WASHINGTON – White House and Justice Department officials were angered Thursday after a combative news briefing by acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney in which he insisted President Donald Trump did nothing inappropriate, but seemed to confirm that Trump’s dealings with Ukraine amounted to a quid pro quo.
Mulvaney later said that his comments were misconstrued and that no conditions were put on releasing military aid to Ukraine.
One Trump adviser called Mulvaney’s briefing “totally inexplicable.”
“He literally said the thing the president and everyone else said did not happen,” the adviser said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the situation frankly.
One person who spoke to Trump said, however, that he was pleased with Mulvaney’s performance.
Mulvaney also caught the Justice Department by surprise when he asserted that Ukraine’s “cooperating in an ongoing investigation with our Department of Justice” was connected to aid money being withheld. A department official said, “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.”
The official also disputed that the White House made the Justice Department aware of the July phone call between Trump and Ukraine’s leader immediately after it occurred, saying the department wasn’t aware of the call until mid-August.
But a person close to Mulvaney said the reaction inside the West Wing had been “positive,” and this person disputed the notion that Mulvaney admitted there was any sort of corrupt quid pro quo.
During the combative session in the White House briefing room earlier Thursday, Mulvaney acknowledged that the Trump administration held up U.S. military aid to Ukraine in part due to the president’s request for that country to investigate a Democratic National Committee server.
“We do that all the time with foreign policy,” Mulvaney said when asked about criticism that the administration’s dealings with Ukraine amounted to a quid pro quo.
People familiar with the president’s thinking have told The Washington Post that Trump has come to suspect the DNC server hacked by Russian intelligence agents in 2016 may have been hidden in Ukraine.
Mulvaney maintained that Trump’s request of Ukraine was unrelated to Biden, even though Trump mentioned the former vice president in his July phone call with Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Mulvaney later accused the media of misconstruing his remarks, saying in a statement that “there never was any condition on the flow of the aid related to the matter of the [Democratic National Committee] server.”
“Let me be clear, there was absolutely no quid pro quo between Ukrainian military aid and any investigation into the 2016 election,” he said. “The president never told me to withhold any money until the Ukrainians did anything related to the server. The only reasons we were holding the money was because of concern about lack of support from other nations and concerns over corruption.”
Earlier in the day, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., refused to put a timeline on the impeachment process, declining to say whether she agrees with the assessment of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., that the House would vote by Thanksgiving, setting up a Senate trial late this year.
“The timeline will depend on the truth line,” Pelosi told reporters at the Capitol amid a busy day of developments that included a deposition from an ambassador involved in the Ukraine controversy.
Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, told House impeachment investigators that Trump urged him to work with the president’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani on matters related to Ukraine.
Sondland was testifying behind closed doors about Trump’s efforts to pressure Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden at a time when nearly $400 million in military aid to Ukraine was being withheld.
Meanwhile, Jay Goldberg, a longtime friend and former lawyer for Trump, told MSNBC Thursday night that Giuliani has a book of his Ukraine contacts that hasn’t yet been subpoenaed and that if it is, it could be harmful to the president.
“Yes, there’s a book that he kept of all the contacts he made while in Ukraine. It hasn’t been subpoenaed thus far, it hasn’t come to light,” Goldberg told host Ari Melber.
Goldberg said he’s seen the book. He said he didn’t believe there was enough in it to impeach and convict Trump, but he sidestepped the question when asked if the book will make it look like Giuliani broke the law.
Goldberg also said he advised Trump in March not to hire Giuliani as a personal attorney and said it’s time for the president to cut ties with the former New York mayor because he’d “gone off the rails.”
“Somehow he got seduced into the likelihood of high publicity and he lost his sense of balance,” Goldberg said.
Also on Thursday, Energy Secretary Rick Perry told Trump aboard Air Force One that he is planning to resign, according to a person with knowledge of the matter.
Two administration officials confirmed that the conversation occurred. Another said Perry gave Trump his resignation in writing. It was not immediately clear what Perry’s effective end date would be; he had earlier signaled that he would step down by the end of the year.
The conversation comes amid increasing scrutiny of Perry’s role in the administration’s communications with Ukraine. House Democrats have given Perry a Friday deadline by which to produce documents related to the matter.
Trump has said Perry asked him to make his July call to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, but Perry told reporters last week he did it so that the two could talk about energy issues.
Perry also told the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday that he called Giuliani at Trump’s direction to discuss Ukraine.
In the House on Thursday, Democrats had planned to block a Republican-drafted resolution to censure House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif. But lawmakers put off consideration of the measure in light of the death of Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., who members of both parties praised during speeches on the chamber’s floor.
Cummings was the House Oversight and Reform Committee chairman and a leading figure in the Trump impeachment inquiry. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., the second-highest-ranking Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, will become the panel’s acting chair, according to a senior Democratic leadership aide.
The resolution on Schiff, introduced by Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., takes issue with Schiff’s remarks at a Sept. 26 hearing. Schiff embellished the transcript of the July phone call in which Trump pressed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate the Bidens.
Schiff later said his remarks were intended as parody and that Trump and others who have criticized him should have recognized that. Pelosi praised Schiff’s work in the impeachment inquiry in a Thursday news conference, saying, “I value the way he is conducting this.”
On Thursday evening, the top Democrat charged with keeping the House in her party’s hands told colleagues that they are in a “strong position” politically on impeachment of Trump “due to the focus and restraint with which our Caucus has approached this pressing and serious matter.”
Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Ill., chairwoman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in a message obtained by The Washington Post that there is scant evidence that impeachment has worsened the political environment for Democrats in swing districts. A memo prepared by DCCC pollsters claimed that “the numbers do not back up Republicans’ posture that impeachment worsens the political environment for House Democrats.”
Polling across the 57 most competitive battleground districts, the memo said, found opinion on moving forward with an impeachment inquiry almost evenly split with little change in the “generic ballot” question testing a unnamed Democratic House candidate against an unnamed Republican.
The memo urged Democrats to “keep the language simple, direct and values-based” by emphasizing that Trump “abused his power and put himself above the law” and that supporting the impeachment inquiry is “simply working to uphold the rule of law.”
Earlier in the day, Trump left the White House shortly before 11 a.m., to head to Dallas for a “Keep America Great Rally.” In recent weeks, he has used such events to air grievances about the impeachment process and the Democrats who are leading it. He has several events scheduled in Texas before the rally Thursday night.
The rally comes a day after Pelosi and other top Democrats walked out of a meeting with Trump at the White House after the president disparaged Pelosi. It was the first time they had come face-to-face since Pelosi launched the impeachment inquiry.
In remarks outside the White House, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., told reporters that Trump had called Pelosi a “third-rate politician.” Pelosi later clarified at the Capitol that Trump had called her a “third-grade politician.”
– – –
The Washington Post’s Tom Hamburger, Ashley Parker, Philip Rucker, Mike DeBonis, Josh Dawsey and Matt Zapotosky contributed to this report.