President Trump's acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, on Sunday again tried to control the damage from his earlier acknowledgment that the White House used nearly $400 million in aid to pressure Ukraine to investigate the 2016 presidential election.
Since Mulvaney made the stunning admission on Thursday, he has been walking the remarks back and assigning responsibility to the media, insisting that his words have been misconstrued.
Speaking on Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace, Mulvaney flatly denied what he had previously said during a televised news conference: that defense funding was frozen in part over the demand that Ukraine launch an investigation that could politically benefit Trump.
"That's not what I said. That's what people said that I said," Mulvaney said. "Can I see how people took that the wrong way? Absolutely. But I never said there was a quid pro quo, because there isn't."
Mulvaney told reporters on Thursday that military aid to Ukraine that had already been appropriated by Congress was being used as leverage for Trump's demand that Kyiv investigate a debunked conspiracy theory. That theory places blame on Ukraine for election interference involving the 2016 hacking of Democratic National Committee computer servers. The intelligence community has concluded that the effort was orchestrated by Russia.
"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, and that's why we held up the money," Mulvaney said last week, telling reporters that "we do that all the time with foreign policy," referring to politics influencing foreign affairs.
The statement reverberated across the Capitol, prompting denouncements from both sides of the aisle.
Democratic House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff said Mulvaney's admission meant "things have gone from very, very bad to much, much worse."
Some Republicans also condemned the surprise remarks. "You don't hold up foreign aid that we had previously appropriated for a political initiative, period," said Lisa Murkowski, a Republican senator from Alaska.
Following the remarks, the Justice Department, Trump's personal attorney and Mulvaney himself backed away or tried to clean up what was said.
Continuing his about-face, Mulvaney said Sunday that he never used the specific words "quid pro quo," adding that the "back and forth" and "rapid fire" nature of White House press briefings may have left some observers confused about what he was trying to say.
"There was never any connection between the flow of money and the server," Mulvaney said on Sunday.
Mulvaney's comments saying just the opposite of what he is saying now undercut Trump's long-standing defense that aid to Ukraine was never conditioned on advancing a political agenda.
The issue is a central topic of the impeachment inquiry into Trump's interactions with the president of Ukraine. Three House committees leading the investigation continue to bring witnesses to the Capitol in a case examining abuse-of-power allegations that could lead to lawmakers voting on whether to impeach the president.
On Thursday, Mulvaney said he was only aware of Trump's desire to have Ukraine look into the hacked DNC servers, but texts among State Department officials apparently reveal a plan that tried to get Ukraine to commit to investigating Ukrainian energy company Burisma, on whose board 2020 Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden's son, Hunter, served.
The $391 million in defense aid at the core of the scandal was eventually delivered to Ukraine, and that alone should "put the matter to bed," Mulvaney said on Sunday.
Asked if he ever thought his explosive comments on Thursday would have cost him his job, Mulvaney said, "Absolutely positively not," while conceding, "Did I have the perfect press conference? No, but again the facts are on our side."
Meanwhile, impeachment investigators examining Trump's dealings with Ukraine are pressing ahead. They are expected to call two more diplomats for testimony in the coming days — Bill Taylor, the acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, and Philip Reeker, the acting assistant secretary of European and Eurasian affairs in the State Department.