Friday October 18, 2019
By Noah Weiland
A remarkable news conference seemed to confirm a central premise of the House’s investigation.
- Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, told reporters that the Trump administration withheld nearly $400 million in military aid to pressure Ukraine to investigate an unfounded conspiracy theory about the 2016 election. That effectively confirmed a premise of the House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry.
- Asked whether he had just admitted to a quid pro quo, Mr. Mulvaney said, “We do that all the time with foreign policy.” Hours later, he tried to reverse his statement, saying, “There was absolutely no quid pro quo.” (Read his conflicting statements here.)
- In testimony before impeachment investigators, President Trump’s ambassador to the E.U., Gordon Sondland, said the president had essentially delegated American foreign policy on Ukraine to Rudy Giuliani, and had refused the counsel of his top diplomats. Mr. Giuliani’s goal, Mr. Sondland said, may have been “to involve Ukrainians, directly or indirectly, in the president’s 2020 re-election campaign.”
Why Mick Mulvaney admitted the quid pro quo
The acting White House chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, told reporters that military aid was held back in part to prod Ukraine to investigate Democrats, undercutting President Trump’s denial of a quid pro quo.CreditLeigh Vogel for The New York Times
Impeachment investigators have been gathering evidence for weeks to prove what Mr. Mulvaney freely admitted to reporters in the White House Briefing Room. I talked to my colleague Maggie Haberman about why he said something so stunning.
Maggie, whoa. That happened in front of reporters at the White House.
The briefing was jaw-dropping by any metric. He admitted to a quid pro quo. But it showed once again something you and I talked about two weeks ago: Mr. Trump tries to shift the window on conduct by revealing stuff publicly to take the sting out of its discovery. Mr. Mulvaney insisted the terminology doesn’t matter, but he bluntly acknowledged that aid was withheld from Ukraine to get a desired outcome on an investigation. That is at the heart of what Democrats have been trying to ascertain.
Was it actually the plan for him to do this?
I do think it was, yes — at least in part. Remember, this happened as Mr. Sondland was on the Hill giving a closed-door deposition. So I think Mr. Mulvaney was trying to rob House Democrats of a headline and frame the events on his own, to take the air out of the sails by saying it out loud. But it’s not clear that he was actually supposed to say there was a quid pro quo. It’s breathtaking that he’s the first person they’ve sent out to expressly discuss these issues and that he said so much.
How might this affect the impeachment investigation?
He came out and admitted to a lot of what House Democrats were hoping to get from him in a deposition! I can’t imagine the White House counsel and others were thrilled. Mr. Mulvaney and the counsel’s office have been at odds lately.
Since we’re talking about Mr. Mulvaney, why is he the guy Mr. Trump has wanted as his air traffic controller with Ukraine and now impeachment?
He’s what Mr. Trump thinks he needs. When he sold himself to Mr. Trump as chief of staff, part of his pitch was that he had run two agencies and that both were drama-free. But the president grinds down guardrails, and Mr. Mulvaney wants job security. He has the same problem the other Trump chiefs of staff have had, which is this concern about self-preservation that can be at odds with the needs of the president. I think he was willing to go out and be the “human hand grenade,” to borrow a turn of phrase from the Fiona Hill testimony.
I’m sensing some irony in the outcome, then.
Mr. Mulvaney’s job has been perceived as being in jeopardy. There isn’t a clear replacement for him right now, but he may not have helped himself today. We don’t yet know how Mr. Trump feels about what Mr. Mulvaney said. But if past is prelude, if it proves problematic, the president will blame Mr. Mulvaney.
Inside the White House briefing room
On Thursday, the president was in Texas, the vice president and secretary of state in Turkey, and Mr. Mulvaney on his own in the briefing room. One of Mr. Trump’s personal lawyers even put out a statement saying the president’s legal team “was not involved.” Here’s how my colleague Katie Rogers, who was in the room, described the scene:
Reporters knew this was big news right away, and I think you saw the incredulity in the questions that were asked of him. We kept asking the same question in different ways, which was essentially: “How is what you’re telling us not an acknowledgment of something the president has outright denied?” The first time he said it, I emailed our White House team saying, “Did he actually just link Ukraine conspiracy theories to withholding aid?” All of us in the room were trying to figure out if what we were watching was actually happening.