WASHINGTON — House Democrats woke up Thursday aiming to answer the question at the heart of their impeachment inquiry: Did President Trump use foreign aid to pressure Ukraine into launching a politically helpful investigation?
Then acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney straight-up admitted it, and argued there’s nothing wrong with a little quid pro quo between allies.
“Get over it,” Mulvaney told a room of stunned journalists. “There’s going to be political influence in foreign policy. That is going to happen. Elections have consequences.”
The bombshell comments scrambled an already-chaotic House impeachment process — and left Democrats wondering what they had left to prove.
“The president pleaded guilty to the crime. It’s really a matter of what the sentence is”
“Mulvaney apparently decided it was okay to admit to an impeachable offense,” Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), a member of the House Oversight Committee who was chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee when it was hacked, told VICE News as she exited the room where European Union Ambassador Gordon Sondland was testifying on his role in the Ukraine scandal.
So what are the investigators trying to get to the bottom to now, if Mulvaney just gave up the goods?
“An inquiry is ongoing and, you know, you need corroborating evidence. You have to stitch together the timeline and make sure we have a clear understanding of what led to the impeachable offense,” she replied.
Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), another senior Oversight member, saw a shift in White House strategy.
“Having failed at discrediting the facts of this case, they’ve decided on a new tactic, which is to admit them and basically say: So what? And the answer to that is, well, the ‘so what’ is, ‘you’re going to be impeached.’ Because that’s abuse of office. And extortion, last time I checked, is still a crime,” he told reporters Thursday afternoon.
On Thursday evening, Mulvaney tried to walk-back his comments by claiming he’d been misunderstood, insisting he’d never said there was an explicit quid pro quo.
“The only reasons we were holding the money was because of concern about lack of support from other nations and concerns over corruption,” Mulvaney said in an after-hours statement.
But the damage was already done.
“Things have gone from very, very bad to much, much worse,” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said about Mulvaney’s admission, calling it “a phenomenal breach of the president’s duty to defend our national security.”
During his explosive press conference, Mulvaney said that hundreds of millions in aid to Ukraine was held up in part due to concerns about corruption in Ukraine, which included, he said, Trump’s concerns about Ukraine’s role in the 2016 U.S. election.
“Did he also mention to me in the past the corruption related to the DNC server? Absolutely. No question about that. But that’s it, that’s why we held up the money,” Mulvaney said.
That ties almost $400 million in aid money to Trump’s request to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on July 25 to launch an investigation on that same topic.
Such a probe would appear intended to dig up evidence in support of a long-ago debunked conspiracy theory Trump has entertained: That Russia somehow wasn’t really behind hacking the 2016 election.
The only claim Mulvaney rejected was that the pressure was about targeting the Bidens.
“The money held up had absolutely nothing to do with Biden,” he said.
Mulvaney’s bluster follows a pattern of Trump and his allies at first denying they’d done something then admitting it and acting as if everything was above-board. That happened most recently when he decided to release the transcript of the call he had with Ukraine’s president immediately after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said it’d be “inappropriate” to do so.
But even Trump’s staunchest defenders in Congress seemed blindsided by Mulvaney's comments, refusing to talk to reporters (like Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), who claimed he didn’t do hallway interviews) or insisting they hadn’t heard what Mulvaney had said.
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) has been so locked in on following and discrediting Democrats’ impeachment push that he tried to fight his way into a closed deposition earlier this week only to be ejected for breaking the House rules. But he claimed he’d had no time to review Sondland’s public statement from the morning or Mulvaney’s press conference.
“I’ve been in other meetings,” he said, scurrying down the hall of the Capitol Building Thursday afternoon.
Other key Trump allies sought to distance themselves from the remarks.
"The legal team was not involved in the Acting Chief of Staff's press briefing,” Jay Sekulow, Trump’s personal attorney (who unlike his other personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, hasn’t been implicated in Ukraine), told CNN.
Democrats pledged to keep investigating to lay out the exact details of quid pro quo.
“The president pleaded guilty to the crime. It’s really a matter of what the sentence is,” Oversight Committee member Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) said. ”We should still give him a fair process — but he pleaded guilty to the crime.”
Cover: President Donald Trump speaks as he arrives at Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base in Fort Worth, Texas, Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)