Sen. Ron Johnson says he's 'sympathetic' to Trump rationale for freezing Ukraine aid

By Caitlin Oprysko

President Donald Trump came under significant pressure to release military aid for Ukraine, Sen. Ron Johnson said Sunday.

Even so, the Wisconsin Republican told CNN’s “State of the Union” he remains “sympathetic” to Trump’s stated reasons for doing so.

Johnson said he believed Trump’s preoccupation with eliciting more military aid for Ukraine from its European neighbors was a “legitimate" concern.

Trump has offered differing explanations for his decision to pause hundreds of millions in military aid meant for assisting the country in its conflict with Russia, arguing he wanted to ensure newly elected President Volodymyr Zelensky was serious about his campaign pledge to root out corruption but also complaining that European countries were not contributing enough in his view.

That rationale, Johnson claimed, was what “he had consistently been providing to me and I think other people in his administration of why he had serious reservations — and I would say legitimate reservations — about providing hard-earned tax dollars for Ukraine.”

But multiple U.S. officials have testified over the past month that Trump and his allies made clear the release of the aid was dependent on Ukraine announcing investigations into the Biden family and events surrounding the 2016 election — and that testimony is now at the heart of an ongoing impeachment inquiry.

Johnson, the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, acknowledged Trump was resistant to relinquishing the funds, telling anchor Jake Tapper that “a lot of us were trying to put that pressure on” Trump to unfreeze the aid.

“But again, I remain sympathetic with President Trump's legitimate concerns about the corruption — when you’re going to provide hundreds of million dollars of hard-earned American taxpayer dollars into a system, you want to make sure it’s not corrupt,” he added.

Trump paused the aid in mid-July, days before a phone call with Zelensky in which Trump asked for investigations into the Biden family and what happened in the lead-up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election. He relented and released the aid two months later amid bipartisan pressure from Congress and after a whistleblower complaint alleged he abused his power in freezing it to begin with.

When POLITICO reported the aid had been frozen, Trump came under bipartisan pressure to release the aid before it was set to expire weeks later, including in a phone call from Johnson on Aug. 31. “I was trying to get him to give me the clearance to tell President Zelensky the aid would be provided,” Johnson said of his phone call with Trump.

The president has repeatedly denied the aid was contingent upon Ukraine announcing the investigations for which Trump asked, but testimony given to impeachment investigators in the House has established a consistent, damning narrative indicating otherwise.

But Johnson dismissed testimony from administration officials asserting that when Trump and his allies referred to fighting corruption in Ukraine, it was more specifically assumed to mean the Biden and election interference investigations.

“That is their impression,” Johnson said, adding: “I've never heard the president say, ‘No, I want to dig up dirt on a potential 2020 opponent.’”

As for the investigation Trump had asked for into election interference, Johnson argued the request stemmed from a “human desire” by Trump to get to the bottom of why the first half of his first term in office had been bogged down by special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling and possible collusion by the Trump campaign.

But while there are several federal investigations ongoing into the origins of the Russia probe, Trump’s requests have focused on debunked conspiracy theories surrounding the 2016 election, namely that Ukraine was the real perpetrator of the interference rather than Russia, as the entire U.S. intelligence community has concluded.