For weeks now, President Donald Trump and his allies in Congress and the media have relied on a singular talking point to deflect from the rapidly developing impeachment inquiry into his controversial phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelensky: that there was no quid pro quo during the conversation.
So when Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, outright admitted on Thursday that Trump had withheld military aid from Ukraine because Zelensky had not launched an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden, the White House, along with reporters and members of Congress, was stunned.
“[Did] he also mention to me, in the past, that the corruption related to the DNC server?” Mulvaney said. “Absolutely, no question about that. But that’s it. And that’s why we held up the money…The look back to what happened in 2016 certainly was part of the thing that he was worried about in corruption with that nation. And that is absolutely appropriate.”
To make matters worse, upon being told by ABC News’ Jonathan Karl that what he had just described amounted to a quid pro quo, Mulvaney told reporters, “We do that all the time with foreign policy.”
The damaging comments from Mulvaney came as Gordon Sondland, the US ambassador to the European Union, was implicating Trump of directing the shadow foreign policy that was being conducted by Rudy Giuliani, the President’s personal attorney, during testimony on Capitol Hill. Initially blocked from testifying by the State Department, Sondland was later subpoenaed by House Democrats.
As further evidence of Giuliani’s efforts to solicit damaging information about Biden from the Ukrainian government has come to light, the White House has sought to insulate Trump from exposure, suggesting instead that Giuliani, who now himself under federal investigation, was acting of his own accord.
That narrative, along with the contention that an in-person meeting with Zelensky was not preconditioned on an investigation into Biden, was discredited by Thursday’s events.
White House officials were shocked by Mulvaney’s remarks linking aid to investigations. They expected him to repeat the message that the House was being unfair to Trump and that there was no quid pro quo. @MichaelCBender
— Rebecca Ballhaus (@rebeccaballhaus) October 17, 2019
Mulvaney’s comments “caused alarm” among senior White House officials and Trump’s legal team, who were expecting he would reiterate the official White House position that the impeachment inquiry was a “witch hunt,” and that there was no quid pro quo, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Jay Sekulow, another outside attorney representing Trump, told CNN, “The legal team was not involved in the Acting Chief of Staff’s press briefing.” Meanwhile, a senior Department of Justice official told reporters, “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.”
Source familiar with discussions inside Trump's legal team was baffled by Mulvaney's performance in the briefing room. "It was not helpful," the source said.
— Jim Acosta (@Acosta) October 17, 2019
More reaction: A source familiar with the reaction inside the president's legal team adds: "I think people are a bit stunned."@Acosta
— Shimon Prokupecz (@ShimonPro) October 17, 2019
The admission by Mulvaney on Thursday was seen as a turning point in the impeachment probe by House Democrats, including House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, who said “things have just gone from very, very bad to much, much worse,” and Rep. Eric Swalwell, who said Mulvaney’s comments amounted to a “confession.” Another Democratic member of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Ted Lieu, told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that the revelation “shows that the Trump defense is crumbling before our very eyes.”
Hours later, Mulvaney tried to walk back his admission, saying in a statement that “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,” Mulvaney said in the statement. “The only reasons we were holding the money was because of concern about lack of support from other nations and concerns over corruption.”
Mulvaney also tried to blame his admission on the media, saying “Once again, the media has decided to misconstrue my comments to advance a biased and political witch hunt against President Trump.”
Trump was not happy with Mulvaney’s performance in the briefing room today, I’m told.
— Jim Acosta (@Acosta) October 18, 2019
And on Thursday night, CNN’s Jim Acosta shed further light onto deliberations inside the White House, reporting that aides underprepared Mulvaney for his appearance before reporters since they did not expect he would explain why the Ukrainian aid was frozen to the degree he did.