After repeated White House denials – including from President Donald Trump himself -- that there was a quid pro quo in the Ukraine affair, White House Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney on Thursday admitted there was one, saying Trump had ordered him to withhold military aid in part to pressure Ukraine to launch an investigation of Democrats.
“President Trump is not a big fan of foreign aid. Never has been. Still isn’t. Doesn’t like spending money overseas, especially when it's poorly spent, and that is exactly what drove this decision,” Mulvaney told ABC News’ Chief White House Correspondent Jonathan Karl during a White House briefing. “I've been in the office a couple of times with him, talking about this, and he said, ‘Look, Mick, this is a corrupt place. Everybody knows it's a corrupt place.’”
In a terse statement issued Thursday evening, Trump's personal lawyer, Jay Sekulow, said, "The President's legal counsel was not involved in acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney's press briefing."
After hours of backlash, Mulvaney attempted to clarify his comments in a statement the White House released shortly afterward.
“Once again, the media has decided to misconstrue my comments to advance a biased and political witch hunt against President Trump. Let me be clear, there was absolutely no quid pro quo between Ukrainian military aid and any investigation into the 2016 election," Mulvaney noted. "The president never told me to withhold any money until the Ukrainians did anything related to the server. The only reasons we were holding the money was because of concern about lack of support from other nations and concerns over corruption."
The "server" reference is to a debunked conspiracy theory that Trump has long clung to: that the Democratic National Committee’s hacked email server was being held in Ukraine – and that individuals in Ukraine were behind an effort to sabotage his 2016 election. Last month, Trump’s own former homeland security adviser called the theory “completely false.”
Mulvaney added in the statement that he repeatedly cited the president's interest in "rooting out corruption in Ukraine, and ensuring taxpayer dollars are spent responsibly and appropriately" during the news conference.
"There was never any connection between the funds and the Ukrainians doing anything with the server - this was made explicitly obvious by the fact that the aid money was delivered without any action on the part of the Ukrainians regarding the server," he said. "There never was any condition on the flow of the aid related to the matter of the DNC server.”
Earlier Thursday, Mulvaney had recounted that the president told him he didn’t want to send Ukraine “a bunch of money and have them waste it, and have them spend it, have them use it to line their own pockets.”
“Those were the driving factors,” Mulvaney said. “Did he also mention to me in the past that 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.”
“So the demand for an investigation into the Democrats was part of the reason that he ordered you to withhold funding to Ukraine?” Karl asked.
“’Look back to what happened in 2016,’ certainly was part of the thing that he was worried about in corruption with the nation,” Mulvaney said. “And that is absolutely equivalent.”
“What you described is a quid pro quo,” Karl pressed. “It is: Funding will not flow unless the investigation into the Democrats’ server happens as well.”
“We do that all the time with foreign policy,” Mulvaney answered. “We were holding up money at the same time for, what was it? The Northern Triangle countries. We were holding up aid at the Northern Triangle countries so that they -- so that they would change their policies on immigration.”
Mulvaney did not mention that a rough White House transcript of Trump’s call with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy shows the investigation into alleged corruption Trump and the president’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, wanted specified a probe of the Ukrainian energy company Burisma where former Vice President Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, sat on the board.
Asked whether Giuliani's role was problematic, Mulvaney dismissed questions raised about having a private citizen, not a government official, involved in U.S. foreign policy.
"It is not illegal, it is not impeachable. The president gets to use who he wants to use. If he wants to fire me and hire someone else, he can. The president gets to set foreign policy. He gets to choose who to do so. As long as it does not violate law or laws regarding confidential information or classified material or anything like that the president can use who he wants tom" he argued.
Mulvaney, who stepped into the role of acting chief of staff from his post as the director of the Office of Management and Budget, insisted that an investigation of Joe Biden was not part of the equation, and dismissed the House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry as a “witch hunt.”
“I have news for everybody: Get over it. There’s going to be political influence in foreign policy,” Mulvaney said. “That is going to happen. Elections have consequences and foreign policy is going to change from the Obama administration to the Trump administration.”
While previous American presidents have pressured foreign leaders in order to achieve U.S. policy objectives, it has not been considered acceptable that they could do so for the personal benefit they might get from an investigation into political opponents, and many Democrats have said doing so, by itself, is grounds for impeachment.
Rep. Adam Schiff, the California Democrat who heads the House Intelligence Committee and is leading the impeachment investigation, called Mulvaney's blocking of the aid "illicit."
"With his acknowledgement now that military aid to a vital ally, battling Russia as we speak, was withheld in part out of the desire by the president to have Ukraine investigate the DNC server or Democrats of 2016, things have just gone from very, very bad to much, much worse," Schiff said. "The idea that vital military assistance would be withheld for such a patently political reason, for reason of serving the presidential election campaign, is a phenomenal breach of the president’s duty to defend our national security."
ABC News' John Santucci and Benjamin Siegel contributed to this report.