Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney acknowledged Thursday that the Trump administration withheld military aid from Ukraine to force a corruption investigation, which for Democrats was tantalizingly close to confirming the allegation at the core of their impeachment inquiry.
Democrats called it a clear admission of guilt that Mr. Trump used military aid to force Ukraine to investigate Democrats.
Mr. Mulvaney said the president blocked nearly $400 million in military funds to prod other countries to support Ukraine and to push Kyiv to investigate corruption and assist in a Justice Department investigation of Ukrainian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
He said there was nothing wrong about the pressure play.
“We do that all the time with foreign policy,” Mr. Mulvaney told reporters at the White House. He pointed to aid withheld from Central American countries to force changes in immigration policies.
Rep. Adam B. Schiff, a California Democrat who as chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence is spearheading the impeachment inquiry, said “things have just gone from very, very bad to much, much worse” for the president.
“The idea that vital military assistance would be withheld for such a patently political reason is a phenomenal breach of the president’s duty to defend our national security,” Mr. Schiff said. “I hope every member, Democrat and Republican, will speak out and condemn this illicit action by the president and his chief of staff.”
Mr. Mulvaney later walked back his remarks and said the news media misconstrued them to further their “witch hunt.”
“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 a statement. “The only reasons we were holding the money was because of concern about the lack of support from other nations and concerns over corruption.”
Mr. Trump, who was on a trip to Texas, said he didn’t see Mr. Mulvaney’s press conference but heard good things.
“Mick is a good man. I have a lot of confidence in him,” the president said.
Mr. Mulvaney’s remarks at the White House were the closest an administration official has come to describing a quid pro quo for a Ukrainian investigation of former Vice President Joseph R. Biden and his son Hunter.
The impeachment inquiry stemmed from a whistleblower complaint that Mr. Trump abused his power by trying to force the Ukrainian president to investigate Mr. Biden, who is a top contender for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.
A quid pro quo is the linchpin of the abuse of power case against Mr. Trump.
Mr. Mulvaney stoked a celebratory mood among congressional Democrats after widespread reporting that an ally of Mr. Trump provided damning testimony in a closed-door interview with the impeachment inquiry.
Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union, said he objected to the role of Mr. Trump’s personal attorney, Rudolph W. Giuliani, in negotiations with Ukraine.
“I did not understand until much later that Mr. Giuliani’s agenda might have also included an effort to prompt the Ukrainians to investigate Vice President Biden or his son or to involve Ukrainians, directly or indirectly, in the president’s 2020 reelection campaign,” he said, according to the prepared remarks.
The description does not support the claims about military aid. Mr. Sondland also shot down all of the allegations that he was involved in any intrigue to strong-arm Ukraine to investigate the Bidens.
“Sondland’s opening statement throws Giuliani and the president under the bus,” said Rep. Ted Lieu, California Democrat. “What he says is absolutely not helpful to the president.”
Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, Virginia Democrat, didn’t see it that way.
“He did not break with Trump,” Mr. Connolly said.
Democrats now are eyeing Mr. Mulvaney and Mr. Giuliani to testify before the committees conducting the impeachment probe.
Rep. Mark Meadows, North Carolina Republican, declined to comment on Mr. Mulvaney. Instead, he dismissed reports about advances by the impeachment inquiry.
“The key today is every single witness, every single fact has not supported any pause or holdup on foreign aid being attached to any conditions — and that has been consistent with every word we’ve heard from so far,” he said.
In the press conference, Mr. Mulvaney mentioned the Justice Department investigation into the missing Democratic National Committee server from the 2016 race. In his later statement, he said the military aid was not tied to the search for the DNC server.
The server was hacked by Russians, and a trove of embarrassing emails was stolen and then published by WikiLeaks.
An American cybersecurity company called CrowdStrike examined the server to probe the leaks. The server was supposed to be turned over to the FBI but disappeared. It is not clear why the Trump administration believes the server is in Ukraine.
“Did he also mention to me in [the] past the corruption related to the DNC server? Absolutely,” Mr. Mulvaney said at the press conference. “No question about that. But that’s it. That’s why we held up the money.”
Democrats said Mr. Mulvaney “co-signed the president’s confession.”
“We have a confession from the president,” said Rep. Eric Swalwell, California Democrat. “When a suspect confesses, you can reduce the number of witnesses you need to call, still give them a fair process, but you know kind of circling in on the timeline and who did what when.”
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