The key word there is “witness.” Purpura is referring only to the 17 witnesses who offered direct testimony during the impeachment investigation — and he’s limiting the scope of his claim to that group for a good reason.
There are two examples from administration officials outside that pool of Trump linking aid to the investigations he sought.
One was revealed Sunday, with the New York Times’s report that former national security adviser John Bolton reveals in his upcoming book that Trump specifically tied aid to Ukraine to the investigations during a meeting in August. But there’s another example, one that’s already public, if not included in the House evidence.
In October, acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney explicitly tied the aid to the investigations Trump sought during a news conference at the White House. Mulvaney was trying to defend Trump’s interactions with Zelensky, outlined in the rough transcript the White House released in September, as reflecting the president’s concern about corruption in Ukraine.
“He’s like, ‘Look, this is a corrupt place,’ ” Mulvaney said, describing a conversation with Trump. “ ‘I don’t want to send them a bunch of money and have them waste it, have them spend it, have them use it to line their own pockets. Plus, I’m not sure that the other European countries are helping them out either.’ ”
This claim is dubious, given how infrequently Trump discussed corruption at all before the emergence of the Ukraine scandal. It’s additionally dubious because Trump had cleared aid to Ukraine in prior years and because the administration had already certified that Ukraine had met necessary benchmarks in confronting corruption by June of last year.
Later, he also claimed that Trump was frustrated about the United States bearing more of the burden of aid to Ukraine than Europe, which, like corruption, Trump himself had offered as rationales for his actions at the time the scandal erupted.
“As vocal as the Europeans are about supporting Ukraine, they are really, really stingy when it comes to lethal aid,” Mulvaney said. “And they weren’t helping Ukraine, and then still to this day are not. And the president did not like that. I know it’s a long answer to your question, but I’m still going.”
He did, indeed, keep going.
“So that was — those were the driving factors,” he said.
And then he added one more thing.
“Did he also mention to me in [passing] the corruption related to the DNC server? Absolutely. No question about that,” Mulvaney said. “But that’s it. And that’s why we held up the money.”
Students of Trump’s July 25 call with Zelensky will recognize the issue summarized by Mulvaney as “corruption related to the DNC server.” On the call, Trump pressed Zelensky to launch an investigation into a deeply weird theory that Ukraine had somehow been involved in falsely blaming Russia for hacking a server belonging to the Democratic National Committee during the 2016 campaign. The theory makes no sense, given other obvious evidence linking Russia to the hacking and given that Trump consistently misunderstands how the DNC network actually worked. (It didn’t use a physical server, for example.) What’s more, the link between the server and Ukraine is incredibly thin, winding its way through multiple degrees of separation.
Regardless, Mulvaney’s admission was significant. Trump, Mulvaney claimed, said that the “corruption” in Ukraine about which he was concerned included consideration of the server. That’s probably true; he’d made the odd assertion linking the server to Ukraine as far back as April 2017. But Mulvaney went further, saying that this “corruption” was part of why aid to Ukraine was halted. And not only did he make that claim, he said it was “absolutely” part of the decision on aid — “no question” about it.
Reporters in the room quickly jumped on the comment. So aid was halted because of this investigation he wanted?
“The look back to what happened in 2016 certainly was part of the thing that he was worried about in corruption with that nation,” Mulvaney said. “And that is absolutely appropriate.”
In the abstract, having Ukraine investigate some unfounded theory seems almost innocuous. To Trump, though, it was an opportunity to have someone else join him in one of his favorite causes: framing the investigation into Russian interference as unfounded, biased and conspiratorial. If Trump could say that Ukraine shared his skepticism, it would be a significant step toward dissipating the cloud he saw lingering over his presidency.
“To be clear,” ABC News’s Jonathan Karl replied, “what you just described is a quid pro quo. It is: Funding will not flow unless the investigation into the Democratic server happens as well.”
“We do that all the time with foreign policy,” Mulvaney replied. “I have news for everybody: Get over it,” he added later. “There’s going to be political influence in foreign policy.”
Mulvaney was later asked if asking for an investigation that involved the Democratic Party was appropriate.
“So you’re saying the president of the United States, the chief law enforcement person, cannot ask somebody to cooperate with an ongoing public investigation into wrongdoing?” Mulvaney replied, pointing to a Justice Department investigation into the origins of the Russia probe. “That’s just bizarre to me that you would think that you can’t do that.”
Of course, on the July 25 call, Trump didn’t point Zelensky to the Justice Department investigation when talking about the DNC server. Instead, he offered to connect Zelensky to his personal attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani.
Later, Mulvaney reiterated the claim once again.
“There were three — three factors. Again — I was involved with the — the process by which the money was held up temporarily, okay?” he said. “Three issues for that: the corruption in the country, whether or not other countries were participating in the support of the Ukraine and whether or not they were cooperating in an ongoing investigation with our Department of Justice. That’s completely legitimate.”
Obviously, the White House soon realized that Mulvaney’s assertions were problematic. Later on the day of the news conference, he released a statement that insisted he hadn’t admitted to any quid pro quo.
That statement became a central part of how Trump’s impeachment team pushed away questions about Mulvaney’s linking the aid to the investigations Trump sought.
Lead impeachment manager Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) “also suggested that there is evidence of some connection between the military assistance and investigations into 2016 election interference because of a statement that acting chief of staff Mulvaney made at a press conference,” Trump’s attorney Patrick Philbin said Wednesday. “But that has been — it’s been clear in the record since that press conference that what he was saying was garbled and or misunderstood.”
“He immediately clarified,” Philbin continued, “and said on that day, quote, The president never told me to withhold any money until the Ukrainians did anything related to the server. End quote.”
We’ll remind you that Mulvaney’s comments were not garbled. He said explicitly that Trump had mentioned the server in the context of corruption and that corruption led to the halt in aid. He added that this was “absolutely” the case, that there was “no question” this chain existed. Asked about it, he told reporters to “get over it.”
That slogan ended up on T-shirts sold by Trump’s campaign.
Later, another question from Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) — “How do you respond to the House manager’s allegation that Mr. Mulvaney supported their claims in his press conference?” — led Trump’s team to revisit the question.
Purpura read Mulvaney’s statement from the day of the news conference in its entirety.
“Once again, the media has decided to misconstrue my comments to advance a biased and political witch hunt against President Trump. Let me be clear: 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. Multiple times during the more than 30-minute briefing where I took over 25 questions, I referred to President Trump’s interest in rooting out corruption in Ukraine and ensuring taxpayer dollars are spent responsibly and appropriately.There was never any connection between the funds and the Ukrainians doing anything with the server. This was made explicitly obvious by the fact that the aid money was delivered without any action on the part of the Ukrainians regarding the server. There was never any condition on the flow of the aid related to the matter of the DNC server.”
One thing that stands out in that statement is the specificity of the denial. The word “server” appears four times; the denials of a link to the aid are generally offered in the context specifically of the server. What’s more, while he specifically detailed three reasons for holding the aid during the news conference, including the 2016 investigation Trump demanded of Zelensky, the later statement narrowed it to two.
This, of course, is why Democrats want Mulvaney to testify under oath. Despite his unprompted, confrontational, direct news conference comments, Mulvaney’s tailored, considered statement allows Trump’s defenders to argue that his comments were misinterpreted.
You may be the judge of that. Without Mulvaney testifying, though, the conflict between what he said and his later effort to clean it up will linger.