Donald Trump’s chief of staff confirmed that US military aid to Ukraine was held back in part to help secure corruption investigations linked to the Democrats, but then walked back the comments.
In a rare briefing with the press, Mick Mulvaney said that Mr Trump had been concerned by claims that Ukraine somehow meddled in the 2016 US presidential election.
In particular there was a concern that a computer server from the Democratic National Committee, which was hacked during the 2016 campaign, was in Ukraine.
The Trump administration’s decision to withhold almost $400 million of military assistance to Ukraine while it sought investigations linked to America is the heart of the impeachment inquiry.
The admission appeared to soften the White House’s previous denials that there was no “quid pro quo” involved, in other words no military aid money for investigations.
“Get over it. There’s going to be political influence in foreign policy,” Mr Mulvaney said at one point, adding: “That is going to happen. Elections have consequences.”
While Mr Mulvaney admitted investigations into the 2016 election were linked to the pausing of aid, he disputed that a probe into Mr Biden, the Democrat who could face Mr Trump at the 2020 election, was involved.
Mr Mulvaney said that he had never been involved in any attempt to get Ukraine to investigate Mr Biden, the former US president seeking the 2020 presidential nomination, or his son Hunter Biden.
However late on Thursday, Mr Mulvaney walked back his briefing room comments after they created a slew of headlines.
“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 lengthy statement circulated by the White House.
“The president never told me to withhold any money until the Ukrainians did anything related to the [Democratic National Committee] server.
“The only reasons we were holding the money was because of concern about lack of support from other nations and concerns over corruption.”
In a separate but linked development on Thursday Gordon Sondland, Mr Trump’s EU ambassador who helped shape Ukraine policy during the period under scrutiny, gave testimony to the impeachment inquiry.
Mr Sondland said in his opening statement that Mr Trump personally directed US officials to work with Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal attorney, on Ukraine.
Mr Giuliani has been publicly pushing claims that Mr Biden intervened while US vice president to benefit his son Hunter, who worked at a Ukranian gas company. The Bidens have always denied wrongdoing.
Mr Sondland also made clear that he opposed holding back military assistance to Ukraine, one of the most controversial parts of the scandal, saying that the aid “should not have been delayed for any reason”.
The remarks back up key elements of the complaint from an intelligence whistleblower which kick-started the impeachment inquiry, appearing to confirm that Mr Giuliani did indeed play a significant role in shaping Ukraine policy.
Mr Sondland, who donated $1 million to Mr Trump’s inaugural committee and later was handed the ambassadorship, had been expected to provide testimony which would be helpful to the president.
Instead, having defied White House calls not to appear, he made a series of claims unhelpful to Mr Trump’s attempts to wave away the row while distancing himself from key elements of the scandal.
The role of Mr Giuliani, a former New York mayor, is at the heart of the controversy. He has been a leading promoter of claims that the Bidens acted inappropriately in Ukraine – something they have always denied.
Mr Sondland recalled a meeting with Mr Trump in May where US officials urged him to call and congratulate the new Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, but the president demurred.
“President Trump was skeptical 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 wrote in his opening testimony.
“It was apparent to all of us that the key to changing the president’s mind on Ukraine was Mr Giuliani.”
However elsewhere during his testimony Mr Sondland said he could not recall any discussions about holding back US aid to Ukraine in return for help with Mr Trump’s reelection campaign.
He also recalled a telephone call with Mr Trump on September 9 when the president repeatedly said there was no “quid pro quo” between handing over the military aid to Ukraine and them launching investigations.
Mr Sondland denied ever knowingly pushing for a Ukrainian investigation into the Bidens.