The Morning Dispatch: Mulvaney’s Mixed Message on Ukraine

Good morning, and happy Friday. To answer some questions we’ve received the past few days, we will be publishing The Morning Dispatch three times a week—Monday, Wednesday, Friday—until further notice. If you like what we’re doing, be sure to share with friends and family.

For Those of You Just Joining Us

Thursday was an insane day on the Ukraine front. Before we dive in, a quick recap: House Democrats are currently in the thick of proceedings to impeach President Trump, asserting that he used U.S. foreign policy for his own political ends in dealings with Ukraine over the summer, particularly on a July 25 phone call with new Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky.

What Democrats initially alleged—and what we now know to be true—is that Trump heavily pressured Zelensky to make the country launch two criminal investigations related to his own former and future presidential campaigns: one into a hacked DNC email server that some right-wing conspiracy theorists believe was smuggled into Ukraine, and one into Joe Biden’s son Hunter, who did consulting work for the natural gas company Burisma in Ukraine during the late Obama years.

What hasn’t been as clear is how much pressure the White House put on Ukraine. Going into Thursday, the evidence already suggested Trump had employed one modestly sized carrot and one incredibly big stick: the prospect of a coveted face-to-face meeting at the White House if Ukraine complied, and the threat of the Trump administration refusing to send them desperately needed military aid if they did not. Yet all along, the White House has been adamant: There was absolutely no quid pro quo.

Thursday Dominoes

Now that’s changed—sort of. Acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney held a press conference at the White House early Thursday afternoon, at which he told the world that Trump had decided to hold next year’s international G-7 summit at his own Doral resort in Miami—a stunning announcement that we’ll get to below.

But that was peanuts compared to what followed in the Q&A, when talk turned to Ukraine. Mulvaney started by insisting that Trump held up military aid because he was concerned about Ukrainian corruption. After that—well, let’s just go to the tape:

MULVANEY: Put that as your context: Look, this is a corrupt place. I don’t want to send them a bunch of money and have them waste it, have them spend it, have them use it to line their own pockets. … Those were the driving factors. Did he also mention to me in the past the question related to the DNC server? Absolutely. No question about that. But that’s it, and that’s why we held up the money.

REPORTER: So the demand for an investigation into the Democrats was part of the reason that he ordered to withhold funding to Ukraine?

MULVANEY: The look back to what happened in 2016 certainly was part of the thing that he was worried about in corruption with that nation. And that is absolutely appropriate.

REPORTER: Withholding the funding?

MULVANEY: Yeah. Which ultimately then flowed.

Then, a few moments later:

REPORTER: Let’s be clear, what you just described is a quid pro quo. It is “funding will not flow unless the investigation into the Democratic server happens as well.”

MULVANEY: We do that all the time with foreign policy. 

Wait! Let’s Roll That One Back.

Mulvaney’s statement didn’t confirm the potentially most damning allegation against Trump: that he held up military aid to get an investigation into Joe Biden. But it did confirm just about everything else. Unsurprisingly, that didn’t sit very well with the White House: A few hours later, Mulvaney released another statement that flatly contradicted what he had previously said. 

“Let me be clear,” Mulvaney said in the statement. “There was absolutely no quid pro quo between Ukrainian military aid and any investigation into the 2016 election. … There was never any condition on the flow of the aid related to the matter of the DNC server.”

Mulvaney additionally insisted it had only seemed like he admitted to a quid pro quo because the media “decided to misconstrue my comments to advance a biased and political witch hunt against President Trump.” But hey, there’s the transcript —you be the judge!

But Wait Again! There’s Even More.

One other piece of Ukraine news before we let you go. On Wednesday, we read you in on Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union who seems to have found himself unwittingly roped into the controversy. Sondland testified before three House committees Thursday. According to his opening statement, released publicly, Trump directed him as early as May to work with Rudy Giuliani on the matter of coordinating a White House visit for Zelensky. 

