Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, said the US withheld military aid to Ukraine this year in an effort to persuade Kiev to investigate what Donald Trump claims was corruption by the Democrats in the 2016 election.
In a rare news conference, Mr Mulvaney said the US initially withheld the $391m in aid because of concerns about corruption in Ukraine. He then conceded Mr Trump was worried about what role Ukraine played in the 2016 election — a reference to a debunked conspiracy theory about the hacking of a Democratic party server.
“Did he also mention to me in passing the corruption related to the DNC [Democratic National Committee] server? Absolutely no question about that,” Mr Mulvaney said on Thursday. “But that’s it. That’s why we held up the money.”
His comments marked the first time a Trump administration official has publicly said the US withheld military aid in an attempt to pressure President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine into launching an investigation related to the 2016 US presidential election.
The House of Representatives has opened an impeachment inquiry into allegations Mr Trump sought a foreign power’s help in domestic politics, but until now the Trump administration — including the president himself — has insisted there was no “quid pro quo” involved in the decision to hold up the Ukraine aid.
Mr Mulvaney later attempted to walk back his remarks, issuing a statement saying the aid was withheld in order to convince the Ukrainians to root out corruption more broadly, and was not specifically used as leverage to prompt investigations into US political affairs.
“Let me be clear, there was absolutely no quid pro quo between Ukrainian military aid and any investigation into the 2016 election,” Mr Mulvaney said in the statement. “The president never told me to withhold any money until the Ukrainians did anything related to the server.”
Mr Trump said he had not watched Mr Mulvaney’s news conference, but said he continued to have “a lot of confidence” in his top aide. “Mick is a good man,” he said.
Mr Mulvaney’s remarks came just hours after Gordon Sondland, the US ambassador to the EU, told the House committees pursuing the impeachment inquiry that Mr Trump had told him that there was “no quid pro quo” after US diplomats in Ukraine had raised concerns.
In prepared testimony, Mr Sondland said Mr Trump told him to co-ordinate Ukraine policy with Rudy Giuliani, highlighting the central role the president’s personal lawyer has played in the Ukraine scandal.
Mr Sondland, a wealthy hotelier and Trump fundraiser, told Congress that Mr Trump ordered him to liaise with Mr Giuliani in May when he urged the president to hold a telephone call with Mr Zelensky, a former comedian who had been elected as Ukraine’s president.
The ambassador said the US president gave the order after he and other officials working on Ukraine — including then-special envoy Kurt Volker and Rick Perry, US energy secretary — tried to arrange both a telephone call with Mr Trump and an Oval Office meeting for Mr Zelensky.
“President Trump was sceptical that Ukraine was serious about reforms and anti-corruption, and he directed those of us present at the meeting to talk to Mr Giuliani, his personal attorney, about his concerns,” Mr Sondland said. “It was apparent to all of us that the key to changing the president’s mind on Ukraine was Mr Giuliani.”
Following the release of a rough transcript of a July 25 call between Mr Trump and Mr Zelensky, and a whistleblower complaint about the president’s behaviour during that conversation, House committees are looking at whether Mr Trump also tried to pressure his Ukrainian counterpart to dig up dirt on former vice-president Joe Biden and his son.
In prepared remarks for the committees ahead of a closed-door deposition, Mr Sondland said he was “disappointed” Mr Trump had directed him to involve Mr Giuliani, a former New York mayor who is reportedly being investigated by federal prosecutors in Manhattan over whether he violated US lobbying laws with some of his Ukraine work.
Mr Sondland said he did not realise at the time that Mr Giuliani was part of an effort to get Mr Zelensky to find damaging information on Mr Biden and his son Hunter, who was then serving on the board of a Ukrainian gas company called Burisma.
“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 . . . in the president’s 2020 re-election campaign,” Mr Sondland said.
Mr Sondland came under scrutiny last month after the release of a series of text message exchanges between him, Mr Volker and Bill Taylor, the acting US ambassador in Kiev. In one exchange, Mr Taylor expressed concern that the US was withholding aid to Ukraine to urge Mr Zelensky to open the probes Mr Trump wanted.
When Mr Taylor raised the issue with Mr Sondland, he was told to stop communicating with text messages. “Call me,” Mr Sondland responded.
On Thursday Mr Sondland said his response had been misunderstood. “I simply prefer to talk rather than to text,” he said. “My text message comments were an invitation to talk more, not to conceal the substance of our communications.”
Mr Sondland also told the House panels that he did “not recall” having any discussions about the White House withholding security assistance to Kiev.
He also said he did “not recall” Mr Giuliani discussing the Bidens in their conversations. Mr Sondland said Mr Giuliani did raise Burisma in a call in August, but he viewed the context as corruption in Ukraine and did not know Hunter Biden served on its board.
Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @dimi