WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) today responded to a request from Representatives Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the ranking members of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform and Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence respectively, to share his firsthand knowledge about the U.S.-Ukraine relationship as part of the House Democrats’ impeachment proceedings. Sen. Johnson has worked on Ukraine issues closely during his time in the Senate, and he is currently the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s European Subcommittee.
U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan U.S. Rep. Devin Nunes
Ranking Member Ranking Member
Committee on Oversight and Reform Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence
Nov. 18, 2019
I am writing in response to the request of Ranking Members Nunes and Jordan to provide my first-hand information and resulting perspective on events relevant to the House impeachment inquiry of President Trump. It is being written in the middle of that inquiry — after most of the depositions have been given behind closed doors, but before all the public hearings have been held.
I view this impeachment inquiry as a continuation of a concerted, and possibly coordinated, effort to sabotage the Trump administration that probably began in earnest the day after the 2016 presidential election. The latest evidence of this comes with the reporting of a Jan. 30, 2017 tweet (10 days after Trump’s inauguration) by one of the whistleblower’s attorneys, Mark Zaid: “#coup has started. First of many steps. #rebellion. #impeachment will follow ultimately.”
But even prior to the 2016 election, the FBI’s investigation and exoneration of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, combined with Fusion GPS’ solicitation and dissemination of the Steele dossier — and the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation based on that dossier — laid the groundwork for future sabotage. As a result, my first-hand knowledge and involvement in this saga began with the revelation that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton kept a private e-mail server.
I have been chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs (HSGAC) since January 2015. In addition to its homeland security portfolio, the committee also is charged with general oversight of the federal government. Its legislative jurisdiction includes federal records. So when the full extent of Clinton’s use of a private server became apparent in March 2015, HSGAC initiated an oversight investigation.
Although many questions remain unanswered from that scandal, investigations resulting from it by a number of committees, reporters and agencies have revealed multiple facts and episodes that are similar to aspects of the latest effort to find grounds for impeachment. In particular, the political bias revealed in the Strzok/Page texts, use of the discredited Steele dossier to initiate and sustain the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation and FISA warrants, and leaks to the media that created the false narrative of Trump campaign collusion with Russia all fit a pattern and indicate a game plan that I suspect has been implemented once again.
It is from this viewpoint that I report my specific involvement in the events related to Ukraine and the impeachment inquiry.
I also am chairman of the Subcommittee on Europe and Regional Security Cooperation of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. I have made six separate trips to Ukraine starting in April 2011. Most recently, I led two separate Senate resolutions calling for a strong U.S. and NATO response to Russian military action against Ukraine’s navy in the Kerch Strait. I traveled to Ukraine to attend president-elect Volodymyr Zelensky’s inauguration held on May 20, and again on Sept. 5 with U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy to meet with Zelensky and other Ukrainian leaders.
Following the Orange Revolution, and even more so after the Maidan protests, the Revolution of Dignity, and Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine, support for the people of Ukraine has been strong within Congress and in both the Obama and Trump administrations. There was also universal recognition and concern regarding the level of corruption that was endemic throughout Ukraine. In 2015, Congress overwhelmingly authorized $300 million of security assistance to Ukraine, of which $50 million was to be available only for lethal defensive weaponry. The Obama administration never supplied the authorized lethal defensive weaponry, but President Trump did.
Zelensky won a strong mandate — 73% — from the Ukrainian public to fight corruption. His inauguration date was set on very short notice, which made attending it a scheduling challenge for members of Congress who wanted to go to show support. As a result, I was the only member of Congress joining the executive branch’s inaugural delegation led by Energy Secretary Rick Perry, Special Envoy Kurt Volker, U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, and Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, representing the National Security Council. I arrived the evening before the inauguration and, after attending a country briefing provided by U.S. embassy staff the next morning, May 20, went to the inauguration, a luncheon following the inauguration, and a delegation meeting with Zelensky and his advisers.
