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 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 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.”