — a probe that eventually included assessments of how Trump’s own campaign might have been involved. That investigation was a focus of much of Trump’s first two years in office and a source of constant irritation for Trump. He has long embraced theories that the investigation was initiated unfairly he has sought to bolster his argument that he was wrongfully targeted by investigators.
Incidentally, the theory with the server is that, what? Maybe assessments that the Russians were responsible for hacking the DNC network were wrong? Or maybe somehow influenced by a four-degrees-away relationship between a rich Ukrainian and an American company? There’s nothing demonstrably substantive to the claim, which is itself curious. What did Trump think he would get? Or, more disconcertingly, what might the Ukrainians want to provide in order to make him happy?
“It is legitimate for the president to want to know what’s going on with the ongoing investigation into the server,” Mulvaney told Wallace. “Everybody acknowledges that — at least I think most normal people do. It’s completely legitimate to ask about that.”
Here is the 29-page indictment returned against 12 Russian nationals by then-special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s office in July 2018. The DNC hacking has been investigated thoroughly. The “ongoing investigation into the server” is a phrase meant to gloss over the fact that the hacking has been thoroughly investigated and attributed to Russia but that Trump nonetheless is hoping to dig up some politically useful reasonable doubt.
Mulvaney’s ongoing defenses of his Thursday admission amount to little more than semantic games. He said what he said on Thursday — even, at one point, saying: “I have news for everybody: Get over it. There’s going to be political influence in foreign policy.”
But he did not say “quid pro quo”!
When Wallace noted that Trump's call with Zelensky included a request for a favor and an ask that Ukraine investigate Biden, Mulvaney seized on the point.
“You said, do me a favor and then immediately to the Bidens. Go look at the transcript of the phone conversation,” Mulvaney said. “It’s, do me a favor, take a look at the DNC server. Then he talks about corruption in the Ukraine."
Gotcha, Chris Wallace. You said that Trump responded to Zelensky's mention of aid by asking for the favor of looking at Biden when really Trump said he wanted the favor of investigating the DNC hacking.
Which, again, is the quid pro quo that Mulvaney identified on Thursday.