The main purpose of my attendance was to demonstrate and express my support and that of the U.S. Congress for Zelensky and the people of Ukraine. In addition, the delegation repeatedly stressed the importance of fulfilling the election mandate to fight corruption, and also discussed the priority of Ukraine obtaining sufficient inventories of gas prior to winter.
Two specific points made during the meetings stand out in my memory as being relevant.
The first occurred during the country briefing. I had just finished making the point that supporting Ukraine was essential because it was ground zero in our geopolitical competition with Russia. I was surprised when Vindman responded to my point. He stated that it was the position of the NSC that our relationship with Ukraine should be kept separate from our geopolitical competition with Russia. My blunt response was, “How in the world is that even possible?”
I do not know if Vindman accurately stated the NSC’s position, whether President Trump shared that viewpoint, or whether Vindman was really just expressing his own view. I raise this point because I believe that a significant number of bureaucrats and staff members within the executive branch have never accepted President Trump as legitimate and resent his unorthodox style and his intrusion onto their “turf.” They react by leaking to the press and participating in the ongoing effort to sabotage his policies and, if possible, remove him from office. It is entirely possible that Vindman fits this profile.
Quotes from the transcript of Vindman’s opening remarks and his deposition reinforce this point and deserve to be highlighted. Vindman testified that an “alternative narrative” pushed by the president’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, was “inconsistent with the consensus views of the” relevant federal agencies and was “undermining the consensus policy.”
Vindman’s testimony, together with other witnesses’ use of similar terms such as “our policy,” “stated policy,” and “long-standing policy” lend further credence to the point I’m making. Whether you agree with President Trump or not, it should be acknowledged that the Constitution vests the power of conducting foreign policy with the duly elected president. American foreign policy is what the president determines it to be, not what the “consensus” of unelected foreign policy bureaucrats wants it to be. If any bureaucrats disagree with the president, they should use their powers of persuasion within their legal chain of command to get the president to agree with their viewpoint. In the end, if they are unable to carry out the policy of the president, they should resign. They should not seek to undermine the policy by leaking to people outside their chain of command.
The other noteworthy recollection involves how Perry conveyed the delegation concern over rumors that Zelensky was going to appoint Andriy Bohdan, the lawyer for oligarch Igor Kolomoisky, as his chief of staff. The delegation viewed Bohdan’s rumored appointment to be contrary to the goal of fighting corruption and maintaining U.S. support. Without naming Bohdan, Secretary Perry made U.S. concerns very clear in his remarks to Zelensky.
Shortly thereafter, ignoring U.S. advice, Zelensky did appoint Bohdan as his chief of staff. This was not viewed as good news, but I gave my advice on how to publicly react in a text to Sondland on May 22: “Best case scenario on COS: Right now Zelensky needs someone he can trust. I’m not a fan of lawyers, but they do represent all kinds of people. Maybe this guy is a patriot. He certainly understands the corruption of the oligarchs. Could be the perfect guy to advise Zelensky on how to deal with them. Zelensky knows why he got elected. For now, I think we express our concerns, but give Zelensky the benefit of the doubt. Also let him know everyone in the U.S. will be watching VERY closely.”
At the suggestion of Sondland, the delegation (Perry, Volker, Sondland and me) proposed a meeting with President Trump in the Oval Office. The purpose of the meeting was to brief the president on what we learned at the inauguration, and convey our impressions of Zelensky and the current political climate in Ukraine. The delegation uniformly was impressed with Zelensky, understood the difficult challenges he faced, and went into the meeting hoping to obtain President Trump’s strong support for Zelensky and the people of Ukraine. Our specific goals were to obtain a commitment from President Trump to invite Zelensky to meet in the Oval Office, to appoint a U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who would have strong bipartisan support, and to have President Trump publicly voice his support.
Our Oval Office meeting took place on May 23. The four members of the delegation sat lined up in front of President Trump’s desk. Because we were all directly facing the president, I do not know who else was in attendance sitting or standing behind us. I can’t speak for the others, but I was very surprised by President Trump’s reaction to our report and requests.
