WASHINGTON – He's been a backstage witness in the House impeachment inquiry, and he could be a high-profile juror in the all-but-certain Senate trial. He's a staunch supporter of Ukraine – and a zealous defender of President Donald Trump.
Meet Sen. Ron Johnson, the Wisconsin Republican at the center of the impeachment firestorm. Depending on your point of view, Johnson is a senator with invaluable insights or extraordinary entanglements in this affair.
It might seem like an uncomfortable spot, but not for Johnson, who seems to be embracing his multiple roles.
Who are they, what did they say?: Meet the 17 witnesses in the Trump impeachment inquiry
Johnson said in an interview Friday he sees no conflicts or complications in juggling these roles.
“This is not your standard American trial. This is a political process,” Johnson told USA TODAY.
Johnson provided written "testimony" this week to Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee, which is leading the impeachment probe. In his 10-page missive, he detailed conversations he had earlier this year with both Trump and Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky about two questions at the center of the House Democrats' impeachment investigation: Why the White House had refused, despite promises, to schedule a Washington visit for Zelensky and why Trump had ordered a freeze on U.S. aid to Ukraine.
Zelensky desperately wanted that meeting and the money; Democrats believe the White House withheld it as leverage to get Zelensky to open two investigations that would benefit Trump politically in his 2020 reelection campaign.
Four days after submitting his testimony, Johnson was one of a handful of Senate Republicans who gathered at the White House for a partisan strategy session on Trump’s expected impeachment trial.
If that trial takes place, Johnson will join his 99 Senate colleagues as jurors weighing the fate of Trump’s presidency.
Pathway of the impeachment process: How it works, where we are
“He's gotten himself in the middle of something that I'm sure he never intended, but it's because he's somebody that believes the United States should be doing more to support Ukraine,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., who has traveled to Ukraine with Johnson. “I don't agree with Ron's defense of the president, but I think it's a pretty easy explanation as to why he's a central player in all of this. He's just one of the go-to people in the Senate on Ukraine.”
Disagreeing with, defending Trump
Johnson called his involvement in the Ukraine controversy “serendipity” and (tongue-in-cheek) the “luck of the draw.” He said he’s eager for Congress to move past it and address other issues.
“The world would be a better place had we never known about this,” Johnson said earlier this fall about the Ukraine affair. He said it would have been better if the issues could have sorted out behind the scenes.
Johnson’s full-throated and very public defense of Trump before and during the impeachment hearings stands out amid the silence of many of other Senate Republicans. The president has reached out to thank him a few times after his media appearances, Johnson said.
The irony is that Johnson sharply disagreed with Trump’s decision to withhold the nearly $400 million in U.S. aid to Ukraine, which Congress approved, and the GOP lawmaker lobbied Trump hard to reverse the decision.
But like many Republicans, he mutes his differences with the president and is deeply distrustful of Trump’s opponents. “Let’s face it, half of America doesn’t believe President Trump is a legitimate president," he told a Milwaukee radio host Tuesday.
Johnson is also a leading proponent in Congress of Trump's assertion that Ukraine played a significant role in helping Democrats in the 2016 election. In testimony on Thursday, Fiona Hill, a former Trump adviser on the National Security Council, warned Republicans against promoting that "fictional narrative," which she said is being propagated by the Kremlin.
But Hill's testimony has not dissuaded Johnson.
“There are certain elements that have been debunked … (but) in my own oversight work, there are there all kind of things that have not been debunked,” said Johnson, who along with Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley announced Friday a records request to the National Archives of 2016 meetings involving Obama administration officials, Democratic Party officials and representatives from Ukraine.
Senate expert Sarah Binder of the Brookings Institution said Johnson’s staunch defense of the president is “emblematic of this world where lawmakers are first and foremost on Trump’s team or not.”
In his Nov. 18 letter to House Republicans, Johnson assailed the impeachment inquiry as a part of an ongoing and concerted effort to “sabotage the Trump administration.”
Johnson in his letter accused Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a Ukraine expert who sits on on the National Security Council, and other Executive Branch staff of trying to undermine Trump. Without citing any evidence, Johnson claimed Vindman and others "have never accepted President Trump as legitimate and resent his unorthodox style and his intrusion onto their ‘turf.’”
Vindman is a Harvard-educated former infantry officer who's family fled Ukraine, then a Soviet republic, in 1979 when he was a toddler. He did tours in South Korea, Germany and Iraq, where he was wounded by a roadside bomb and awarded the Purple Heart.
