The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Who leaked?’ An analysis of GOP Sen. Ron Johnson’s conspiracy-minded defense of Trump.

After news of a new whistleblower broke Oct. 6, Republicans slammed the media, and Democrats urged their colleagues to stop defending President Trump. (Video: Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)
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On Friday, a powerful Republican senator indicated to the Wall Street Journal that he had been concerned this summer that President Trump was creating a quid pro quo with Ukraine by holding up military aid. But he appeared to regret sharing something so potentially damaging and immediately tried to walk back his statements.

It was probably not a coincidence then that on Sunday, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, went on TV to try to defend the president. But arguably, he did more damage to the president’s cause by showing just how difficult it is to defend Trump.

In his interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Johnson refused to answer basic questions about why he was concerned about Trump, instead bringing up a completely unrelated conspiracy theory about a former FBI official. “Answer the question that I asked you instead of trying to make Donald Trump feel better here that you’re not criticizing him,” an exasperated host Chuck Todd says at one point.

The interview underscored that, to defend Trump amid revelations of a whistleblower complaint and diplomatic text messages alleging that the president used his power to pressure a foreign country for political gain, Republicans such as Johnson and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) increasingly have to ignore or ditch the facts altogether.

Here are three key excerpts from the interview, taken from a rough transcript provided by “Meet the Press.”

TODD: Let me start with something you told the Wall Street Journal late last week. You had said when Mr. Sondland — Gordon Sondland seemed to imply that — the frozen military aid was connected to a promise by Zelensky for investigations, you said, “At that suggestion, I winced. My reaction was, ‘Oh God. I don’t want to see those two things combined.’” Why did you wince and what did you mean by “those two things combined?”
JOHNSON: Well, first of all, your setup piece was — you know, typically, very unbiased. But, you know, let me first, before I started answering all the detailed questions, let me just talk about why I’m pretty sympathetic with what President Trump has gone through. You know, I’m 64 years old. I have never in my lifetime seen a president, after being elected, not having some measure of well-wishes from his opponents. I’ve never seen a president’s administration be sabotaged from the day after election. I’ve never seen — no measure of honeymoon whatsoever. And so what President Trump’s had to endure, a false accusation — by the way, you’ve got John Brennan on — you ought to ask Director Brennan what did Peter Strzok mean when he texted Lisa Page on December 15th, 2016?

This is the first question in the interview, and Todd spends the rest of it — nine minutes — trying to get Johnson to answer it. As Todd goes on to say, it is a basic question. He’s asking Johnson to repeat and elaborate on what Johnson told the Wall Street Journal: A high-level diplomat, Gordon Sondland, who appeared to be doing Trump’s bidding in Ukraine, according to text messages, privately told Johnson that military aid was tied to Ukraine agreeing “to get to the bottom of what happened in 2016.”

“At that suggestion, I winced,” Johnson told the Wall Street Journal. “My reaction was, ‘Oh, God. I don’t want to see those two things combined.’ ”

Todd wants to know why Johnson was unhappy with that. Johnson doesn’t answer the question. He responds by lamenting that Trump didn’t have “some measure of well-wishes from his opponents” and that his administration was “sabotaged” and brings up former intelligence officials whom Trump has made conservative lightning rods. He is, in other words, reiterating Trump’s talking points rather than criticizing the president.

2. TODD: Senator—
JOHNSON: —Special counsel appointed that has hampered his entire investigation—
TODD: Senator?
JOHNSON: —his entire— his entire— his entire administration. And now, once he’s been— that was proven false, he would like to know and I would like to know and I know his supporters would like to know, where did this all come from? Who planted that false story?
TODD: Senator—
JOHNSON: Who leaked? You know, I— I have— I have my third letter into the Inspector General of the Intelligence—
TODD: All right, Senator—
JOHNSON: —Committee, asking to just confirm— just confirm, are you investigating those leaks that Peter Strzok talked about in that—
TODD: All right, Senator—
JOHNSON: —text to Lisa Page—
TODD: —I have no idea why—
JOHNSON: We’re gettin’— no, that’s— that’s—
TODD: —why—
JOHNSON: —a setup. It is entirely—
TODD: —why a Fox—
JOHNSON: —relevant to this point.
TODD: —why a Fox News conspiracy, propaganda stuff is popping up on here.

More than anything, this section of the interview shows just how much Republicans in Congress think they need to ingratiate themselves to Trump.

Johnson is a member of the Senate Ukraine Caucus and chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. He also sits on the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee. In addition, he’s a member of a separate but coequal branch of government. He had a vested interest in getting security aid to Ukraine approved by members of Congress in both parties. We know based on his own words that he was concerned that Trump was holding it up.

Yet, rather than acknowledge that on camera, Johnson tries to deflect by throwing out false summaries of the Mueller report ⁠ — that the allegations were “proven false” ⁠ — conspiracy theories that someone “planted” the allegations of Russian collusion at the center of the special counsel investigation and by naming a former FBI official who was no fan of Trump but was ancillary to the investigations into his campaign. At one point, Johnson refuses to answer whether he trusts the CIA and the FBI, two agencies he oversees and works with in his role in the Senate.

More importantly, none of this has anything to do with Ukraine. Johnson was talking fast, tossing out these distractions like roadblocks to a journalist determined to get a legitimate answer.

3. TODD: ... Why did you wince?
JOHNSON: ... Because I didn’t want those connected. And I wanted I was supporting the aid, as is Senator Murphy, as is everybody that went to that initial inauguration. But here’s the salient point of why I came forward. When I asked the president about that, he completely denied it. He adamantly denied it. He vehemently, angrily denied it. He said, “I’d never do that.” So that is the piece of the puzzle I’m here to report today that, unlike the narrative of the press that President Trump wants to dig up dirt on his 2020 opponent, what he wants is he wants is an accounting of what happened in 2016. Who set him up? Did things spring from Ukraine? ...

I’ve bolded the section where Johnson finally answers the first question Todd asked. Johnson allows that he did not want military aid and “investigations into 2016” connected. He said he wanted the aid to go to Ukraine, with no conditions. This is the second time Johnson acknowledges that he thought Trump was doing something with which he did not agree. Aside from this interview, Johnson has twice made clear that he knew about allegations of a quid pro quo — military aid for investigating election conspiracy theories held by Trump — and that he heard it from the highest levels of U.S. diplomacy with Ukraine.

Johnson goes on to explain the reason he shared this in the first place. He was trying to say that he had asked Trump whether there was a quid pro quo, and Trump had denied it. It was his second apparent defense of Trump that missed the mark, and Johnson is struggling mightily to get out from under that.