He 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. Volker summed up this attitude in his testimony by quoting the president as saying, “They are all corrupt. They are all terrible people. … I don't want to spend any time with that.” I do not recall President Trump ever explicitly mentioning the names Burisma or Biden, but it was obvious he was aware of rumors that corrupt actors in Ukraine might have played a part in helping create the false Russia collusion narrative.
Of the four-person delegation, I was the only one who did not work for the president. As a result, I was in a better position to push back on the president’s viewpoint and attempt to persuade him to change it. I acknowledged that he was correct regarding endemic corruption. I said that we weren’t asking him to support corrupt oligarchs and politicians but to support the Ukrainian people who had given Zelensky a strong mandate to fight corruption. I also made the point that he and Zelensky had much in common. Both were complete outsiders who face strong resistance from entrenched interests both within and outside government. Zelensky would need much help in fulfilling his mandate, and America’s support was crucial.
It was obvious that his viewpoint and reservations were strongly held, and that we would have a significant sales job ahead of us getting him to change his mind. I specifically asked him to keep his viewpoint and reservations private and not to express them publicly until he had a chance to meet Zelensky. He agreed to do so, but he also added that he wanted Zelensky to know exactly how he felt about the corruption in Ukraine prior to any future meeting. I used that directive in my Sept. 5 meeting with Zelensky in Ukraine.
One final point regarding the May 23 meeting: I am aware that Sondland has testified that President Trump also directed the delegation to work with Rudy Giuliani. I have no recollection of the president saying that 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. I also remember Sondland staying behind to talk to the president as the rest of the delegation left the Oval Office.
I continued to meet in my Senate office with representatives from Ukraine: on June 13 with members of the Ukrainian Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee; on July 11 with Ukraine’s ambassador to the U.S. and secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, Oleksandr Danyliuk; and again on July 31 with Ukraine’s ambassador to the U.S., Valeriy Chaly. At no time during those meetings did anyone from Ukraine raise the issue of the withholding of military aid or express concerns regarding pressure being applied by the president or his administration.
During Congress’ August recess, my staff worked with the State Department and others in the administration to plan a trip to Europe during the week of Sept. 2 with Senator Murphy to include Russia, Serbia, Kosovo and Ukraine. On or around Aug. 26, we were informed that our requests for visas into Russia were denied. On either Aug. 28 or 29, I became aware of the fact that $250 million of military aid was being withheld. This news would obviously impact my trip and discussions with Zelensky.
Sondland had texted me on Aug. 26 remarking on the Russian visa denial. I replied on Aug. 30, apologizing for my tardy response and requesting a call to discuss Ukraine. We scheduled a call for sometime between 12:30 p.m. and 1:30 p.m. that same day. I called Sondland and asked what he knew about the hold on military support. I did not memorialize the conversation in any way, and my memory of exactly what Sondland told me is far from perfect. I was hoping that his testimony before the House would help jog my memory, but he seems to have an even fuzzier recollection of that call than I do.
The most salient point of the call involved Sondland describing an arrangement where, if Ukraine did something to demonstrate its serious intention to fight corruption and possibly help determine what involvement operatives in Ukraine might have had during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, then Trump would release the hold on military support.
I have stated that I winced when that arrangement was described to me. I felt U.S. support for Ukraine was essential, particularly with Zelensky’s new and inexperienced administration facing an aggressive Vladimir Putin. I feared any sign of reduced U.S. support could prompt Putin to demonstrate even more aggression, and because I was convinced Zelensky was sincere in his desire to fight corruption, this was no time to be withholding aid for any reason. It was the time to show maximum strength and resolve.
I next put in a call request for National Security Adviser John Bolton, and spoke with him on Aug. 31. I believe he agreed with my position on providing military assistance, and he suggested I speak with both the vice president and president. I requested calls with both, but was not able to schedule a call with Vice President Pence. President Trump called me that same day.
