Acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney's comments about Ukraine during a Thursday news conference, and the subsequent walking back of those comments, highlighted a growing problem with the Trump administration's defense against Democrats' impeachment inquiry — officials don't seem to agree on what did and what did not happen.
Mulvaney appeared to undermine the administration's "no quid pro quo" defense regarding President Donald Trump's July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky, before saying later in the day that there was no connection between delayed aid to Ukraine and their cooperation with investigations President Trump was asking for.
'Quid pro quo,' or no?
House Democrats have opened an impeachment inquiry into the question of whether President Trump used the threat of withholding aid to Ukraine to pressure Zelensky into investigating 2016 election interference in favor of Hillary Clinton and/or the Ukrainian business dealings of Hunter Biden, son of former vice president Joe Biden.
The inquiry, and the defense from the Trump administration and its allies, focused on whether or not there was a "quid pro quo." On the call with Zelensky, was President Trump asking a favor for a favor? Was the delay in the $400 million in aid money directly related to the investigation?
There has been inconsistency on both sides of this dispute. Democrats have alleged a "quid pro quo." Trump has said there was none. Some Democrats later said it doesn't actually matter if there was an explicit "quid pro quo" or not, while others maintained that the July 25 call transcript was enough evidence of such an arrangement.
President Trump has offered more than one explanation for the delayed aid, which don't necessarily contradict one another, but which have been presented in a way that muddy the waters some. Trump has said the aid was delayed because European countries are not contributing enough, and also that the aid was held up over concerns about corruption in the Ukrainian government.
What he has not said, however, is what a seemingly flustered Mulvaney emphatically stated Thursday afternoon.
'Get over it'
Here's the exchange between Mulvaney and ABC News chief White House correspondent Jon Karl on Thursday:
Mulvaney: Did he also mention to me in passing the corruption related to the DNC server? Absolutely. No question about that. But that's it. And that's why we held up the money.
Karl: So the demand for an investigation into the Democrats was part of the reason [Trump] ordered to hold the funding to Ukraine?
Mulvaney: 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.
Karl: Withholding the funding?
Mulvaney: Yeah. Which ultimately, then, flowed
Mulvaney went on to clarify the legal reasons why the administration needed to release the appropriated aid to Ukraine by the end of September, before the reporter turns back to quid pro quo.
Karl: Let's be clear, what you just described is a quid pro quo. It is, funding will not flow unless the investigation into the Democratic server happens as well.
Mulvaney: We do that all the time with foreign policy. We were holding up money at the same time for, what was it, the northern triangle countries. We were holding up aid to the northern triangle companies so that they would change their policies on immigration.
A bit later, Mulvaney appeared to put a defiant punctuation on what many see as a clear admission of the previously denied "quid pro quo."
"I have news for everybody. Get over it," Mulvaney said. "There's going to be political influence in foreign policy. That is going to happen. Elections have consequences. And foreign policy is going to change from the Obama administration to the Trump administration."
Mulvaney Tells Reporter: 'Get Over' Quid Pro Quo: 'It Happens All The Time' | Velshi & Ruhle | MSNBC youtu.be
The Department of Justice quickly distanced itself from any knowledge of the "quid pro quo" Mulvaney described.
"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," a senior DOJ official said, according to The Hill.
White House lawyers also backed away from what Mulvaney said.
"The President's legal counsel was not involved in acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney's press briefing," Trump's personal attorney Jay Sekulow said in a statement.
That's not what I meant?
Seemingly realizing that his news conference had, in the eyes of the media at least, gone horribly wrong, Mulvaney began trying to walk back what he said and clarify.
"Let me be clear, there was absolutely no quid pro quo between Ukrainian military aid and any investigation into the 2016 election," Mulvaney said in a statement later Thursday. "There was never any connection between the funds and the Ukrainians doing anything with the server—this was made explicitly obvious by the fact that the aid money was delivered without any action on the part of the Ukrainians regarding the server."
That statement, however, doesn't change the fact that we have a video of a reporter saying, "What you just described is a quid pro quo," and Mulvaney responding, "We do that all the time."
There is disagreement and debate about Trump's call with Zelensky. Was there a quid pro quo? If there was, would it be wrong? Is the call wrong even without a quid pro quo? Or was it, as President Trump has repeatedly described it, "perfect"? Beyond ethical questions of right and wrong, there is the further question of whether it would justify impeachment.
Either way, the Trump administration is doing itself no favors by delivering multiple, sometimes contradictory messages about the issue, while Trump's personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, who is somewhat unpredictable, makes the TV news rounds creating even more headlines about Ukraine.
Democrats' impeachment inquiry started off based on assumptions and interpretations of a phone call, and didn't appear to have much to sustain it long term. But every time the administration contradicts itself, it adds fuel to allow the impeachment fire to burn longer and longer — which was probably the Democrats' goal the whole time.