When Ambassador William Taylor testified before the House Intelligence Committee’s impeachment inquiry into President Trump’s stark abuses of power in his dealings with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine recalled when he became aware that something was not right.
Upon his return to Kiev in June, Taylor explained, “I found a confusing and unusual arrangement for making U.S. policy toward Ukraine. There appeared to be two channels of U.S. policymaking and implementation, one regular and one highly irregular. As the acting ambassador, I had authority over the regular, formal diplomatic processes, including the bulk of the U.S. effort to support Ukraine against the Russian invasion and to help it defeat corruption.”
At the same time, however, Taylor said, “I encountered an irregular, informal channel of U.S. policymaking with respect to Ukraine, unaccountable to Congress, a channel that included then-Special Envoy Kurt Volker, U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, Secretary of Energy Rick Perry, White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, and, as I subsequently learned, (Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy) Giuliani. I was clearly in the regular channel, but I was also in the irregular one to the extent that Ambassadors Volker and Sondland included me in certain conversations. Although this irregular channel was well-connected in Washington, it operated mostly outside of official State Department channels.”
What Ambassador Taylor described — irregular communications that were unaccountable to Congress — was disturbing.
But what Taylor said next was shocking.
“The irregular channel began when Ambassador Volker, Ambassador Sondland, Secretary Perry, and Senator Ron Johnson briefed President Trump on May 23 upon their return from President Zelensky’s inauguration …”
Wait, wait, wait! We knew about most of the bad players in this scandal. After it was revealed that Trump pressured the Ukrainian president to do him a personal political “favor” by authorizing an investigation that was calculated to embarrass former Vice President Joe Biden, a top challenger to the president’s re-election, Perry announced his resignation. Volker had already resigned on Sept. 27 and is scheduled to testify as part of the impeachment inquiry, as is Sondland. These are central figures in a scandal that has the potential to derail a presidency.
What of Ron Johnson?
He, too, is a central figure in the scandal — so central a figure that The Washington Post recently marveled at how “Sen. Johnson, ally of Trump and Ukraine, surfaces in crucial episodes in the saga.”
But the Senate Foreign Relations Committee member who chairs the subcommittee on Europe and Regional Security Cooperation and who has a long history of involvement with Ukrainian issues is something else.
If the House impeaches Trump, as now seems increasingly likely, the case will go to the Senate, where every senator will serve as a juror and vote on whether to remove Trump from office. That means that the senator from Wisconsin could end up judging the conduct of a president with whom he was part of the “irregular channel” of communication through which the president and his henchmen engaged in conversations about warping U.S. policy for political purposes.
Johnson has acknowledged that he was aware of complaints that Trump was withholding aid to Ukraine for political purposes — and that he discussed those complaints with the president. Yet Johnson chose to keep these conversations secret until after a whistleblower came forward with evidence that Trump had, indeed, pressured Zelensky to target Biden. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported in October, “Four ethics experts say Johnson — a member of a branch of government that exists, in part, to provide a check on the president — should have … alerted other senators, explored holding an oversight hearing or even told federal investigators.”
Johnson did none of those things. Even now, he remains a partisan defender of Trump — despite the fact that the whistleblower report, notes on the president’s conversation with Zelensky, and testimony from diplomats who were part of the “irregular channel” all suggest that the president lied when the senator called to discuss why aid to Ukraine was being withheld. According to the senator’s recollection of the Aug. 31 phone conversation, the president denied everything. "He said — expletive deleted — 'No way. I would never do that. Who told you that?'"
If Johnson has any self-respect, he would be trying to get to the bottom of Trump’s wrongdoing. Instead, the senator keeps trying to defend Trump — in such a transparent attempt to please the president that, last month, NBC “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd interrupted the Wisconsinite during an interview to say: “Senator Johnson, please! Can we please answer the question that I asked you, instead of trying to make Donald Trump feel better here that you’re not criticizing him?”
Johnson is so wrapped up in the Ukraine imbroglio that there has been a lively discussion of whether he might be called by impeachment investigators to testify about what he knows and when he knew it. Johnson said, “I wouldn’t resist.”
That’s a start. But what Johnson needs to do now is recuse himself from any role in Senate deliberations on the whole sordid affair.
The senator is so thoroughly conflicted that it is impossible to imagine he could serve as a juror when and if Trump’s case comes before the Senate. Johnson is literally a fact witness to the president’s wrongdoing — and, as former U.S. Department of Justice attorney Hui Chen said, “You don't have somebody be a witness in a trial and then serve on the jury.”
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