Murphy, the Connecticut Democrat who has worked with Johnson on Ukraine issues, called Johnson's accusation “disturbing” and baseless in his own Ukraine letter to the House this week. And other Trump critics excoriated Johnson for impugning an Iraq war veteran.
“Attempting to discredit an American hero solely on behalf of an angry House GOP is unacceptable,” House Democrat Mark Pocan of Wisconsin said on Twitter.
Johnson defended himself in a Milwaukee radio interview Tuesday, saying, “I have nothing but the utmost respect for Col. Vindman’s service … but that doesn’t mean just because you wear the uniform and you involve yourself in the political process like that you shouldn’t be analyzed.”
Ukraine: What did Johnson know?
Johnson is chair of the Europe subcommittee of the Senate foreign relations panel and a member of the Senate’s bipartisan Ukraine Caucus. He has traveled to Ukraine six times. He was the only member of Congress to attend Zelensky's inauguration in May.
He then participated in a key May 23 White House meeting with Trump, where the president vented to Johnson and others about corruption in Ukraine and voiced his qualms about the Ukraine aid. Trump directed officials at that meeting to speak about Ukraine with his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, according to Ambassador Gordon Sondland and former US envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker. (Johnson says he doesn’t remember that last part, but he doesn’t dispute it).
After hearing from Sondland of a possible quid pro quo, the Wisconsin senator talked to Trump over the phone in August, pressing him about why the aid was being withheld.
Johnson says what he heard in all these conversations counters the charge that Trump was pressuring Ukraine to investigate his domestic political opponents. Trump adamantly denied to Johnson in August there was any “quid pro quo” and hinted the aid would be released soon, according to Johnson, who said Trump’s concerns about giving Ukraine aid involved corruption in that country and wanting Europe to pay more for Ukraine's defense.
The Wisconsin Republican says he never got any sense from the Ukrainians they were being pressured to pursue political investigations.
But Democrats have also picked up on Johnson’s statements. The senator has said in interviews that Trump’s hang-ups about the Ukraine aid included not just general corruption but the president’s own conviction that Ukraine played a role in tarnishing him during the 2016 campaign.
“It was corruption overall, generalized, but yeah, no doubt about it, (it was) ‘What happened in 2016? What happened in 2016? What was the truth about that?’” Johnson told the Journal Sentinel last month, recounting the reasons Trump gave him in their August phone call for not releasing the Ukraine aid.
Democrats see that as Trump mixing his personal political agenda with American foreign policy. Johnson says his sympathies are entirely with Trump.
“I understand that the people on the other side of this equation see (Trump’s) desire to get out the truth of 2016, and they say he’s trying to dig up dirt on his 2020 opponent,” Johnson said. “I look that and say he wants to know, ‘How did this false narrative about my campaign colluding with Russia, how did all that begin?' And there are certainly rumors that maybe some of that came out of Ukraine.”
'I represent the people that elected me'
Johnson has been hailed by conservative media for standing up for Trump. A Wall Street Journal editorial called him a “grown-up” for trying to “steer Mr. Trump from his worst policy instincts.” But critics accuse him of promoting conspiracy theories about the “deep state” and Ukrainian meddling in the 2016 election.
“He deserves credit for picking up the phone to call Donald Trump to find out what was going on with the military assistance,” said Andrew Weiss, a former national security and defense adviser during the administrations of Presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush, and now a Russia expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “But like most Republicans, he has chosen not to be an aggressive critic of the president's indefensible stance on Russia.”
Some have suggested his role as a fact witness is in conflict with his role as a potential juror in a Senate impeachment trial. He’s also playing a separate investigative role as chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee.
Johnson rejects that.
“I represent the people that elected me. Those individuals deserve a voice and my vote in the process. I would never even consider it,” Johnson has said of the suggestion that he recuse himself from voting on Trump’s removal.
Johnson said he would oppose any Republican motion to dismiss House articles of impeachment without a trial, an issue that came up during Thursday's White House strategy meeting on impeachment with other GOP senators. Johnson said a trial would be more fair to Trump because it would give him an opportunity to defend himself.
But “I’d like it move along as quickly as possible,” he said of a trial, which would occur if the Democratic-controlled House votes to impeach Trump, as is expected.
Could Johnson himself end up serving as a witness in such a trial?
“I have no idea,” said Johnson.
According the Senate historian’s office, at least twice in the 19th century senators were witnesses in impeachment proceedings, though both involved judicial, not presidential, trials.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump impeachment: Sen. Ron Johnson a witness in Ukraine pressure case