White House Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney engaged in some serious political spin when he tried to deny what he said in a televised press conference: that the White House withheld security aid to Ukraine, in part, because the administration wanted Ukraine to investigate Democrats and the 2016 election.
During an interview with Chris Wallace on “Fox News Sunday” on Oct. 20, Mulvaney said there were “two reasons” the White House held up the funding: the need “to make sure” that Ukraine is dealing with its problem of “rampant corruption,” and to determine if “other nations, specifically European nations, were helping with foreign aid to the Ukraine.”
Mulvaney, Oct. 17: Three issues for that: the corruption of the country; whether or not other countries were participating in the support of the Ukraine; and whether or not they were cooperating in an ongoing investigation with our Department of Justice. That’s completely legitimate.
Even after Wallace played that clip, Mulvaney said, “I’m not acknowledging there’s three reasons.”
In the “Fox News Sunday” interview, Mulvaney also told Wallace he could “prove it to you” that there were only the two issues regarding the security aid to Ukraine. “The aid flowed,” Mulvaney said. “Once we were able to satisfy ourselves that corruption was actually — they were doing better with it, we got that information from our folks from the conversation with [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelensky and once we were able to establish we had the Office of Management and Budget do research on other countries’ aid to Ukraine, it turns out they don’t get any lethal aid, but they do give a considerable sum of money and nonlethal aid. Once those two things were cleared, the money flowed. There was never any connection between the flow of money and the server.”
Mulvaney told Wallace to look at the “facts” and “what actually happened in the real world.”
But some of those facts contradict Mulvaney’s argument – including text messages and testimony from other government officials and a May letter from the Defense Department approving the release of funds to Ukraine and certifying that Ukraine has taken “substantial actions to make defense institutional reforms for the purposes of decreasing corruption, increasing accountability, and sustaining improvements of combat capability enabled by U.S. assistance.”
Mulvaney Acknowledges, Then Denies ‘Quid Pro Quo’
The House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry is focused on President Donald Trump’s decision to withhold nearly $391 million in appropriated security aid to Ukraine and whether he did so as part of a pressure campaign to get Ukrainian President Zelensky to investigate Democrats and former Vice President Joe Biden, a potential 2020 political rival.
In a July 25 phone call — one of the key events described in an Aug. 12 whistleblower complaint — Trump told Zelensky the U.S. “has been very very good to Ukraine” and asked for “a favor,” that Zelensky look into CrowdStrike, the cybersecurity firm hired by the Democratic National Committee after its computer network was hacked. That’s an apparent reference to a debunked conspiracy theory. Trump also asked Zelensky to investigate Joe Biden and his son, Hunter.
“There’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great,” a White House memo, which notes it isn’t a verbatim transcript, says Trump told Zelensky.
Biden, as vice president, pressured the previous Ukrainian president to fire the country’s prosecutor general, who was widely viewed as ineffective at prosecuting corruption, or risk losing $1 billion in loan guarantees from the U.S. At the time, Hunter Biden was on the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian gas company. As we’ve written, there is no evidence that Joe Biden “stopped the prosecution” to help his son. Joe Biden was carrying out Obama administration policy, which was consistent with the international community and anti-corruption advocates in Ukraine.
Trump has repeatedly said that his request that Zelensky launch investigations into Biden and the DNC server wasn’t linked to the withholding of security aid. “There was no quid pro quo,” Trump has said.
But in his Oct. 17 press briefing, Mulvaney acknowledged there was a link between the aid and an investigation into the server, and that such quid pro quos were common in foreign policy.
Mulvaney, Oct. 17: Did he also mention to me in the past that the corruption related to the DNC server? Absolutely, no question about that. But that’s it. That’s what we held up the money. …
Reporter: What you just described is a quid pro quo. It is, funding will not flow unless the investigation into the — into the Democrats’ server happened as well.
Mulvaney: We do — we do that all the time with foreign policy.
Wallace played that clip, too, during the “Fox News Sunday” interview. Hours after the press briefing, Mulvaney tried to walk back his remarks, much as he did in the interview, saying in a statement that the “only reasons” for the freeze on the money were concerns over corruption and support from other countries.
Shaky ‘Proof’ of Corruption Concerns
Mulvaney told Wallace he could “prove” that the administration withheld security aid due to concerns about corruption in Ukraine, because the aid was released “once we were able to satisfy ourselves that corruption was actually — they were doing better with it.”
But the Defense Department had certified in May in a letter that Ukraine was taking steps to reduce corruption regarding defense institutions, and, according to Politico, it completed a second White House-ordered review of the aid package by late August. The aid was released on Sept. 11 — two days after House committee chairs announced they would investigate whether Trump tried to pressure Ukraine into conducting “politically-motivated investigations under the guise of anti-corruption activity.”
Undersecretary of Defense for Policy John Rood wrote in the May letter to congressional committees that he, “on behalf of the Secretary of Defense, and in coordination with the Secretary of State” had “certified” that Ukraine “has taken substantial actions to make defense institutional reforms for the purposes of decreasing corruption, increasing accountability, and sustaining improvements of combat capability enabled by U.S. assistance.” Rood’s letter said “now that this defense institutional reform has occurred,” the Defense Department could move forward in providing the congressionally appropriated aid to Ukraine. “Implementation of this further support will begin no sooner than 15 days following this notification,” the letter said.
“Substantial progress has been made on defense reform since 2014, but there remain areas that require significant attention,” Rood wrote. Those areas included “increased transparency in acquisition and budgeting” and “implementation of a modern human resources management system,” but there was no mention of corruption.
This was the second notice sent to Congress regarding $250 million Congress had appropriated for fiscal 2019. (Trump also froze $141.5 million in aid from the State Department.) An aide to Sen. Dick Durbin, the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee on defense appropriations, told us the Defense Department sent the first notice in February.