The purpose of the call was to inform President Trump of my upcoming trip to Ukraine and to try to persuade him to authorize me to tell Zelensky that the hold would be lifted on military aid. The president was not prepared to lift the hold, and he was consistent in the reasons he cited. He reminded me how thoroughly corrupt Ukraine was and again conveyed his frustration that Europe doesn’t do its fair share of providing military aid. He specifically cited the sort of conversation he would have with Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany. To paraphrase President Trump: “Ron, I talk to Angela and ask her, ‘Why don’t you fund these things,’ and she tells me, ‘Because we know you will.’ We’re schmucks. Ron. We’re schmucks.”
I acknowledged the corruption in Ukraine, and I did not dispute the fact that Europe could and should provide more military support. But I pointed out that Germany was opposed to providing Ukraine lethal defensive weaponry and simply would not do so. As a result, if we wanted to deter Russia from further aggression, it was up to the U.S. to provide it.
I had two additional counterarguments. First, I wasn’t suggesting we support the oligarchs and other corrupt Ukrainians. Our support would be for the courageous Ukrainians who had overthrown Putin’s puppet, Viktor Yanukovich, and delivered a remarkable 73% mandate in electing Zelensky to fight corruption. Second, I argued that withholding the support looked horrible politically in that it could be used to bolster the “Trump is soft on Russia” mantra.
It was only after he reiterated his reasons for not giving me the authority to tell Zelensky the support would be released that 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. As reported in the Wall Street Journal, I quoted the president as saying, “(Expletive deleted) — No way. I would never do that. Who told you that?” I have accurately characterized his reaction as adamant, vehement and angry — there was more than one expletive that I have deleted.
Based on his reaction, I felt more than a little guilty even asking him the question, much less telling him I heard it from Sondland. He seemed even more annoyed by that, and asked me, “Who is that guy”? I interpreted that not as a literal question — the president did know whom Sondland was — but rather as a sign that the president did not know him well. I replied by saying, “I thought he was your buddy from the real estate business.” The president replied by saying he barely knew him.
After discussing Ukraine, we talked about other unrelated matters. Finally, the president said he had to go because he had a hurricane to deal with. He wrapped up the conversation referring back to my request to release the hold on military support for Ukraine by saying something like, “Ron, I understand your position. We’re reviewing it now, and you’ll probably like my final decision.”
On Tuesday, Sept. 3, I had a short follow up call with Bolton to discuss my upcoming trip to Ukraine, Serbia and Kosovo. I do not recall discussing anything in particular that relates to the current impeachment inquiry on that call.
We arrived in Kyiv on Sept. 4, joining Taylor and Murphy for a full day of meetings on Sept. 5 with embassy staff, members of the new Ukrainian administration, and Zelensky, who was accompanied by some of his top advisers. We also attended the opening proceedings of the Ukrainian High Anti-Corruption Court. The meetings reinforced our belief that Zelensky and his team were serious about fulfilling his mandate — to paraphrase the way he described it in his speech at the High Anti-Corruption Court — to not only fight corruption but to defeat it.
The meeting with Zelensky started with him requesting we dispense with the usual diplomatic opening and get right to the issue on everyone’s mind, the hold being placed on military support. He asked if any of us knew the current status. Because I had just spoken to President Trump, I fielded his question and conveyed the two reasons the president told me for his hold. I explained that I had tried to persuade the president to authorize me to announce the hold was released but that I was unsuccessful.
As much as Zelensky was concerned about losing the military aid, he was even more concerned about the signal that would send. I shared his concern. I suggested that in our public statements we first emphasize the universal support that the U.S. Congress has shown — and will continue to show — for the Ukrainian people. Second, we should minimize the significance of the hold on military aid as simply a timing issue coming a few weeks before the end of our federal fiscal year. Even if President Trump and the deficit hawks within his administration decided not to obligate funding for the current fiscal year, Congress would make sure he had no option in the next fiscal year — which then was only a few weeks away. I also made the point that Murphy was on the Appropriations Committee and could lead the charge on funding.
Murphy made the additional point that one of the most valuable assets Ukraine possesses is bipartisan congressional support. He warned Zelensky not to respond to requests from American political actors or he would risk losing Ukraine’s bipartisan support. I did not comment on this issue that Murphy raised.
