The White House has settled on its defense for President Donald Trump and Rudy Giuliani’s actions on Ukraine: It’s all about 2016, not 2020.
Mick Mulvaney, acting White House chief of staff, articulated the strategy on Thursday during an exchange with reporters, saying that aid to Ukraine was in fact tied to Trump’s wish for an investigation into the 2016 election.
But Trump brought up Biden – his potential 2020 rival – in the July phone call with the Ukrainian President and Giuliani has made clear he demanded a Biden investigation in his interactions with Ukrainian officials. There is no evidence of wrongdoing by Biden or his son Hunter in Ukraine.
When asked about the decision to withhold aid from Ukraine, Mulvaney told reporters: “The money that was held up had nothing to do with Biden.”
“I was involved in the process by which the money was held up temporarily, OK? Three issues for that: The corruption in the country, whether or not they were participating with supporting Ukraine and whether or not they are cooperating with an ongoing investigation with our Department of Justice,” he said. “That’s completely legitimate.”
Mulvaney’s attempt to test drive the administration’s defense ran into a ditch almost immediately with that mention of the Justice Department.
In an unusual statement expressing public distance from the White House, a senior Justice Department official responded: “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.”
Trump’s attorney Jay Sekulow told CNN’s Jim Acosta: “The legal team was not involved in the acting chief of staff’s press briefing.”
But administration lawyers believe that the request for a 2016 probe is not improper quid pro because it aligns with established US policy interests to combat Ukrainian corruption.
It is also common for the State Department and administrations to request specific foreign government actions – working with US law enforcement on drug interdiction for instance — in exchange for aid.
Embraced by all
It’s a defense that’s been embraced by others getting scrutinized.
Mulvaney’s comments are in line with the view among administration lawyers that it’s legally defensible for the President to condition aid on an investigation into a past election.
So far, witnesses in the congressional impeachment inquiry are willing to talk about Trump’s order to push for a Ukrainian investigation of 2016 election interference. But few appear to claim knowledge about the President’s interest in Ukraine’s government publicly announcing an investigation of former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter.
Democrats are accusing the President of pushing for a probe of a potential 2020 election rival at a time when the administration was withholding aid to Ukraine that Congress had appropriated.
The President and his lawyer pushed for the Ukrainian government to look into claims that the previous Ukraine administration had improperly interfered in the 2016 election. After all, that election is in the past.
More problematic: an effort led by Giuliani, the President’s personal lawyer, to get the Ukrainian government to essentially aid Trump’s current reelection campaign by publicly announcing an investigation into purported corruption involving Biden and his son, who served on a board of Ukrainian energy company Burisma.
In multiple interviews with CNN over the past six months, Giuliani has insisted that his interest in Ukraine was in determining what he called the true origins of the Mueller investigation. He has characterized that the information about the Bidens and Burisma was something he stumbled upon and thought should be looked into by the press.
“I said, ‘Holy sh*t, what’s that all about?’” Giuliani told CNN in May.
The longstanding claim from Giuliani that he was seeking information concerning the previous election, not the upcoming one, mirrors the current message of Trump’s White House.
The Justice Department said last month it didn’t find a campaign finance violation in the President’s request for a Ukrainian investigation of the Bidens. Senior Justice Department officials said one issue was establishing that such an investigation was a thing of value to a campaign as defined by election law, which forbids US campaigns from taking money or things of value from foreigners.
But the ongoing investigation by prosecutors in New York’s southern district shows that issues surrounding Giuliani’s efforts in Ukraine are far from a closed matter.
Giuliani has pushed claims that Democrats worked with Ukrainian law enforcement to propel allegations against Paul Manafort, the 2016 Trump campaign chairman now serving prison time for financial crimes.
Trump has embraced those and other claims, including an unsupported one that ties Ukraine to the hack of Democrats’ emails in 2016.
US intelligence has concluded that Russian intelligence was behind the hacks as part of a broad Russian effort to hurt Hillary Clinton’s campaign and to aid Trump’s election.
Nonetheless, Giuliani worked with associates, including two who were indicted on campaign finance crimes last week, to dig up what they said was evidence showing not only interference in 2016 but also of corruption involving the Bidens.
Bill Taylor, the acting US ambassador in Kiev, raised concerns in text messages released in recent weeks, that US aid to Ukraine was being held hostage in exchange for an investigation that would help the President’s 2020 campaign.
So far, he’s the only one to make that connection. He has yet to testify to the House inquiry.
Gordon Sondland, the US ambassador to the European Union, who is among the senior officials who interacted with Giuliani on the Ukraine issues said in prepared testimony: “To the best of my recollection, I do not recall any discussions with the White House on withholding US security assistance from Ukraine in return for assistance with the President’s 2020 reelection campaign.”
He recalled that Giuliani pushed for the Ukrainian government to publicly announce investigation of alleged corruption, and specified issues related to the purported 2016 election interference.
“Mr. Giuliani specifically mentioned the 2016 election (including the Democratic National Committee server) and Burisma as two anticorruption investigatory topics of importance for the President,” Sondland said, adding that he didn’t realize that Burisma was the energy company tied to Hunter Biden.
Similarly, Energy Secretary Rick Perry told The Wall Street Journal in an interview that he understood the President to be focused on alleged 2016 election interference, which he blamed for the Russian interference allegations that clouded his presidency.
Perry says he recalls talking to Giuliani about the 2016 concerns, but not the Bidens.
“And as I recall the conversation, he said, ‘Look, the President is really concerned that there are people in Ukraine that tried to beat him during this presidential election,’ ” Perry told the Journal. ” ‘He thinks they’re corrupt and … that there are still people over there engaged that are absolutely corrupt.’ “
Giuliani claimed Ukraine had possession of Clinton’s email server and that Ukrainian government officials at the time “dreamed up” evidence Manafort to prison. There’s no evidence to support the server claim and the FBI and Justice Department used a banking paper trail to convict Manafort on charges of using foreign bank accounts to hide from the IRS the millions of dollars he earned from his Ukraine work.
“I don’t know whether that was crap or what,” Perry told the Journal, to explain why he believed Trump was distrustful of the Ukrainian government.
Despite the emerging effort to separate the 2016 claims from the effort to push the Biden corruption claim, Giuliani himself has muddied the message. Trump also has mixed the two things in public comments.
In his repeated television appearances, Giuliani makes clear that the president views a corruption clean-up in Ukraine to include an investigation of the Bidens.
In an interview with CNN’s Chris Cuomo, Giuliani at first said he never asked the Ukrainians to investigate the Bidens, then 20 seconds later, relented. Asked again if he requested that Ukraine investigate the Bidens, Giuliani responded: “Of course I did.”
CNN’s Mike Warren and Maegan Vazquez contributed to this report.