The certification that Ukraine had made “defense institutional reforms” to decrease corruption and other purposes is required by law, under the National Defense Authorization Act (see the fiscal 2017 law section 1237 and amendments by the 2019 law section 1246). The NDAA requires the secretaries of defense and state to issue this certification before half of the appropriated security assistance aid for that year can be released.
On June 18, the Defense Department announced it would send the $250 million in security assistance to Ukraine.
However, Trump then ordered a freeze on the aid and another review. The hold on the funding was first reported by Politico on Aug. 28. That story said “Trump asked his national security team to review the funding program, known as the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, in order to ensure the money is being used in the best interest of the United States,” according to “a senior administration official.”
But the story also said that the review had been completed. A senior Defense Department official told the media outlet that “the department has reviewed the foreign assistance package and supports it.”
In addition to the Defense Department certification, text messages exchanged by U.S. officials and congressional testimony undercut Mulvaney’s claim that the freeze on funding was tied to anti-corruption efforts.
House Democrats released several text messages provided by Kurt Volker, the U.S. special envoy to Ukraine, during his Oct. 3 testimony before the intelligence, oversight and reform, and foreign affairs committees. The messages indicated U.S. officials believed Ukraine’s willingness to investigate Democrats and the 2016 election was tied to either the aid or an official White House visit for Zelensky.
On Aug. 10, Volker and Andrey Yermak, a Zelensky aide, exchanged text messages about a “statement” Volker said Zelensky should use “to get date” for a White House visit. Yermak responded that once the date is set, Ukraine would “call for a press briefing, announcing upcoming visit and outlining vision for the reboot of US-UKRAINE relationship, including among other things Burisma and election meddling in investigations.”
Other texts showed William Taylor, the charge d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine, believed the aid to Ukraine and the White House meeting were being tied to those investigations.
In a Sept. 9 text, Taylor wrote: “As I said on the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.” Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, responded several hours later: “Bill, I believe you are incorrect about President Trump’s intentions. The President has been crystal clear no quid pro quo’s of any kind. The President is trying to evaluate whether Ukraine is truly going to adopt the transparency and reforms that President Zelensky promised during his campaign.”
But Sondland also told House committees, according to his Oct. 17 prepared opening statement, that the U.S. delegation to Zelensky’s inauguration on May 20, which included Sondland, “developed positive views of the new Ukraine President and his desire … to address Ukraines well-known and longstanding corruption issues.”
Sondland said, “In my opinion, security aid to Ukraine was in our vital national interest and should not have been delayed for any reason.”
Taylor testified on Oct. 22 that after he assumed his post at the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine on June 17, he saw “encouraging” signs that Zelensky was serious about fighting corruption. Zelensky “had appointed reformist ministers and supported long-stalled anti-corruption legislation. He took quick executive action, including opening Ukraine’s High Anti-Corruption Court, which was established under the previous presidential administration but never allowed to operate,” Taylor said, according to his prepared opening statement. “There was much excitement in Kyiv that this time things could be different — a new Ukraine might finally be breaking from its corrupt, post-Soviet past.”
Taylor, who had been the ambassador to Ukraine from 2006 to 2009, said he was “embarrassed” in late August that he couldn’t explain to the Ukrainians why the security aid was being withheld, but he came to understand it was tied to Zelensky agreeing to undertake certain investigations that Trump wanted.
Taylor said that on Sept. 1 Sondland told him “everything … including security assistance” depended on an announcement by Zelensky on investigations. “[Sondland] said that President Trump wanted President Zelenskyy ‘in a public box’ by making a public statement about ordering such investigations.”
On Sept. 8, Taylor again spoke with Sondland. “He said he had talked to President Trump as I had suggested a week earlier, but that President Trump was adamant that President Zelenskyy, himself, had to ‘clear things up and do it in public,'” Taylor testified. “President Trump said it was not a ‘quid pro quo.’ Ambassador Sondland said that he had talked to President Zelenskyy and [Zelensky aide] Mr. Yermak and told them that, although this was not a quid pro quo, if President Zelenskyy did not ‘clear things up’ in public, we would be at a ‘stalemate.’ I understood a ‘stalemate’ to mean that Ukraine would not receive the much-needed military assistance. Ambassador Sondland said that this conversation concluded with President Zelenskyy agreeing to make a public statement in an interview with CNN.”
Zelensky didn’t do the interview on CNN, which Taylor had discouraged.
European Aid to Ukraine
Mulvaney said the other reason for withholding the aid was concern “about whether or not other nations, specifically European nations, were helping with foreign aid to the Ukraine as well.” He said the Office of Management and Budget determined that European countries “do give a considerable sum of money and nonlethal aid” to Ukraine. But it’s worth noting the OMB could determine this quickly, through publicly available information, such as figures from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development and the European Commission.
The OECD’s website shows EU institutions head the list of the top 10 donors of official development assistance to Ukraine, with $425.2 million contributed on average for 2016-2017. The U.S. was second with $204.4 million in assistance, closely followed by Germany.
A database maintained by the European Commission, which gets its figures from what’s reported to OECD and the International Aid Transparency Initiative, shows Germany’s aid to Ukraine from 2014 to 2017 totaled 786.5 million euros (about $860 million).
As we’ve written, according to an analysis by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, European countries have contributed about two-thirds of all the aid to Ukraine — including military, humanitarian, economic and other aid — since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea.
We asked the White House press office for more information on the OMB’s review and why the May certification from the Defense Department wasn’t sufficient to show Ukrainian progress on corruption, but we haven’t received a response.
For more on key events in the impeachment probe and the related whistleblower complaint, see our updated timeline.