“In these short conversations,” he testified, “Mr. Giuliani emphasized that the president wanted a public statement from President Zelensky committing Ukraine to look into anti-corruption issues. Mr. Giuliani specifically mentioned the 2016 election (including the DNC server) and Burisma as two anti-corruption investigatory topics of importance for the president.” 

To put it all together: President Trump wanted Ukraine to investigate Biden and a conspiracy theory about a phantasmal DNC server. He pressed the Ukrainian president to look into both on a phone call in July. Mulvaney admitted and then un-admitted Thursday that the White House had held up military aid in part to help secure one of those investigations, and Sondland testified that Trump had wanted a public statement from Zelensky about both before the White House would agree to a meeting. And Trump ran the whole foreign policy at least in part through Giuliani—two of whose clients were arrested last week in relation to a corruption scheme in Ukraine. Giuliani, we remind everyone, is the president’s personal lawyer and not a government employee.

“What We Have Done to the Kurds Will Stand as a Blood Stain in the Annals of American History.”

Remember Mitt Romney’s words—he delivered a blistering speech on the Senate floor on Thursday afternoon that many wanted to give but few had the courage to—as the fallout from Trump’s disastrous decision to cave to Turkish President Erdogan continues. The Wall Street Journal is already reporting that between 72 and 218 civilians have been killed in the Turkish offensive, with hundreds more wounded and 160,000 displaced from their homes. And for what?

There’s a strange line coming from certain corners of the administration: Turkey was set on invading Syria, the United States was powerless to stop it, and Trump’s move was necessary to keep our soldiers out of harm’s way. Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham’s initial statement announcing the move simply conceded that “Turkey will soon be moving forward with its long-planned operation into Northern Syria.” Defense Secretary Mark Esper told Fox News on Sunday that Erdogan was “fully committed to doing this, regardless of what we did.” Trump himself explained the pullback in the Oval Office on Wednesday, saying that after his decision “our soldiers are not in harm’s way, as they shouldn’t be.”

Listen. Turkey has been “set” on invading Syria for years. But until last week, it hadn’t. Erdogan did not dare risk retaliation from American forces both in the region and beyond. So what changed? Either nothing—and Trump failed to call Erdogan’s bluff—or the threat of retaliation from the United States is greatly diminished.

Romney, exuding an indignation that he rarely permits to seep into his public persona, implored his colleagues to consider some harsh truths: “Are we so weak and inept diplomatically that Turkey forced the hand of the United States of America? Turkey!?” 

The answer, based on recent events, appears to be yes. Trump sent the Turkish president what was intended to be a threatening letter last week, including the phrases “don’t be a fool!” and “I will call you later.” Erdogan reportedly threw it in the trash, and his senior adviser told NPR that Turkey’s response to the letter “was the start of the operation” in Syria. Trump sent two of his top Mikes—Pence and Pompeo—on a diplomatic mission to Turkey in an attempt to negotiate a cease-fire, and touted their deal as a “great day for civilization.” Turkey’s foreign minister immediately undermined that claim: “Not a cease-fire, we are only pausing. This is not a cease-fire.” Trump, for all his bluster and America First™ rhetoric, is allowing himself to be steamrolled by a country one-fourth the size of the United States. Instead of standing up for himself and for his country, he’s absurdly echoing Turkish propaganda, saying the Kurds are “worse at terror and more of a terrorist threat, in many ways, than ISIS.”

The “cease-fire” for Turkey is not only not a cease-fire, it’s not really much of a deal. Turkey has agreed to give the Kurds five days to remove all of their fortifications, pull troops, and retreat from the land in northeastern Syria they previously occupied. Essentially, if the Kurds promised to give Turkey everything it wants, Turkey would stop bombing them—for five days, at least.

Our soon-to-be colleague David French summed it up nicely:

Of Debt and Deficits

As if all that wasn’t enough, here’s yet another piece of news to curdle the blood: On Thursday, the national debt went up by about $3 billion.

