For 39 minutes Thursday, White House acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney turned the press briefing room into a sort of confession chamber, openly admitting to several acts that could deepen the legal predicament for the president. Trump is facing an impeachment inquiry into whether he has abused his office for personal and political gain.
Mulvaney’s retort to those charges came in a three-word mantra that now forms the central theme of the White House impeachment response: “Get over it.”
In admitting that Trump had personally intervened to award a multimillion-dollar summit to his own company, and that the president had also used taxpayer money as leverage to push a Ukrainian investigation into Democrats, Mulvaney embraced a classic Trumpian tactic: saying the quiet — and potentially illegal — part out loud.
But that strategy with regard to Ukraine came in for withering criticism after Mulvaney’s appearance, and he later tried to walk back his comments. In a statement late Thursday, Mulvaney denied the quid pro quo he had previously defended as appropriate and normal.
While Mulvaney came to the briefing room to announce the 2020 G-7 site, his most significant comments came when he described why Trump had intervened over the summer to block nearly $400 million in aid Congress had appropriated for Ukraine. Democrats are probing Trump’s unorthodox Ukraine policy as part of their impeachment investigation, and several members of Trump’s administration have said they were uncomfortable with the president’s use of diplomatic pressure for apparent political ends.
Mulvaney first said the president blocked the aid because he was concerned about corruption in Ukraine and the lack of European support for the country. And then, he indicated that the president’s political interests were also at play.
“Did [Trump] also mention to me in the past the corruption related to the DNC server?” he said. “Absolutely, no question about that. But that’s it, and that’s why we held up the money.”
The reference to the hacked Democratic National Committee’s email server elevated a Trump-backed conspiracy theory that Ukraine was involved in election interference in 2016, something U.S. intelligence officials have repeatedly attributed to Russia.
In admitting that Trump had linked politics with his Ukraine policy, Mulvaney said that critics were simply overreacting.
“I have news for everybody: Get over it,” he said. “There is going to be political influence in foreign policy.”
The reviews for Mulvaney’s performance came in swiftly, and even the president’s allies were unimpressed with his admit-everything approach. The comments were widely derided in the West Wing, and it launched an hours-long scramble to issue a new statement, according to White House officials.
“Totally inexplicable,” said one GOP lawmaker, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer a candid assessment. “He literally said the thing the president and everyone else said did not happen.”
Trump has repeatedly claimed there was “no quid pro quo” in his dealings with Ukraine, which also included a request to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate former vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter.
In his statement distancing himself from his earlier comments, Mulvaney blamed the media and echoed Trump’s denials of a quid pro quo.
“The president never told me to withhold any money until the Ukrainians did anything related to the server,” Mulvaney said.
But during the news briefing, he answered affirmatively when asked if there was a quid pro quo, and said, “We do that all the time with foreign policy.”
A prep session held in Mulvaney’s office ahead of the news conference with White House lawyers and press staff, as well as State Department officials, focused mostly on G-7 questions, according to two officials familiar with the meeting.
“No one expected him to go out there and say what he said,” one of the people said with regard to his Ukraine comments.
The Justice Department also distanced itself from Mulvaney’s assertion that Trump’s request for a foreign probe into the Democrats’ email server was tied to foreign aid.
“If the White House was withholding aid in regards to the cooperation of any investigation at the Department of Justice, that is news to us,” a Justice Department official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to contradict the acting White House chief of staff.
“I think Mulvaney should rethink ever stepping in front of a microphone,” said Chris Whipple, author of “The Gatekeepers,” a book about previous White House chiefs of staff.
Earlier in the briefing, Mulvaney sought to preemptively defend Trump’s decision to select the Trump National Doral Miami golf resort for the G-7 meeting. The unprecedented move, denounced by good-governance groups, could require seven world leaders and hundreds of officials to spend money at a Trump-owned property. Trump is already facing lawsuits for allegedly violating the Constitution’s ban on receiving “emoluments” from foreign governments.
“Anticipating your questions, how is this not an emoluments violation? Is the president going to profit from this?” Mulvaney said. “I think the president has pretty much made it very clear since he’s got here that he doesn’t profit from being here.”
While he did not elaborate on the legal matter, Mulvaney went on at length to praise the property’s amenities during the televised briefing, citing its 900 acres, three golf courses and “perfect” common areas. He dismissed arguments that the financially struggling resort would benefit from the publicity that comes with hosting a prestigious summit.
“Doral was far and away the best physical facility for this meeting,” Mulvaney said.
Claiming that the administration examined 10 sites before choosing the president’s own, Mulvaney quoted an anonymous site selection official who agreed with his effusive assessment.
“They said, ‘Mick, you’re not going to believe this, but it’s almost like they built this facility to host this type of event,’ ” he said.
Mulvaney did not say what other sites were vetted. But he did say how Trump’s property got on the list of properties under consideration: Trump suggested it.
“We had the list, and he goes, ‘What about Doral?’ Mulvaney said, recounting the president’s comments in the White House dining room. “And it was like that’s — that’s not the craziest idea.”
After a nationwide search, Trump administration employees selected the property suggested by Trump, Mulvaney told reporters.
Whipple said Mulvaney’s strategy has been to try to normalize Trump’s unorthodox behavior by making the “insane” seem commonplace.
“Trump’s actions are not defendable so the response is ‘Let’s just act like this is normal,’ ” he said. “There’s nothing normal about it.”
Mulvaney’s twin admissions Thursday put him out of step with some of the president’s own officials, underscoring the lack of a unified GOP approach as Trump faces impeachment.
Several State Department officials have told congressional investigators they objected to Trump’s push to give his personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, a central role in Ukraine policy. Mulvaney said there was nothing wrong with it. While Trump’s handpicked ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, told Congress that he was uncomfortable with Giuliani’s role, Mulvaney offered a rebuttal in the White House press briefing room.
“You may not like the fact that Giuliani was involved. That’s great, that’s fine,” he said, referring to Sondland’s testimony, which was taking place at the same time Thursday. “It’s not illegal. It’s not impeachable. The president gets to use who he wants to use.”
Few Republicans publicly backed Trump’s move to host the G-7 at his own property, and some actively spoke out against it.
Ari Fleischer, who was a White House press secretary for president George W. Bush, said Trump’s G-7 decision was “unseemly.”
“Holding the G-7 at a Trump property is one of the most foolish, unseemly things the WH could do,” he wrote on Twitter. “The President enjoys waiving red flags in front of bulls, but this fight isn’t worth it.”
Josh Dawsey and Matt Zapotosky contributed to this report.