Sen. Johnson lays out his role in Ukrainian aid; blasts inquiry and whistleblower
President Donald Trump was convinced Ukraine was a “thoroughly corrupt country” that meddled in the 2016 election and that belief laid at the heart of his decision to place a hold on $250 million in military aid Congress had allocated to aid the country, Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson wrote Monday
to members of the House of Representatives.
In the letter, Johnson delivered his recollections of several conversations in which he participated involving the U.S. military aid to Ukraine currently at the heart of the U.S. House’s impeachment investigation.
It came at the behest of fellow Republicans Rep. Devin Nunes, of California, the Ranking Member of House’s Intelligence Committee, which is conducting the inquiry and Rep. Jim Jordan, the Ranking Member of the House’s Oversight Committee. They
Johnson provide his account of several conversations, including ones that involved Ambassador Gordon Sondland, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, and the President himself.
In it, Johnson reiterated his view that the inquiry itself was “a concerted, and possibly coordinated, effort to sabotage the Trump administration” that he says has existed since the morning after the 2016 election.
Johnson also takes aim at the whistleblower, arguing that his complaint has damaged the America’s relationship with Ukraine by “publiciz[ing] and highlight[ing] the president’s deeply held reservations toward Ukraine.”
“If the whistleblower’s intention was to improve and solidify the relationship between the U.S. and Ukraine, he or she failed miserable,” Johnson wrote. He added the Executive and Legislative branches were working to resolve their police differences prior to the complaint being lodged and, therefore, the only thing it has done is add “fuel to the House’s impeachment desire.”
Johnson, who chairs the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, became a prominent figure in the ongoing investigation after acknowledging he “winced” during a call with Sondland after the ambassador told him that President Trump would release his hold on the military aid if Ukraine demonstrated its commitment to fighting corruption, possibly by looking into questions surrounding Ukrainian operatives involvement in the 2016 campaign.
As he has stated previously, Johnson wrote when he brought that concern to President Trump directly, asking him if there was an arrangement in which Ukraine would have to do something in order to get the money, the President denied it in a way that was “adamant, vehement and angry.”
“Without hesitation, President Trump immediately denied such an arrangement existed,” Johnson recounted. “As reported in the Wall Street Journal, I quoted the president as saying, “(Expletive deleted) – No way. I would never do that. Who told you that?”
Johnson recalled feeling “a little guilty” asking the question and when he told President Trump the question was based on something he heard from Sondland, the President said he barely knew his Ambassador.
On the same call, President Trump also expressed frustration that Europe did not provide more lethal aid to Ukraine and told Johnson that German Chancellor Angela Merkel said to him that the reason they don’t is because they believe the U.S. will do it.
“We’re schmucks. Ron. We’re schmucks,” Johnson quoted the President saying.
Johnson recounted telling the President that Germany opposed providing military aid altogether and if they wanted to deter Russian aggression, “it was up to the U.S. to provide it.” He also argued the aid isn’t a show of support for the entrenched and corrupt oligarchy, rather it was an endorsement of the 73% of Ukranians who elected Zelensky specifically to fight corruption. Finally, Johnson pointed out that withholding aid “looked horrible politically” because it could feed in to the narrative that the President is soft on Russia.
Johnson’s letter also described the Oval Office meeting on May 23 with President Trump that included himself, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, then-Special Representative to Ukraine Paul Volker, and Sondland after all four of them returned from attending Zelensky’s inauguration and meeting with his administration.
Johnson pointed to two instances during that trip that he described as relevant. He wrote the first one occurred when they were still preparing for the meeting and Johnson called Ukraine “ground zero” in their relationship with Russia.
“I was surprised when Vindman responded to my point,” Johnson recalled. “He stated that is was the position of the NSC that our relationship with Ukraine should be kept secret from our geopolitical competition with Russia.
“My blunt response was, ‘How in the world is that even possible?’”
While admitting he wasn’t sure whose perspective that was or if the President agreed with it, Johnson states he feels it illustrates how many people in the executive branch don’t agree with President Trump’s policy and style. He accuses them of leaking information in order to undercut the President or get him removed from office. While Johnson doesn’t name anyone in particular, he writes, “[i]t is entirely possible Vindman fits this profile.
Johnson highlights phrases used by Vindman and other during their testimony where they used phrases such as “our policy,” “stated policy,” and long-standing policy” as evidence they were pushing policies not in line with President Trump’s, whom, Johnson points out, as president is entrusted with power of conducting foreign policy.
The other notable occurrence of the trip, Johnson wrote, involved Zelensky’s appointment as Chief of Staff, Andriy Bohdan, who was described as the lawyer for Igor Kolomoisky. Perry had informed the Ukrainian president of the Trump Administration’s opposition Bohdan, but upon learning of Zelensky’s commitment to the appointment, Johnson advised that it was best the president have people he trust around him and the U.S. should “give Zelensky the benefit of the doubt. Also let him know the U.S. will be watching very closely.
Following their return, all four of the American delegations sat with President Trump on May 23 in the Oval Office. It was during that meeting, according to Volker’s retelling, President Trump said about the Ukrainians, “They are all corrupt. They are all terrible people. … I don’t want to spend any time with that.” Johnson wrote he did not remember President Trump ever mentioning the names of Vice-President Joe Biden nor Burisma, “but it was obvious he was aware of rumors that corrupt actors in Ukraine might have played a part in helping the false Russia collusion narrative.”
Johnson wrote he agreed with President Trump about the corruption in Ukraine and pressed his argument that the money would not be evidence of supporting it, rather it proved support for 73% who elected Zelensky. Recognizing President Trump’s steadfast sentiment, Johnson stated that he asked the President to keep his feelings private until he met Zelensky.
In his last point about the meeting, Johnson added he did not recall hearing the President tell them to work with his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, as Sondland has testified. Johnson did admit he might have missed “because I do not work for the president” and that the President may have said that afterwards, when Sondland stayed behind to talk to the President without them.
In Johnson’s letter, he also mentioned several other times he met with representatives of Ukraine prior to the August 26 exchange with Sondland that led to his conversation with President Trump. He also covered a meeting he, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and William Taylor had with Zelensky and his staff in September, less than two weeks prior to the aid being released. During those conversations, Zelensky said he was not only worried about the money, but also about the message losing the aid would send to the rest of the work.
Johnson also assured Zelensky he had bipartisan support, while Murphy noted Zelensky should refrain from requests from American “political actors” which could risk that support.
Johnson wrote he explained President Trump’s view and the reasons for the hold and that the President explicitly instructed the delegation to make sure they knew his feelings.
According to Johnson, no Ukrainians, including Zelensky mentioned “feeling pressure to do anything in return for the military aid, not even after Murphy warned them about getting involved in the 2020 election – which would have been the perfect time to discuss any pressure.”