Wisconsin Senator gives Republicans gives an account of his involvement with Trump, Ukraine

Patrick Marley and Craig Gilbert

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Published 6: 22 PM EST Nov 18, 2019

GOP Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin sent a letter Monday to House Republicans offering his most detailed account yet of his first-hand involvement in the Ukraine controversy and at the same time assailing the impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump.  

Johnson wrote that he viewed the inquiry as a “continuation of a concerted, and possibly coordinated, effort to sabotage the Trump administration,” and he questioned the motives of government witnesses who have voiced concerns about Trump’s handling of Ukraine.

Johnson has given his version of events in numerous interviews in recent weeks but provided some new details Monday. 

He talked to National Security Advisor John Bolton before calling Trump when he heard allegations that aid to Ukraine was being withheld until Ukraine launched an investigation. He tried, unsuccessfully, to talk to Vice President Mike Pence about it.

Johnson wrote that it “did not register” with him if Trump told his aides to talk to his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, about matters related to Ukraine. And according to Johnson, Trump told Johnson he barely knew Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador who oversaw dealings with Ukraine.

Johnson released his accounting of what happened a day after he disclosed on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that two House Republicans, Ohio’s Jim Jordan and California’s Devin Nunes, had asked him for it. 

In the letter, Johnson coupled his accounts of conversations over Ukraine that he was personally involved in with a critique being offered by many Republicans of impeachment, Democrats in Congress, and government officials who have testified about their concerns regarding Trump.

Johnson asserted that government officials expressing concerns about Trump’s conduct are doing so because they “have never accepted President Trump as legitimate and resent his unorthodox style and his intrusion onto their ‘turf.’” Johnson accused these officials of trying to sabotage Trump and called out one of them, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, by name. 

“It’s entirely possible that Vindman fits this profile,” Johnson wrote of Vindman, who came to the United States from Ukraine as a child and was awarded a Purple Heart after he was wounded by a roadside bomb in Iraq.

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Johnson has been an important figure in the impeachment saga because he attended the inauguration of Ukraine’s president in May and confronted Trump in August when he heard that aid to Ukraine may be linked to investigations of Trump’s rivals. Trump denied any wrongdoing and Johnson has vocally backed the president. 

The senator’s involvement in Ukraine traces to his role as chair of the Europe subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations panel and membership in the Senate’s bipartisan Ukraine Caucus. 

Beyond that, Johnson has maintained an unusually high profile in the public debate over the Ukraine controversy fueling the impeachment effort, defending Trump in repeated media appearances and interviews and offering his own knowledge of key events. 

In their letter to Johnson, Jordan and Nunes derided the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry and wrote, “we reluctantly write to request any firsthand knowledge you have about President Trump’s actions toward Ukraine between April and September 2019.”

May 20. Johnson attended Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky’s inauguration as part of a delegation that also included Sondland; Kurt Volker, the U.S. envoy for Ukraine; Rick Perry, Trump’s energy secretary; and Vindman, of the National Security Council.

During that trip, Volker told the others about news reports of Giuliani’s calls for investigations into Ukraine, including former Vice President Joe Biden, whose son Hunter served on the board of a Ukrainian gas company, according to the Wall Street Journal. Johnson did not mention that point in his Monday letter.

May 22. Johnson wrote that he was disappointed by the chief of staff Zelensky chose. In a text message to Sondland, he wrote that the delegation should “express our concerns, but give Zelensky the benefit of the doubt.”

May 23. Johnson and the others from the delegation encouraged Trump to back Zelensky. Trump raised concerns about corruption and, according to Sondland and others, directed them to work with Giuliani.

“I have no recollection of the president saying that during the meeting,” Johnson wrote in his Monday letter. “It is entirely possible he did, but because I do not work for the president, if made, the comment simply did not register with me.”

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Johnson said he did not recall the president mentioning Joe Biden or Burisma, the gas company Hunter Biden worked for.

Johnson and the others urged Trump to back Zelensky, but Trump expressed strong concerns about corruption. Johnson wrote that he was surprised by the reaction.

Around July 11. Johnson met with Andrii Telizhenko, a former Ukrainian diplomat who has contended his bosses directed him to help Democrats in the 2016 election by gathering dirt on Trump’s campaign chairman, Paul Manafort. 

Johnson did not mention this meeting in his letter.

July 18. Diplomat William Taylor has testified he learned Trump had put a hold on nearly $400 million in aid to Ukraine that had been approved by Congress.

July 25. Trump asked Zelensky in a phone call to do him a “favor” and investigate the 2016 election and the Bidens.

Trump’s call with Zelensky triggered a whistleblower’s complaint and, later, the impeachment inquiry. Johnson has said he considered Trump’s call to Zelensky gracious and a sign that Trump wanted to get to the truth.

July 26. Trump asked Sondland if Zelensky was going to launch an investigation he wanted, according to David Holmes, a U.S. embassy official, who overheard their conversation.

Aug. 28 or 29. Johnson learned the Ukraine aid had been withheld.

Aug. 30. Sondland told Johnson the aid would go to Ukraine after the country demonstrated its intention to fight corruption and possibly investigate whether Ukrainians interfered in the 2016 election, Johnson wrote. 

“I have stated that I winced when that arrangement was described to me,” Johnson wrote. “I felt U.S. support for Ukraine was essential, particularly with Zelenksy’s new and inexperienced administration facing an aggressive Vladimir Putin (or Russia). … It was the time to show maximum strength and resolve.”

Aug. 31. Johnson called Bolton, who told him to talk to Trump and Pence. Johnson was unable to get through to Pence, but reached Trump the same day. 

Johnson asked if the Ukraine aid was linked to launching an investigation. Trump said no and asked him who told him that. Johnson said he heard it from Sondland, a hotelier who gave $1 million to Trump’s inauguration before he was named ambassador. Trump said “he barely knew him,” Johnson wrote.

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Trump told Johnson Ukraine was corrupt and other European countries weren’t paying their share to back the country.

“We’re schmucks, Ron. We’re schmucks,” Trump told Johnson, according to Johnson.

Johnson said he told Trump to release the funds to Ukraine in part because “withholding the support looked horrible politically in that it could be used to bolster the ‘Trump is soft on Russia’ mantra.”

In that conversation, Johnson also asked Trump to give him the authority to tell Zelensky that the U.S. aid was coming. Trump wouldn’t give him that power but told him he thought Johnson would like the decision he would eventually make on the Ukraine aid, according to Johnson. 

Sept. 3. Johnson spoke with Bolton but does not recall discussing anything that relates to the ongoing impeachment inquiry in that conversation.

Sept. 5. Johnson and Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut met with Zelensky in Ukraine and told him his country has bipartisan support in Congress.

Johnson wrote that he told Zelensky that Trump was concerned about “endemic corruption and inadequate European support.”

Johnson has said Zelensky never mentioned feeling pressured by U.S. officials.

Sep. 11. The Trump administration released the Ukraine aid that had been upheld since July.

From the outset, Johnson has said he would cooperate with the House inquiry if asked. He said on “Meet the Press” he would not be asked to testify. 

Two ethics experts told the Journal Sentinel last month that Johnson should consider recusing himself from a vote on removing Trump if the matter gets to the Senate because of Johnson’s involvement in the matter.

Johnson has said he would not do that because the people who elected him deserve to have representation if the issue comes to the Senate.

Contact Patrick Marley at patrick.marley@jrn.com. Follow him on Twitter at @patrickdmarley.

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