White House acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney told reporters on Thursday that Trump's decision to withhold $391 million in aid to Ukraine was linked to his desire for an investigation by Kiev into a debunked theory that a Democratic National Committee (DNC) computer server was held in Ukraine
A top White House aide's suggestion that President Donald Trump wanted a political favor from Ukraine in exchange for military aid upended the administration's impeachment strategy and left Republican allies flummoxed and frustrated.
White House acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney told reporters on Thursday that Trump's decision to withhold $391 million in aid to Ukraine was linked to his desire for an investigation by Kiev into a debunked theory that a Democratic National Committee (DNC) computer server was held in Ukraine.
After weeks in which the president argued that the impeachment probe against him was illegitimate because he had not improperly sought political favors, Mulvaney's comments, which he subsequently sought to walk back, seemed to undermine the core arguments that Trump and his advisers have made against the effort to oust him from office.
"Unless your ultimate goal is to get to the impeachment vote sooner rather than later, I don't see how that helps," said one former administration official with ties to the White House.
"I don't think it's damning in and of itself, but it's another piece of the puzzle that the Democrats are building and another incident that they can point to of using American foreign policy for private political gain," he said.
One of Trump's fellow Republicans, U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski, was quoted in media reports as saying: "You don’t hold up foreign aid that we had previously appropriated for a political initiative. Period.”
Democrats in the House of Representatives are holding hearings over concerns that Trump improperly pressured Ukraine to investigate a political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, and his son Hunter, who sat on the board of a Ukrainian energy company. The House could vote on impeachment later this year, which would trigger a trial in the Senate, which is controlled by Republicans.
The confirmation of a quid pro quo, or favor for a favor, would help bolster Democrats' arguments that Trump misused his office.
Mulvaney later accused the media of misconstruing his comments. But his remarks at the White House, made while the president was traveling in Texas, tied action on the DNC server to the decision about the aid.
"Did he also mention to me ... 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," Mulvaney said in the White House briefing room after explaining that Trump had also been concerned that European nations were not providing lethal aide to Ukraine.
Later in the day, in an effort to conduct damage control, Mulvaney said the withholding of aid was related strictly to Trump's concerns about corruption and the fact that other nations were not providing financial support to the country.
"Let me be clear, there was absolutely no quid pro quo between Ukrainian military aid and any investigation into the 2016 election. The president never told me to withhold any money until the Ukrainians did anything related to the server," he said in a written statement released by the White House.