Instead, I began discussing a possible meeting with President Trump. I viewed a meeting between the two presidents as crucial for overcoming President Trump’s reservations and securing full U.S. support. It was at this point that President Trump’s May 23 directive came into play.
I prefaced my comment to Zelensky by saying, “Let me go out on a limb here. Are you or any of your advisers aware of the inaugural delegation’s May 23 meeting in the Oval Office following your inauguration?” No one admitted they were, so I pressed on. “The reason I bring up that meeting is that I don’t want you caught off-guard if President Trump reacts to you the same way he reacted to the delegation’s request for support for Ukraine.”
I told the group that President Trump explicitly told the delegation that he wanted to make sure Zelensky knew exactly how he felt about Ukraine before any meeting took place. To repeat Volker’s quote of President Trump: “They are all corrupt. They are all terrible people. … I don’t want to spend any time with that.” That was the general attitude toward Ukraine that I felt President Trump directed us to convey. Since I did not have Volker’s quote to use at the time, I tried to portray that strongly held attitude and reiterated the reasons President Trump consistently gave me for his reservations regarding Ukraine: endemic corruption and inadequate European support.
I also conveyed the counterarguments I used (unsuccessfully) to persuade the president to lift his hold: 1) We would be supporting the people of Ukraine, not corrupt oligarchs, and 2) withholding military support was not politically smart. Although I recognized how this next point would be problematic, I also suggested any public statement Zelensky could make asking for greater support from Europe would probably be viewed favorably by President Trump. Finally, I commented on how excellent Zelensky’s English was and encouraged him to use English as much as possible in a future meeting with President Trump. With a smile on his face, he replied, “But Senator Johnson, you don’t realize how beautiful my Ukrainian is.” I jokingly conceded the point by saying I was not able to distinguish his Ukrainian from his Russian.
This was a very open, frank, and supportive discussion. There was no reason for anyone on either side not to be completely honest or to withhold any concerns. At no time during this meeting — or any other meeting on this trip — was there any mention by Zelensky or any Ukrainian that they were feeling pressure to do anything in return for the military aid, not even after Murphy warned them about getting involved in the 2020 election — which would have been the perfect time to discuss any pressure.
Following the meeting with Zelensky and his advisers, Murphy and I met with the Ukrainian press outside the presidential office building. Our primary message was that we were in Kyiv to demonstrate our strong bipartisan support for the people of Ukraine. We were very encouraged by our meetings with Zelensky and other members of his new government in their commitment to fulfill their electoral mandate to fight and defeat corruption. When the issue of military support was raised, I provided the response I suggested above: I described it as a timing issue at the end of a fiscal year and said that, regardless of what decision President Trump made on the fiscal year 2019 funding, I was confident Congress would restore the funding in fiscal year 2020. In other words: Don’t mistake a budget issue for a change in America’s strong support for the people of Ukraine.
Congress came back into session on Sept. 9. During a vote early in the week, I approached one of the co-chairs of the Senate Ukraine Caucus, U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin. I briefly described our trip to Ukraine and the concerns Zelensky and his advisers had over the hold on military support. According to press reports, Senator Durbin stated that was the first time he was made aware of the hold. I went on to describe how I tried to minimize the impact of that hold by assuring Ukrainians that Congress could restore the funding in fiscal year 2020. I encouraged Durbin, as I had encouraged Murphy, to use his membership on the Senate Appropriations Committee to restore the funding.
Also according to a press report, leading up to a Sept. 12 defense appropriation committee markup, Durbin offered an amendment to restore funding. On Sept. 11, the administration announced that the hold had been lifted. I think it is important to note the hold was lifted only 14 days after its existence became publicly known, and 55 days after the hold apparently had been placed.
On Friday, Oct. 4, I saw news reports of text messages that Volker had supplied the House of Representatives as part of his testimony. The texts discussed a possible press release that Zelensky might issue to help persuade President Trump to offer an Oval Office meeting. Up to that point, I had publicly disclosed only the first part of my Aug. 31 phone call with President Trump, where I lobbied him to release the military aid and he provided his consistent reasons for not doing so: corruption and inadequate European support.
