Wednesday 13 November 2019

Trump held back aid for Ukraine probe, White House chief admits

Hearing: US Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland (centre) arrives at Capitol Hill. Photo: Getty
Hearing: US Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland (centre) arrives at Capitol Hill. Photo: Getty

Ben Riley-Smith

Donald Trump's chief of staff yesterday confirmed US military aid to Ukraine had been held back to help secure corruption investigations linked to the Democrats, but denied Joe Biden was a focus.

In a rare briefing with the press, Mick Mulvaney said the president had been concerned about claims that Ukraine somehow meddled in the 2016 US presidential election.

He said that, in particular, there was a concern that a computer server from the Democratic National Committee, which was hacked during the 2016 campaign, was in Ukraine.

The Trump administration's decision to withhold almost $400m (€360m) of military assistance to Ukraine while it sought investigations linked to the US is the heart of the presidential impeachment inquiry.

The admission appeared to soften the White House's previous denials that there was no "quid pro quo" involved - in other words no military aid money for investigations.

"Get over it. There's going to be political influence in foreign policy," Mr Mulvaney said at one point, adding: "That is going to happen.

"Elections have consequences."

Yet while Mr Mulvaney admitted investigations into the 2016 election were linked to the pausing of aid, he disputed a probe into Mr Biden, the Democrat who could face Mr Trump at the 2020 election, was involved.

Mr Mulvaney said he had never been involved in any attempt to get Ukraine to investigate Mr Biden or his son, Hunter Biden.

Yesterday also saw Gordon Sondland, Mr Trump's EU ambassador who helped shape Ukraine policy during the period under scrutiny, give testimony to the impeachment inquiry.

He said Mr Trump personally directed US officials to work with Rudy Giuliani, the president's personal attorney, on Ukraine policy.

Mr Giuliani has been publicly pushing claims that Mr Biden intervened while US vice president to benefit his son Hunter, who worked at a Ukrainian gas company. The Bidens have always denied wrongdoing.

Mr Sondland also made clear that he opposed holding back military assistance to Ukraine, saying that the aid "should not have been delayed for any reason".

The remarks back up key elements of the complaint from an intelligence whistleblower which kick-started the impeachment inquiry, appearing to confirm that Mr Giuliani did indeed play a significant role in shaping Ukraine policy.

Mr Sondland said he was merely repeating President Donald Trump's reassurances when he told another envoy there was no quid pro quo in the administration's dealings with Ukraine.

Mr Sondland, whose name surfaced in a whistleblower complaint in August, was due to be asked about text messages that show him working with two other diplomats to navigate the interests of Mr Trump and Mr Giuliani.

They reveal the diplomats discussing an arrangement in which President Volodymyr Zelensky would be offered a White House visit in exchange for a public statement by Ukraine committing to undertake investigations into the 2016 US presidential election and into Burisma, the gas company.

He is expected to say that though he did understand there to be a quid pro quo involving a White House visit, he did not associate Burisma with the Biden family and believed an anti-corruption public statement was a goal widely shared across the administration.

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