Today, Mulvaney is President Trump’s top aide, and he is embroiled in a scandal involving Ukraine. Evidence is building that he played a central role in holding up military aid to the eastern European country and coordinated a shadow diplomacy effort aimed at securing politically helpful investigations there for Trump. Two White House aides testified recently that Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union, even told Ukrainian officials that Mulvaney had blessed the quid pro quo he communicated to them in July.
A big question with Mulvaney is whether that skepticism and stinginess with aid might have led him to take his own steps to withhold it, or whether this truly was just about a boss who was eager to squeeze a U.S. ally for political assistance.
It seems possible that it was some kind of a politically destructive combination.
After Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, Mulvaney didn’t dismiss the Russia sanctions and Ukraine aid package out of hand. In fact, he suggested that the Obama administration’s initial sanctions against Russia were too timid and accused it of paving the way for Russia’s invasion by projecting weakness.
“I don’t think the administration has mishandled the current situation,” he said on a March 19, 2014, interview with WCRS-AM. “I think the difficulty with the current administration is what’s happened for the past five years. Any time you project weakness, as we have done for the last five years, it encourages people to do things you don’t want them to do.”
But when the House voted on additional sanctions against Russia and direct U.S. assistance to Ukraine on March 27, Mulvaney voted against it. And in explaining his vote, he suggested it had to do with suspicions about Ukraine.
“We assume that there are good and bad guys in every fight,” he said at an April 2014 town hall meeting, according to a local report. “My starting point is that if I don’t know who you are, I assume you’re a bad guy.”
Mulvaney’s concern about sending money to Ukraine wasn’t exactly unique. One of the central events that set off the current Ukraine scandal was when then Vice President Joe Biden, the following year, threatened to withhold $1 billion in loan guarantees to Ukraine if it didn’t fire a top prosecutor who the West viewed as weak on corruption.
But whether through skepticism of Ukraine, a general opposition to foreign aid or some other combination of factors, Mulvaney found a way to vote against that money much earlier.
Fast forward to his time as OMB director, and in May 2017 he announced that Ukraine was among a handful of countries in which military grants would be converted to loans. That same year, he halted the sale of Javelins to Ukraine for a brief time, former White House official Catherine Croft said. She said Mulvaney did so by citing Russia.
“In a briefing with Mick Mulvaney, the question centered around the Russian reaction,” she testified, adding that the concern was “that Russia would react negatively to the provision of Javelins to Ukraine.”
It "was rather unusual to have OMB expressing concerns that were purely policy-based and not budget-oriented,” Croft added.
It’s not clear whether the withholding of the Javelins was part of any similar leveraging of Ukraine or whether it was perhaps Mulvaney acting on his previous inclinations. And given his 2014 vote, you could make a plausible argument that it was the latter.
You could also make a pretty compelling argument, though, that his posture toward Ukraine and foreign aid made him an unusually willing participant in a scheme hatched by Trump and his personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani — and that he was perhaps blind to the potential political disaster scene it has created.
Mulvaney in that same 2014 interview about the Ukraine aid package acknowledged that he was a diplomatic novice. “I’m a former home builder who focuses on budget and financial services issues, so I don’t try and make myself more important than I am,” he said.
He eventually became pretty darn important. And now he and the president he serves are in quite a bit of trouble for his latest political aid decisions on Ukraine.