WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump's acting chief of staff acknowledged Thursday that financial aid to Ukraine at the center of a House impeachment inquiry was withheld because of the president's desire for the country to engage in U.S. politics.
Mick Mulvaney's assertion was the first time a White House official has conceded Trump set up a quid quo pro scenario in which money approved by Congress for Ukraine was used as leverage, though he defended the arrangement as standard practice.
"Did he also mention to me in passing the corruption related to the DNC server? Absolutely," Mulvaney told reporters during a rare briefing at the White House on Thursday, recalling a conversation he had with the president about corruption in Kiev.
"That's it," Mulvaney said. "That's why we held up the money."
House Democrats launched an impeachment inquiry Sept. 24 following a July phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. A summary of the call shows Trump raised the issue of the 2016 election and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden seconds after discussing U.S. aid to Ukraine with Zelensky.
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Mulvaney said there is nothing wrong with threatening to withhold foreign aid to pressure a country to change a policy - in this case, he said, to fight corruption.
"We do that all that time with foreign policy," Mulvaney said, noting that the White House also threatened to withhold money to Central America over immigration policies.
But Mulvaney's remarks appeared to undercut Trump's repeated assertion that he did not withhold the money in exchange for Ukraine's help in looking into political foes. Mulvaney framed the issue as Trump calling on Ukraine to help Attorney General William Barr with the ongoing investigation into the 2016 election and denied Trump sought Zelensky's help in digging up dirt on Biden.
"The look back to what happened in 2016 certainly was part of the thing he was worried about in corruption with that nation," Mulvaney said of the president.
A senior Justice Department official speaking on the condition of anonymity sought to distance Barr's probe from Mulvaney's remarks: "If the White House was withholding aid in regards to cooperation with an investigation at the Department of Justice, that is news to us," the official said.
The difference between the administration's effort to pressure Central American countries and the Ukraine call, critics said, is that the White House was seeking Ukraine's help in looking into domestic politics. Trump has sought Ukraine's help getting to the bottom of a debunked conspiracy that a hacked Democratic National Committee server and 33,000 emails from Democrat Hillary Clinton's tenure running the U.S. State Department "could be" in the country.
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Mulvaney's comments drew renewed attention to the president's phone call with Zelensky, which prompted an impeachment inquiry and a flurry of subpoenas sent to the Trump administration. Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, told lawmakers Thursday that withholding aid for political reasons would be wrong.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski appeared shocked when reporters told her of Mulvaney's statements on the aid being held up for political investigations.
"That's news to me; I had not heard that. Yes, absolutely it's a concern," the Alaska Republican said. "You don't hold up foreign aid that we had previously appropriated for a political initiative."
Asked whether it rose to the level of an impeachable offense, Murkowski said she needs to look at exactly what Mulvaney said.
Leaving a closed hearing in the U.S. Capitol, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said Mulvaney's acknowledgement of a quid pro quo "certainly indicates that things have gone from very very bad to much much worse."
Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., agreed.
"It's an admission of guilt from the president, there's no denying that," Swalwell said. "Doesn't mean he's not entitled to a fair process."
Contributing: Kevin Johnson
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Mick Mulvaney says Ukraine aid was held over US domestic politics