Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) stepped forward with a disclosure Friday that he apparently thought might help President Trump weather his Ukraine problem.

But what he said was decidedly unhelpful for Trump.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Johnson disclosed that Trump assured him on Aug. 31 that there was no quid pro quo between him and Ukraine. “He said — expletive deleted — No way. I would never do that. Who told you that?” Johnson said.

The more significant part of the conversation, though, is why Johnson even asked Trump in the first place:

Mr. Johnson said he learned of the potential arrangement involving military aid through a phone call with Mr. [Gordon] Sondland that occurred the day before Mr. Johnson spoke to Mr. Trump. Under the arrangement, Mr. Johnson said Mr. Sondland told him, Ukraine would appoint a strong prosecutor general and move to “get to the bottom of what happened in 2016 — if President Trump has that confidence, then he’ll release the military spending,” recounted Mr. Johnson.
“At that suggestion, I winced,” Mr. Johnson said. “My reaction was: Oh, God. I don’t want to see those two things combined.”

Gordon Sondland, you might recall, was one of three top U.S. diplomats whose text messages were disclosed to Congress by former Ukraine envoy Kurt Volker on Thursday. In those texts, Sondland twice responds to suggestions of a military aid quid pro quo by suggesting they talk about such things on the phone rather than via text. In the second case, he also rather curiously issues an extensive and carefully worded denial of the quid pro quo that almost seems intended for a situation in which the texts eventually became public.

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“Bill, I believe you are incorrect about President Trump’s intentions,” Sondland wrote to Bill Taylor, the U.S. chargé d’affaires in Ukraine. “The President has been crystal clear no quid pro quo’s of any kind. The President is trying to evaluate whether Ukraine is truly going to adopt the transparency and reforms that President Zelensky promised during his campaign.”

Of the three U.S. diplomats on those texts, in fact, Sondland was the only one who did not allude to at least the possibility of some kind of a quid pro quo. Volker referred to the idea that the White House was withholding a meeting with Trump from Ukrainian President Zelensky to make sure he pursue the investigations Trump wanted. Later on, Taylor twice refers to the idea that hundreds of millions of dollars was “conditioned on investigations” and was being withheld “for help with a political campaign.”

If Johnson’s version is correct, that suggests that even Sondland believed there was — or at least might be — some kind of quid pro quo going on (whether he had direct knowledge of it or not). So it sounds like pretty much everyone involved in this diplomatic episode at the highest levels at least suspected this was a quid pro quo.

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And that wasn’t the only interview Johnson gave Friday that pointed in the direction of a potential quid pro quo. In a separate interview with the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Johnson explained that he tried to get Trump to let him tell Ukraine that the aid would be coming through. Trump said no at that point, according to Johnson.

But yet again, the more interesting part came after all that. In this particular interview, Johnson also discloses the reason Trump gave him:

Johnson said Trump said he was considering withholding the aid because of alleged corruption involving the 2016 U.S. election.
"What happened in 2016? What happened in 2016? What was the truth about that?” Johnson said.

One of two investigations Trump pushed for in his phone call with Zelensky involves CrowdStrike, which initially analyzed the hacked Democratic National Committee server in 2016. According to some conspiracy theories, Ukraine played a role in wrongly pinning the blame on Russia. In other words, Johnson seems to be saying that Trump was withholding the military aid because of that.

And it’s not a big leap from there to suggest maybe it was being withheld until, Trump believed, Ukraine got to the bottom of all of it.

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