As House Democrats pursue an impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump, U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson has responded to a request by ranking Republicans to provide his firsthand recollection of the president’s handling of Ukraine.
The request — made Saturday by Reps. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, a ranking member of the House Oversight Committee, and Devin Nunes, R-California, a ranking member of the Committee on Intelligence — points to meetings and phone calls between Johnson and other high-ranking individuals that could shed light on Trump’s alleged use of his office to pressure Ukraine to investigate his political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, and Biden’s son, Hunter.
Johnson, who has publicly defended Trump’s conduct on Ukraine in the past, in the Monday letter said he views the impeachment inquiry as a “continuation of a concerted, and possibly coordinated, effort to sabotage” the president.
“It is from this viewpoint that I report my specific involvement in the events related to Ukraine and the impeachment inquiry,” Johnson, chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, said in the letter.
On May 20, Johnson joined high-level U.S. delegates at the inauguration of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, including U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland and Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman with the National Security Council.
A debriefing on the meeting was held on May 23 with Trump. Johnson said he was surprised by the president’s reaction, in which Trump “expressed strong reservations about supporting Ukraine.”
“He made it crystal clear that he viewed Ukraine as a thoroughly corrupt country both generally and, specifically, regarding rumored meddling in the 2016 election,” Johnson said in the letter.
Johnson said he pushed back on Trump’s viewpoint, but it was obvious it would take “a significant sales job” to change the president’s mind.
In a prepared statement ahead of his October testimony, Sondland said the May 23 debriefing included discussion about Zelensky’s hopes of fighting corruption in Ukraine. However, Sondland said Trump was skeptical and asked all in attendance to work on the matter with the president’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani.
Johnson said he has no recollection of that being said during the meeting.
“It is entirely possible he did, but because I do not work for the president, if made, that comment simply did not register with me,” Johnson said in the letter.
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Johnson notes three July meetings in his Senate office with Ukrainian representatives but said nobody raised the issue of Trump’s withholding military aid or expressed concerns about pressure being applied by the president.
The Washington Post reported Johnson met in July with Andrii Telizhenko, a former Ukrainian diplomat, to discuss a claim Telizhenko had circulated that the Democratic National Committee worked with the Ukrainian government to bolster Clinton’s 2016 campaign by collecting incriminating information about Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, who was later convicted of multiple financial crimes.
Johnson last month revealed he learned from Sondland that aid to Ukraine was tied to Trump’s request to have the Eastern European nation undertake investigations related to the 2016 U.S. elections.
Johnson said he brought up the issue with Trump in an Aug. 31 phone call, when the president denied that he directed staff to make military aid to Ukraine contingent on a new investigation by the country.
Johnson said Trump told him not to tell Ukraine’s president that the military aid would be forthcoming.
“I asked him about whether there was some kind of arrangement where Ukraine would take some action and the hold would be lifted. Without hesitation, President Trump immediately denied such an arrangement existed,” Johnson said in the letter. “I have accurately characterized his reaction as adamant, vehement and angry — there was more than one expletive that I have deleted.”
On Sept. 5, Johnson attended a meeting with Zelenskiy, Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Connecticut, and William Taylor, who this month became the acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.
Johnson said the meeting reinforced his belief that Zelenskiy was serious about fighting corruption.
“To my knowledge, most members of the administration and Congress dealing with the issues involving Ukraine disagreed with President Trump’s attitude and approach toward Ukraine,” Johnson said in the letter. “Many who had the opportunity and ability to influence the president attempted to change his mind.”
The hold on military aid funding was lifted on Sept. 11.
In a Sunday interview with NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Johnson said following the Sept. 5 meeting he told Murphy “let’s try to minimize this,” in regard to the hold on military aid.
“This would have been far better off if we would have just taken care of this behind the scenes,” he said in the interview.
“(Trump) made it crystal clear that he viewed Ukraine as a thoroughly corrupt country.” U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis.