WASHINGTON • United States President Donald Trump's withholding of US$391 million (S$534 million) in military aid to Ukraine was linked to his request that the Ukrainians look into a claim - debunked as a conspiracy theory - about the 2016 US election, a senior presidential aide said on Thursday, the first time the White House acknowledged such a connection.
Mr Trump and administration officials had denied for weeks that they had demanded a "quid pro quo" for delivering the US aid, a key part of a controversy that has triggered an impeachment inquiry in the House of Representatives against the Republican President.
But acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney acknowledged in a briefing with reporters that the US aid - already approved by Congress - was held up partly over Mr Trump's concerns about a Democratic National Committee (DNC) computer server alleged to be in Ukraine.
"I have news for everybody: Get over it. There is going to be political influence in foreign policy," Mr Mulvaney said. He later contradicted himself, ruling out a quid pro quo in a statement from the White House.
In a July 25 call, Mr Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for "a favour" to look into the server as well as the California-based cyber-security firm CrowdStrike, which was hired by the DNC in 2016 to investigate hacking of Democratic e-mails that it later determined was done by Russia.
Mr Trump also asked Mr Zelensky to investigate a domestic political opponent, former US vice-president Joe Biden, and Mr Biden's son Hunter, who had served as a director for a Ukrainian energy company. Mr Zelensky agreed during the call to carry out the investigation that Mr Trump sought. The US aid was later provided to Ukraine.
The DNC server issue is a discredited claim that Ukraine and not Russia interfered in the 2016 US election, and that a Democratic Party computer server was being held somewhere in Ukraine. US intelligence agencies and a special counsel investigation concluded that Russia used a campaign of hacking and propaganda to boost Mr Trump's 2016 candidacy.
Mr Biden is a leading contender for the Democratic nomination to face Mr Trump in the 2020 presidential election.
Mr Mulvaney said Mr Trump did not like foreign aid, thought Ukraine was corrupt and was annoyed at how little "lethal aid" European nations provided to Ukraine as it combated Russia-backed separatists in its country.
"Did he also mention to me in the past, the corruption related to the DNC server? Absolutely. No question," Mr Mulvaney said, referring to Mr Trump. "But that is it. That is why we held up the money."
He added: "The look-back to what happened in 2016 certainly was part of the things that he was worried about in corruption in that nation."
A reporter told Mr Mulvaney that what he just described was a quid pro quo.
"We do that all the time with foreign policy," Mr Mulvaney responded. In his later statement, Mr Mulvaney offered a different account, saying: "There was absolutely no quid pro quo... There never was any condition on the flow of the aid related to the matter of the DNC server."
Democratic members of the three House committees leading the impeachment inquiry pounced on Mr Mulvaney's earlier remarks.
Representative Gerald Connolly said: "I guess having failed at discrediting the facts of this case, they have decided on a new tactic, which is to admit them and basically say, 'So what'? The answer to that is, well, the 'so what' is you are going to be impeached because that is abuse of office. And extortion, the last time I checked, is still a crime."
Mr Mulvaney's comments came after US Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland said in written testimony in the impeachment inquiry that Mr Trump told senior US officials to talk directly to his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani about US policy in Ukraine, raising concern that the President was outsourcing American foreign policy to a private citizen. Mr Sondland told lawmakers in the Democratic-led inquiry that he did not understand until much later that Mr Giuliani's agenda included a push for Ukraine to investigate Mr Biden.
His testimony was the clearest sign yet that Mr Trump's efforts to erect a firewall around the White House and frustrate the inquiry's efforts to interview administration officials were proving unsuccessful.