Mulvaney ties withheld Ukraine aid to political probe sought by Trump

Acting White House chief of staff Mick MulvaneyMick MulvaneySupreme Court ruling could unleash new legal challenges to consumer bureau Bottom line White House goes through dizzying change in staff MORE indicated Thursday that the Trump administration held up military aid to Ukraine in part because officials wanted Kiev to investigate unproven election interference allegations linking the country to a Democratic National Committee (DNC) server.

“The look back to what happened in 2016 certainly was part of the things that he was worried about in corruption with that nation. And that is absolutely appropriate,” Mulvaney told reporters at the White House Thursday.

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Mulvaney was referring to unsubstantiated allegations that Ukraine, and not Russia, was involved in the 2016 hack of the DNC server.

Mulvaney denied that investigations into former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump hits 'radical left,' news media, China in Independence Day address Kaepernick on July Fourth: 'We reject your celebration of white supremacy' Jaime Harrison seeks to convince Democrats he can take down Lindsey Graham MORE and his son Hunter Biden were factored into considerations about releasing military aid to Ukraine.

When asked if what he described was a quid pro quo — withheld funding unless there was an investigation into the DNC server — Mulvaney responded, "We do that all the time with foreign policy."

He cited withheld funding for Central American countries before they changed their immigration policies.

“I have news for everybody. Get over it. There’s going to be political influence in foreign policy ... that’s going to happen. Elections have consequences,” Mulvaney said.

The Justice Department is conducting an inquiry into the origins of the FBI’s Russia investigation, which is viewed by critics as an effort by President TrumpDonald John TrumpProtesters tear down statue of Christopher Columbus in Baltimore 'Independence Day' star Bill Pullman urges Americans to wear a 'freedom mask' in July 4 PSA Protesters burn American flag outside White House after Trump's July Fourth address MORE to discredit the intelligence community’s conclusions about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Attorney General William BarrBill BarrDemocrat asks Barr to preserve any records tied to environmental hacking probe Justice Dept. considering replacing outgoing US attorney in Brooklyn with Barr deputy: report Ousted Manhattan US Attorney Berman to testify before House next week MORE has said he's interested in determining whether intelligence collection on the Trump campaign was adequately predicated. 

Mulvaney said the Trump administration's review of U.S. aid to Ukraine took into consideration Kiev's willingness to crack down on corruption and the extent to which European nations were contributing security assistance to the country.

“When we cut the money off ... we actually did an analysis of what other countries were doing in supporting Ukraine,” Mulvaney said.

“Did [Trump] also mention to me in the past that the corruption related to the DNC server? Absolutely, no question about that. But that was it. That’s why we held up the money,” Mulvaney said.

When asked whether the decision related to military aid had anything to do with the Bidens, Mulvaney replied, “The money held up had absolutely nothing to do with Biden.”

Trump raised the prospect of investigations into the Bidens during a July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Trump also referenced the unproven conspiracy theory related to cybersecurity firm Crowdstrike and Ukraine’s involvement in the hack of the DNC server, offering to put Zelensky in touch with Barr and Trump's personal attorney Rudy Giuliani. The call took place as the administration was reviewing whether to release military aid to Ukraine.

House Democrats, who have launched an impeachment inquiry into Trump’s Ukraine contacts, have raised concerns Trump used the aid as a cudgel to pressure Ukraine to investigate a political rival.

Mulvaney said Thursday that he was not on the call himself but that no issues had been raised about it. An intelligence community whistleblower complaint, meanwhile, described an effort within the White House to “lock down” the call, including by moving records of it to a secure server reserved for highly sensitive material.

The administration eventually released the security assistance to Ukraine amid pressure from Capitol Hill, which Mulvaney noted repeatedly on Thursday. But the developments have nevertheless stoked concerns about Trump’s efforts to pressure foreign countries to conduct investigations that serve his political interests.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffDemocrats hit Trump for handling of Russian bounty allegations after White House briefing Voters must strongly reject the president's abuses by voting him out this November Democrats face tough questions with Bolton MORE (D-Calif.) said Thursday that Mulvaney's comments "means that things have gone from very, very bad to much, much worse.” 

Text messages provided to House Democrats by the former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine showed a top American Embassy official in Ukraine saying in September it was “crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.”

Another official, U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, responded that Trump had made clear there would be “no quid pro quo.”

Mulvaney’s press conference came as Sondland testified behind closed doors on Capitol Hill in connection with the House impeachment inquiry. 

Sondland is one of the central figures in the Trump administration’s efforts to encourage Ukraine to pursue investigations related to 2016 election interference and Burisma Holdings, a Ukrainian energy company that Hunter Biden worked for.

Mulvaney on Thursday denied ever being privy to conversations involving Burisma. 

Trump has defended the call with Zelensky as “perfect” and doubled down on his accusations that the Bidens engaged in corrupt behavior without offering specific evidence of it. Trump has also openly urged China to investigate the Bidens, saying he has an “obligation” to raise concerns about corruption and denying his efforts have anything to do with politics.  

Mulvaney has attracted scrutiny from House Democrats as a result of his involvement in the decisions related to the security aid. 

House Democrats have subpoenaed Mulvaney for White House documents related to their investigation. He faces a Friday deadline to comply.

Brett Samuels contributed.

--Updated at 2:48 p.m.