It sure looks like Donald Trump lied to Ron Johnson. In August, after a U.S. diplomat told the senator from Wisconsin that the Trump administration was blocking almost $400 million in military aid to Ukraine as part of a scheme to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to launch the political investigations that the president was demanding, Johnson called Trump.
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?'" Johnson told The Wall Street Journal. In a conversation with constituents in Sheboygan last week, Johnson explained that he was “surprised by the president’s reaction and realized we had a sales job to do.” But Trump wasn’t buying. “I tried to convince him to give me the authority to tell President Zelensky that we were going to provide that (aid). Now, I didn’t succeed."
As The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel noted in its report on Johnson’s comments, “Johnson made clear that he was aware of allegations Trump was withholding aid to Ukraine for political reasons weeks before the public knew of the accusation.”
Johnson failed to speak up. But, less than a month after the senator and the president spoke, a whistleblower came forward with evidence that Trump had, indeed, pressured Zelensky to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, a leading potential challenger to Trump’s 2020 presidential bid. Then, in a move that shocked even his defenders, Trump released detailed notes from a July phone conversation that confirmed the whistleblower’s report. And with each passing day the evidence of wrongdoing has mounted against the president.
The concerns are so great that Trump now faces am impeachment inquiry, and responsible Republicans are speaking up. "By all appearances, the president's brazen and unprecedented appeal to China and to Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden is wrong and appalling,” says Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, who explained (after Trump upped the ante with a call for a Chinese investigation of Biden) that “it strains credulity to suggest that it is anything other than politically motivated."
The group Republicans for the Rule of Law announced, "Trump may have suspected Joe Biden of corruption, but when the president pressured a foreign government to investigate an American citizen and political rival, he engaged in actual corruption. Whatever Biden did or didn’t do can’t excuse that." Michigan Congressman Justin Amash, who was elected as a conservative Republican but now sits as an independent, endorsed the impeachment inquiry and said of Trump, “He’s openly challenging our system of checks and balances. In plain sight, he’s using the powers of his public office for personal gain and counting on Republicans in Congress to look the other way.”
So what does Ron Johnson have to say now?
He spent last week making excuses for the man who any reasonable person would conclude had lied to him. Johnson called Trump the nation’s "chief law enforcement officer” and told WIBA radio, "We have proper agreements with countries to investigate potential crimes so I don't think there's anything improper about doing that.”
When asked about his involvement in another key issue related to the scandal, Johnson became very conveniently forgetful.
Trump alleges that Biden, as the vice president, abused his position to try to get Ukrainian Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin fired as part of an effort to shut down an investigation of a gas company with which Biden’s son Hunter was associated. But The New Yorker magazine reminds us that this is “a repeatedly discredited conspiracy theory.” The reality is that Shokin faced allegations of corruption that troubled a lot of Americans, Republicans and Democrats, and that there was bipartisan support for his removal.
This is where Ron Johnson comes in. Back in 2016, Johnson joined other Republican senators in signing a letter urging “urgent reforms to the prosecutor general’s office and judiciary.” So the senator from Wisconsin knew the real story. Yet, when he was asked about the letter last week, Johnson said, "I send out all kinds of oversight letters ... I don't know which 2016 oversight letter you're referring to so I will look at that and then we'll issue a press release, statement, or something — but I don't engage in hypocrisy. I'm looking at getting the truth.”
The truth is that Johnson is engaging in hypocrisy.
But it is worse than that. As NBC’s Chuck Todd said after trying to get the senator to answer some basic questions. “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?”
Todd asked that question as a journalist.
Wisconsinites should ask that question as voters. And, if they are honest with themselves, they will conclude they they are being ill-served by their senator.
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