Two bombshells rock the White House
DONALD Trump's chief of staff Mick Mulvaney dropped not one but two bombshells during a truly wild press conference today.
One of them was an announcement, the other an admission. We will deal with each in turn.
First, the announcement. Mr Mulvaney revealed next year's G7 summit - a gathering of world leaders from the United States, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Japan, Canada and Italy - would be hosted at one of Mr Trump's golf resorts.
The Doral resort in Florida was, he said, "far and away the best physical facility for this meeting". Several other options were vetted.
"I was talking to one of the advance teams when they came back and I said, 'What was it like?' And they said, 'You're not going to believe this, but it's almost like they built this facility to host this type of event'," Mr Mulvaney said.
He said Doral would be made available "at cost" for the G7, saving American taxpayers millions of dollars they would otherwise have spent at a different venue.
However, the decision raises concerns that Mr Trump could be personally profiting off his position as president.
The US Constitution includes a section called the emoluments clause, which states: "No person holding any office of profit or trust under them shall, without the consent of Congress, accept of any present, emolument, office or title of any kind whatsoever from any king, prince or foreign state."
To translate that into plain English, the Constitution forbids the President from receiving money from foreign governments without congressional consent.
"He has bought himself an enormous headache now with the choice of this. This is about as direct and profound a violation of the emoluments clause as one could create," Fox News legal analyst and former judge Andrew Napolitano said after Mr Mulvaney's press conference.
The Doral resort is one of the Trump family's biggest money makers, but it has suffered financially in recent years. Its net operating income has fallen by 69 per cent since Mr Trump became president, and its revenues have been dropping since 2015.
Even hosting the G7 at cost, the resort will receive money from foreign leaders and benefit from the publicity generated by their visit.
Mr Mulvaney brushed off that concern.
"Donald Trump's brand is probably strong enough as it is," he said.
"It's probably the most recognisable name in the English language and probably around the world right now. So no, that has nothing to do with that.
"He'd be criticised regardless of what he'd chosen to do, but no, there's no issue here on him profiting from this in any way, shape or form."
Judge Napolitano disagreed.
"The President owns shares of stock in a corporation that is one of the owners of this, along with many other investors. He also owns shares of stock in the corporation that manages it. So those corporations will receive a great deal of money from foreign heads of state because this is there," he said.
"That's exactly, exactly what the emoluments clause was written to prohibit."
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog whose focus is fairly obvious from its name, was also critical of the decision.
"This President is now officially using the power of his office to prop up his struggling golf business," it said.
The last time the G7 summit was held in the United States, in 2012, Barack Obama hosted it at Camp David. In 2004, George Bush held his iteration at the Sea Island resort in Georgia.
Moving on to the admission. In an exchange with ABC News reporter Jon Karl, Mr Mulvaney seemingly admitted military aid money had been withheld from Ukraine in an attempt to pressure it into opening an investigation into the hacking of the Democratic National Committee (DNC).
I need to give you quite a bit of context here.
America's intelligence agencies long ago concluded Russia was behind the hack. They say it then provided the hacked material to Wikileaks to publish during the 2016 election campaign in an attempt to damage Mr Trump's opponent, Hillary Clinton.
There is a conspiracy theory that claims the DNC hack was a set-up and Russia was framed. It posits there is a missing DNC server containing key evidence. Mr Trump seems to think that server is in Ukraine.
Here is a word-for-word quote from his joint media appearance with the Italian President yesterday.
"I still ask the FBI, where is the server? How come the FBI never got the server from the DNC? Where is the server? I want to see the server. Let's see what's on the server. So the server, they say, is held by a company whose primary ownership individual is from Ukraine. I'd like to see that server. I think it's very important for this country to see the server. Nobody wants to see it. The media never wants to see it. But I'll tell you Republicans want to see it."
The company he mentioned is CrowdStrike, a cyber security firm that helped the DNC investigate the hack. It later turned over all the evidence it found to the FBI.
Mr Trump's assertion that the company's owner is from Ukraine is wrong. The man in question, Dmitri Alperovitch, is an American citizen who was born in Russia. CrowdStrike is based in Sunnyvale, California.
Finally, there is no evidence of a missing DNC server. As far as we are aware, it doesn't exist outside the imagination of conspiracy theorists.
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During his now infamous phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Mr Trump pressed for an investigation into the matter. At the same time, he was holding back military aid for Ukraine that had already been approved by Congress.
A key question of the Democrats' impeachment inquiry in Congress is whether those two things were connected in a "quid pro quo" arrangement - you launch this investigation, I give you the aid. Mr Trump has repeatedly denied there was any quid pro quo.
Phew. OK. Now we can get back to Mr Mulvaney's press conference.
"You were directly involved in a decision to withhold funding from Ukraine. Can you explain to us now why funding was withheld?" Karl asked.
Mr Mulvaney explained Mr Trump's general dislike for foreign aid and said he was concerned about corruption overseas.
"Did he also mention to me in the past the corruption that related to the DNC server? Absolutely. No question about that. But that's it, and that's why we hung up the money," Mr Mulvaney concluded.
"So the demand for an investigation into the Democrats was part of the reason that he ordered to withhold funding from Ukraine?" Karl followed up.
"The look back to what happened in 2016, certainly, was part of the things that he was worried about in corruption with that nation, and that is absolutely appropriate," Mr Mulvaney replied.
"Withholding the funding?" Karl said.
"Yeah. Which ultimately then flowed," said Mr Mulvaney.
He is correct that the military aid was eventually released by the White House. It happened in September after pressure from politicians in Congress who wondered why the aid they had approved was being held up.
"But to be clear, what you just described is a quid pro quo, it is funding will not flow unless the investigation into the Democrats' server happens as well," Karl continued.
"We do that all the time with foreign policy," Mr Mulvaney said.
The media took that exchange to be an admission of a quid pro quo. A few hours after his press conference, however, Mr Mulvaney released a statement accusing people of deliberately misinterpreting him.
"Once again, the media has decided to misconstrue my comments to advance a biased and political witch hunt against President Trump," he said.
"Let me be clear. There was absolutely no quid pro quo between Ukrainian military aid and any investigation into the 2016 election. 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.
"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."