U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson on Friday said he learned of a potential quid pro quo involving President Donald Trump from a top U.S. diplomat, but that the president denied any wrongdoing when Johnson confronted him about the matter.
Johnson, R-Oshkosh, reportedly learned from the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, Gordon 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.
The Wall Street Journal reported Johnson said he brought up the issue with Trump in an Aug. 31 phone call, in which the president rejected the idea he directed his staff to make military aid to Ukraine contingent on a new investigation by Ukraine.
Johnson also told reporters Friday in Sheboygan that Trump blocked him from telling Ukraine’s president that the military aid was forthcoming.
Johnson said he initially met with Trump in May to urge him to support Ukraine.
“I was surprised by the president’s reaction and realized we had a sales job to do,” Johnson said.
Trump faces an impeachment inquiry from House Democrats over allegedly using the office of the presidency to pressure Ukraine to investigate his political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, and Biden’s son, Hunter.
Johnson’s knowledge of the potential quid pro quo came nearly a month before U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced an impeachment inquiry and the president released a transcript of a phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, whom Trump urged to inquire into the Bidens and the Ukrainian role in the 2016 U.S. election.
Johnson told the paper that Sondland informed him of the arrangement in which Ukraine would appoint a prosecutor general to “get to the bottom of what happened in 2016 — if President Trump has the confidence, then he’ll release the military spending.”
“At that suggestion, I winced,” Johnson told the paper. “My reaction was: Oh, God. I don’t want to see those two things combined.”
Johnson said he doesn’t believe Biden’s name was mentioned in any conversations with Trump or Sondland. In a July 25 call with Ukraine’s president, Trump did suggest investigating Biden and his son.
Sondland is the founder and chairman of Provenance Hotels, which seeks to operate a proposed $43 million boutique hotel on State Street in Madison. He gave $1 million to the Trump inauguration fund through four of his companies, according to the Center for Responsive Politics’ website OpenSecrets.org.
Last month Sondland was confronted in a text message exchange by the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, who told him, “I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.” Sondland responded that Trump had been clear that the deal was not a quid pro quo.
In Sheboygan on Friday, Johnson said Trump in August blocked him from telling Ukraine’s president that the military aid was forthcoming following the accusations he heard that Trump was withholding the aid until he received assurances Ukraine would investigate election interference.
“I tried to convince (Trump) to give me the authority to tell President Zelensky that we were going to provide that,” Johnson said. “Now, I didn’t succeed.”
Johnson’s office provided the Wisconsin State Journal with a recording of his remarks to reporters in Sheboygan.
Johnson said Trump told him he was considering withholding military aid because of alleged corruption in the 2016 election.
“The president was very consistent in why he was considering it,” Johnson said. “It was corruption, overall generalized … what happened in 2016. President Trump, when he asked for a favor, he wants to get to the truth, as I do, as I think a lot of Americans do as well.”
Johnson’s remarks came a day after he told reporters in Middleton he sees nothing wrong with President Trump’s public call for the Chinese government to investigate the Bidens.
“I don’t think there’s anything improper about it,” Johnson said.
Johnson and his staffers have sought to clarify Johnson’s Thursday remarks, arguing Johnson was saying he sees no problem with asking a foreign government with which the U.S. has an investigative agreement to provide information for an investigation when it serves U.S. interests.
When pressed on Friday, Johnson said it’s not appropriate for the president to pressure a foreign government to investigate a political opponent, but that he’s “not sure that’s what’s happening.”
Johnson told reporters a 2016 letter he signed onto pushing Ukraine to reform its prosecutor general’s office and judiciary was meant to prompt Ukraine to fight corruption generally.
The bipartisan letter, unearthed by national media on Thursday, appears to undermine claims made by Trump and Republicans that Biden pressured the Ukrainian government to fire then-Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin to stop investigations into the Ukrainian natural gas company connected to Hunter Biden.
Democrats on Friday criticized Johnson, accusing him of reversing himself on his prior statements that foreign interference in U.S. elections is unacceptable.