Sen. Johnson ducks questions about Trump and Ukraine

"Ron Johnson" by Gage Skidmore is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

WASHINGTON — Wisconsin Republican Sen. Ron Johnson dodged questions this week about President Donald Trump’s actions toward Ukraine, which are the subject of a U.S. House impeachment inquiry. 

Asked whether he has any concerns about the president’s actions, Johnson told the Wisconsin Examiner: “That’s an impossible question to answer that way.”

Asked again if he had any concerns, Johnson declined to answer. His staff did not respond to a follow-up request for comment.

Trump’s critics have assailed the president for attempting to pressure Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, but Johnson has emerged as one of Trump’s most vocal defenders in Congress.

On Sept. 30, days after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the House would launch an impeachment inquiry, he told a Wisconsin radio host that Democrats and members of the media were putting the “worst possible construction” on Trump’s July phone call with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky.

On Oct. 3, Johnson told reporters that the rough transcript of the call showed that the president was simply “Trump being Trump.”

And in an Oct. 6 interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” he reiterated the president’s vehement denials that he withheld military aid from Ukraine in exchange for an investigation of Biden, a major political rival. 

Trump’s administration has been “sabotaged from the day after [the] election,” Johnson said.

Johnson also issued a full-throated attack on what he’s called the media’s “biased” reporting and shifted attention to charges that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Democrats worked with “corrupt players” to get “dirt” on 2016 rivals. 

Since then, Johnson has continued to call attention to questions about emails between Clinton and former President Obama from his perch as chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. 

On Oct. 31, he sent a letter asking the National Archives to turn over email communications between Clinton and Obama and set a Nov. 14 deadline. The committee, he said, has authority under the standing rules of the Senate to investigate government agencies and departments.

Heavy involvement in Ukraine

Johnson has had heavy involvement in matters relating to Ukraine, thanks to his legislative roles in Congress. He chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Europe and Regional Security Cooperation and is a leader of the Senate Ukraine Caucus, which was formed in 2015 to strengthen ties between Washington and Kiev. 

Ethics experts told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that, given his involvement in Ukraine, Johnson should consider recusing himself from voting in a Senate trial if the House votes to impeach Trump. Johnson responded that he wouldn’t recuse himself but that he would cooperate in a House impeachment hearing if asked to testify. 

Wisconsin’s other senator, Democrat Tammy Baldwin, has so far withheld judgment on her colleague’s involvement in a Senate trial.

“He will have to make that decision himself,” she told WTMJ’s Wisconsin’s Morning News. “I know that in recent interviews, he’s acknowledged the information that he got at certain key points. He became a part of this story because of a trip to the Ukraine where he got certain information. He has to judge for himself whether he should play any role in hearing the case should a trial be brought to the Senate.”

But she is pressing the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Defense to investigate the delay in congressional funding for Ukraine, which allegedly came at the direction of the White House. 

“We continue to believe that an impartial investigation by your office is important to get to the truth and ensure appropriate accountability,” she and other Democratic senators wrote in a Nov. 5 letter to Defense Department Acting Inspector General Glenn Fine. The letter came one month after the senators sent a similar letter that yielded no response.

Baldwin also urged her Senate colleagues to proceed with an open mind if the Senate is tasked with weighing in on whether to remove the president from office.

“If the House votes to send articles of impeachment to the Senate, then we need to have a fair and thorough trial in the Senate,” she said in a statement. “Every senator is going to have to take an oath to do impartial justice and then make a judgement on the case in front of us based on our constitutional responsibility to put our country first.”

On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters that he’s “pretty sure how it’s likely to end” if the House votes to impeach the president and sends the case to trial in the Senate.

“If it were today, I don’t think there’s any question — it would not lead to a removal,” he said.

A majority of Republican senators, including Johnson and 37 others, have expressed support for Trump, while a minority (14) have avoided questions on the matter or expressed concerns about Trump’s actions, according to a tally by the Washington Post

Some, meanwhile, have been wary about commenting, saying they may be jurors in a Senate trial.