Earlier in the week, I had given a phone interview with Siobhan Hughes of the Wall Street Journal regarding my involvement with Ukraine. With the disclosure of the Volker texts, I felt it was important to go on the record with the next part of my Aug. 31 call with President Trump: his denial. I had not previously disclosed this because I could not precisely recall what Sondland had told me on Aug. 30, and what I had conveyed to President Trump, regarding action Ukraine would take before military aid would be released. To the best of my recollection, the action described by Sondland on Aug. 30 involved a demonstration that the new Ukrainian government was serious about fighting corruption — something like the appointment of a prosecutor general with high integrity.
I called Hughes Friday morning, Oct. 4, to update my interview. It was a relatively lengthy interview, almost 30 minutes, as I attempted to put a rather complex set of events into context. Toward the tail end of that interview, Hughes said, “It almost sounds like, the way you see it, Gordon was kind of freelancing and he took it upon himself to do something that the president hadn’t exactly blessed, as you see it.” I replied, “That’s a possibility, but I don’t know that. Let’s face it: The president can’t have his fingers in everything. He can’t be stage-managing everything, so you have members of his administration trying to create good policy.”
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. Many who had the opportunity and ability to influence the president attempted to change his mind. I see nothing wrong with U.S. officials working with Ukrainian officials to demonstrate Ukraine’s commitment to reform in order to change President Trump’s attitude and gain his support.
Nor is it wrong for administration staff to use their powers of persuasion within their chain of command to influence policy. What is wrong is for people who work for, and at the pleasure of, the president to believe they set U.S. foreign policy instead of the duly elected president doing so. It also would be wrong for those individuals to step outside their chain of command — or established whistleblower procedures — to undermine the president’s policy. If those working for the president don’t feel they can implement the president’s policies in good conscience, they should follow Gen. James Mattis’ example and resign. If they choose to do so, they can then take their disagreements to the public. That would be the proper and high-integrity course of action.
This impeachment effort has done a great deal of damage to our democracy. The release of transcripts of discussions between the president of the United States and another world leader sets a terrible precedent that will deter and limit candid conversations between the president and world leaders from now on. The weakening of executive privilege will also limit the extent to which presidential advisers will feel comfortable providing “out of the box” and other frank counsel in the future.
In my role as chairman of the Senate’s primary oversight committee, I strongly believe in and support whistleblower protections. But in that role, I am also aware that not all whistleblowers are created equal. Not every whistleblower has purely altruistic motives. Some have personal axes to grind against a superior or co-workers. Others might have a political ax to grind.
The Intelligence Community Inspector General acknowledges the whistleblower in this instance exhibits some measure of “an arguable political bias.” The whistleblower’s selection of attorney Mark Zaid lends credence to the ICIG’s assessment, given Zaid’s tweet that mentions coup, rebellion and impeachment only 10 days after Trump’s inauguration.
If the whistleblower’s intention was to improve and solidify the relationship between the U.S. and Ukraine, he or she failed miserably. Instead, the result has been to publicize and highlight the president’s deeply held reservations toward Ukraine that the whistleblower felt were so damaging to our relationship with Ukraine and to U.S. national security. The dispute over policy was being resolved between the two branches of government before the whistleblower complaint was made public. All the complaint has accomplished is to fuel the House’s impeachment desire (which I believe was the real motivation), and damage our democracy as described above.
America faces enormous challenges at home and abroad. My oversight efforts have persuaded me there has been a concerted effort, probably beginning the day after the November 2016 election, to sabotage and undermine President Trump and his administration. President Trump, his supporters, and the American public have a legitimate and understandable desire to know if wrongdoing occurred directed toward influencing the 2016 election or sabotaging Trump’s administration. The American public also has a right to know if no wrongdoing occurred. The sooner we get answers to the many unanswered questions, the sooner we can attempt to heal our severely divided nation and turn our attention to the many daunting challenges America faces.