Okay, okay—so that isn’t exactly new news. (Or strictly accurate: the budget deficit, which is projected to top $1 trillion for the first time since 2012, moves in fits and starts over the course of the year.) But it does give a sense of how the issue of federal deficit spending has fallen off entirely out of the public eye.

Part of this is an attention issue. Runaway deficit spending may be a critical national problem, but it’s also a boring one—a slow-moving glacier that can’t compete with the volcanic explosions that have monopolized the news almost every week of the Trump era. The rest of the issue is pure politics: The GOP used to be the party beating the deficit drum, but the party’s current president has no desire to pursue policies that would put the U.S. on the path to solvency.

Some of the GOP’s Tea Party-era fiscal hawks, most notably former House Speaker Paul Ryan, have simply bowed out of Congress. The 30-odd members of the House Freedom Caucus, formerly full of fiscal fervor, have thrown out their former playbook of agitating against spending even against the wishes of party leaders and attached themselves totally to the president. Outside Congress, some policy groups have followed the Freedom Caucus’s lead.

For some critics, this hypocrisy is all the evidence they need to insist that elected Republicans never cared about the deficit in the first place—as if “the nation shouldn’t spend itself into crippling debt” were a radical notion only suitable for cranks and cynics.

Perhaps a more plausible explanation is simply that conservative lawmakers were gobsmacked by Trump’s popularity among their constituents—so much so that it destroyed their confidence that they knew what those constituents wanted. AEI scholar Yuval Levin made that case to The Dispatch Thursday:

“The most conservative—fiscally conservative and otherwise—Republican members had a sense that they were there on behalf of a certain kind of voter, and then it turned out that it was their voters who were the first to go for Trump. And Trump talked about none of the things that they thought those voters cared a lot about,” Levin said. “They’re very insecure about their understanding of the political circumstances that they’re living through right now. And part of what that insecurity means is they just don’t bring up stuff that they’re not sure about.”

What Else We’re Reading/Watching

  • Elijah Cummings—civil rights leader, congressman from Baltimore, and chairman of both the Congressional Black Caucus and the House Oversight Committee—died early Thursday morning at the age of 68. We send our condolences to Cummings’ friends and family, and encourage you to read this obituary in his hometown Baltimore Sun.

  • As mentioned above, and because corruption apparently isn’t corruption if it’s wide out in the open, Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney announced Trump’s intention to hold next year’s G-7 Summit at his own private resort in Miami, boosting revenue and flouting ethics standards. Read Toluse Olorunnipa, David Fahrenthold, and Jonathan O’Connell on the unprecedented nature of this move

  • A few years ago, Mina Kimes noticed Houston Texans standout wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins was wearing cleats emblazoned with “End Domestic Violence.” She found out why, and wrote about the relationship between Hopkins and his mother for ESPN in a cover story you’re going to want to read.

Presented Without Comment

Something Fun

Former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has got jokes:

Toeing the Company Line

  • We promise we’re letting Jonah sleep (and walk his dogs). But in addition to his midweek G-File, podcasts with Mo Elleithe and Jack Butler, and tomorrow’s impending G-File, he’s also got another Remnant with Ken Pollack of the American Enterprise Institute breaking down the latest in Syria (if the 600 words above weren’t enough for you). Give it a listen here.

  • David French has not yet officially boarded the pirate skiff, but we’ll plug his work all the same. Check out his latest column in Time on Syria, Ukraine, and how “Character doesn’t just count, character controls.”

Let Us Know

Which defense of Trump using the presidency to boost business at his private company is the most patriotic? We’ll let you know who said what on Monday.

  • “Show me where there’s a violation of law. I’m not sure that there is, not that I’m aware of.”

  • “It may seem careless politically, but on the other hand there’s tremendous integrity in his boldness and his transparency.”

  • “Anything that draws a major event like that to Florida is not something I would discourage.”

  • “This was by far and away the best choice.”

Send comments or questions to Reporting by Declan Garvey, Andrew Egger, and Steve Hayes.

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