A version of this story first appeared in CNN’s Impeachment Watch newsletter. To get it in your inbox, sign up for free here.
A stunning admission on Thursday from a top aide to President Donald Trump marked a major moment in the impeachment inquiry.
Catch up on all the day’s news here:
WH chief of staff admits to quid pro quo with Ukraine, says ‘get over it’
The President’s acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, just contradicted his boss in an epic and unexpected way, by saying that getting Ukraine to investigate Democrats was a factor in holding up hundreds of millions in aid.
What you’re describing is a quid pro quo, a reporter told Mulvaney. To which Mulvaney answered: “We do – we do that all the time with foreign policy.”
“And I have news for everybody: Get over it,” Mulvaney said moments later. “There’s going to be political influence in foreign policy.” Read more
Later, Mulvaney tried to walk it all back in a written statement.
“Let me be clear, there was absolutely no quid pro quo between Ukrainian military aid and any investigation into the 2016 election.”
Trump has been denying quid pro quo
Trump has spent weeks saying there was no quid pro quo between him and Ukrainians; that he did not demand an investigation of Hunter Biden’s former company or the origins of the Mueller report in exchange for nearly $400 million in aid.
This is what Trump said YESTERDAY
“There was no quid pro quo,” Trump said Wednesday in the Oval Office, one representative example of the thing he’s repeated like a mantra.
There was clearly pressure from Trump for the investigation in his July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Read the transcript here. And he clearly held up the funding. But his argument was the two were not related. Now Mulvaney, his acting chief of staff, has said the opposite. And Mulvaney’s defense is basically: Quid pro quo? Big whoop. “Get over it.”
And now the President is less than pleased with the whole thing, with a source telling CNN’s Jim Acosta and Jeremy Diamond that Trump “was not happy” with Mulvaney’s news briefing. Acosta and Diamond also report Mulvaney was briefed before the news conference – but mostly on the decision to hold the G7 meeting at Trump’s Doral golf course in Florida. Aides spent only a small amount of time briefing Mulvaney about impeachment, and they didn’t expect him to go as far as he did when talking about Ukraine.
What was Mulvaney thinking?
Evan Perez reports Mulvaney was test driving a new strategy. The argument is that it’s totally OK for the President to be political with foreign aid, but also that Trump was focused on the DOJ review of the 2016 presidential election rather than Biden. Mulvaney also claimed that the White House hasn’t tried to cover anything up, which is evidence Trump didn’t do anything wrong. But he ignores the fact the White House originally tried to block the whistleblower complaint and also restricted access to the transcript of the call.
A new strategy
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.”
A flawed strategy
The strategy ignores the fact that Trump repeatedly mentioned the Bidens during the call with Zelensky. Perez notes the strategy caught a lot of the President’s allies by surprise.
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.”
Is quid pro quo necessary for impeachment?
Nope. At least not according to a lot of Democrats, who have said the simple and obvious fact that Trump pressured and invited foreign leaders to investigate his rival’s family is illegal, since he asked a foreigner for something of political value to him. That in itself could meet the constitutional test of “high crimes and misdemeanors.”
The pressure may be enough.
“The reality is, as much as there’s a lot of focus on a quid pro quo, I just want to remind everyone, you do not need a quid pro quo. The United States asking a foreign leader to interfere in an American presidential election is illegal, un-American, unpatriotic and in it of itself constitutes grounds for impeachment,” said Rep. David Cicilline, a Rhode Island Democrat.
Trump will host the G7 at his struggling golf course, a new test for the Constitution
Mulvaney also answered questions Thursday about Trump’s decision to host leaders from the world’s most industrialized democracies at his struggling golf course in Doral, Florida. The formal decision comes the same week that an appeals court revived a lawsuit about whether foreigners staying at the Trump hotel in DC breaks the Constitution’s emoluments clause. It’s a good reminder that while everyone is focused on Ukraine, the Trump presidency tests the Constitution every day in new ways.
Nancy Pelosi is convinced that Trump’s summit at his golf course is unconstitutional. She clipped a Fox News segment on the issue and tweeted, “The Constitution is clear: the President cannot accept gifts or payments from foreign governments. No one is above the law. #EmolumentsClause”
Fallout from a clash at the White House between Trump and Pelosi also continued. He posted a photo of her standing up to him during a meeting at the White House Wednesday. It’s a remarkable image of a tense moment as Trump’s aides look away and Pelosi stares him down. She said Thursday she was probably telling him that his foreign policy always seems to benefit Vladimir Putin. In this case, the US abandoning Kurds helps Putin’s ally, Syria.
He tweeted the photo accusing her of having a meltdown, but she fired back that he was the one who had a meltdown and she was worried about his mental health. That might be dismissed as overheated rhetoric, but it shouldn’t, writes Chris Cillizza.
“Because there is significant evidence that in the 29 days since The Washington Post broke the news of a whistleblower in the intelligence community that Trump’s worst traits and instincts have surged almost beyond his control even as his political situation grows more perilous with each passing day.” His full argument
Key witness: Sondland breaks with Trump
Today on the Impeachment Watch podcast, CNN Political Director David Chalian dove into the testimony of US Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland before House impeachment investigators. Chalian talked to CNN justice correspondent Jessica Schneider and CNN reporter and producer Marshall Cohen.
Cohen notes that the political donor turned EU ambassador is not in lockstep with Donald Trump: “He did not give Trump’s talking points behind closed doors.” Link here
- The ambassador, a GOP donor, wasn’t aware until “much later” that Giuliani’s agenda might have included an effort to “prompt the Ukrainians” to investigate the Bidens.
- He said he was “disappointed” that Trump wouldn’t commit to a meeting sought by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky until they spoke with Giuliani
A few more things
Rick Perry informed the White House Thursday of his intention to resign as Energy Secretary as scrutiny over Ukraine heats up.
In the months leading up to Trump’s phone call with Zelensky, multiple people associated with Trump, both inside and outside of his administration, were engaged in efforts to change leadership at Naftogaz, Ukraine’s geopolitically important state-owned oil and gas company. That includes US Energy Secretary Rick Perry. Separately, the two associates of Rudy Giuliani arrested last week on campaign finance charges had pushed for changes at the company.
A top aide to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Ulrich Brechbul, had been scheduled to testify before House investigators. But that testimony may be on ice. Stay tuned.
What are we doing here?
The President has invited foreign powers to interfere in the US presidential election.
Democrats want to impeach him for it.
It is a crossroads for the American system of government as the President tries to change what’s acceptable for US politicians. This newsletter will focus on this consequential moment in US history.