Host Chuck Todd did, indeed, raise that interview immediately. But Johnson was prepared. Instead of explaining his concerns about leveraging military aid to ensure an investigation that would benefit Trump politically, Johnson tried to shift the conversation in a different direction: to an assertion that Trump had been unfairly targeted since he won the 2016 election.
Johnson quoted a December 2016 text message between former FBI officials Peter Strzok and Lisa Page in which Strzok said that their “sisters” — others in the intelligence community — had begun “leaking like mad” because they were “scorned and worried and political.”
“That is why Trump is so upset,” Johnson said. “He had this false narrative, that resulted in him being set by up [then-FBI Director] James Comey on January 16th. Then he has the special counsel appointed that has hampered 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?”
This is not a particularly good example of redirection. The leaks in December 2016 centered on the existence of an investigation into Russia interference in that year’s election that also addressed possible overlap with the Trump campaign. The leaks weren’t a “false narrative”; that investigation existed. The special counsel’s investigation didn’t result in anything being proved false; instead, it documented the scale of the Russian interference effort and determined that there was insufficient evidence to bring criminal charges against any Trump campaign staffers for aiding that effort.
Johnson has something of a track record of trying to insinuate devious activity by Strzok, Page and other government officials. In early 2018, Johnson declared that an informant had told the Senate about a secret anti-Trump society within the FBI. That purported “secret society,” though, stemmed from a joking message between Strzok and Page, and no “informant” was ever identified.
On Sunday, Todd’s response to Johnson’s reply was to wonder how “Fox News conspiracy, propaganda stuff is popping up on here.” The answer, of course, is that Trump’s Ukraine conspiracy theories derive from information amplified on Fox News — and that his defenses are cultivated in the welcoming Petri dish of Fox programming. Johnson’s efforts were emblematic of the focus of many defenses of Trump, which have been offered by his allies in the past few weeks: focused squarely on those who already agree with Trump and who accept the same flawed premises about the Russia investigation and the administration of Barack Obama that Trump does.
To Johnson, Trump's outreach to Ukraine was defensible, given that Trump “had very legitimate concerns and reservations about Ukraine” including, first, “corruption, generalized.”
“It’s endemic,” Johnson added. “We all know that. And then specifically about what kind of interference in the 2016 election.” Johnson pointed to a 2017 article from Politico in which two incidents involving Ukraine — a Democratic National Committee staffer’s freelance investigations into then-Trump campaign staffer Paul Manafort and the release of documents linking Manafort to illegal payments — were combined under a broad umbrella of Ukrainian interference efforts. The article, though, notes that there’s “little evidence” of these discrete incidents being part of a top-down strategy from the government.
Even beyond that, Johnson's argument is weak: Trump's anti-corruption push in his call with Ukraine's president went no further than to ask that Biden and his son be investigated.
So Johnson does a just-askin'-questions move: “I don’t know to what extent DNC and Hillary Clinton campaign were involved in kind of juicin’ up the Ukrainian involvements, as well.” And, no, he told Todd, he didn’t trust as dispositive any FBI or CIA investigations that occurred under Obama — or any investigators who worked under Obama.
Perhaps Johnson is sincere. Perhaps he truly thinks that there was a sweeping, unproved conspiracy undertaken by numerous corrupt officials that failed to uncover evidence linking Clinton’s 2016 campaign to the precise sort of things of which Trump was accused. Or perhaps he’s just offering the best defense he can muster of a president to whom he wants to demonstrate loyalty.
Within that Fox News world that helped birth Trump’s Ukraine theories, Johnson’s efforts were praised. Todd’s efforts to get Johnson to explain why he had winced at an apparent effort to link aid with a 2016 investigation earned him the title of “disgrace to humankind” from professional Fox News anger-monger Dan Bongino.
Trump’s son Eric appeared on “Fox & Friends” to assert that Todd’s questioning of Johnson and ABC’s George Stephanopoulos’s interview with Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) were “dangerous to this country.”
“I mean, honestly, the media in doing that” — interrupting politicians who weren’t answering questions directly — “they pose a danger to this nation,” Eric Trump said. “I mean, look at the advocacy there!”
Eric Trump criticized Stephanopoulos as biased for having once worked as an adviser to Bill Clinton. The interview with Jordan that was so offensive, though, concentrated on an effort to get Jordan to say whether it was appropriate for Trump to have asked China to investigate Biden last week.
This, Jordan insisted, was not a sincere request.
“You're telling me the guy who's been tougher on China really thinks that's going to happen?” Jordan said at one point, implying that China wouldn't want to help Trump. “It's not going to happen.”
The problem, of course, is that Trump’s administration is engaged in a trade war with China. Why should we not assume that China might try to gain leverage in negotiations by offering Trump some sort of dirt on Biden — however legitimate?
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) was asked on “Fox & Friends” about Jordan’s representation that Trump was “trolling China” and “having fun.”
“You watch what the president said,” McCarthy replied. “He’s not saying China should investigate, but let’s get to the clear point: If I’m a member of Congress and I break the law and there should be investigation and I run for another office? You still investigate me.”
Trump, of course, explicitly asked China to investigate Biden.
“By the way, likewise, China should start an investigation into the Bidens,” he said on Oct. 3, as memorialized in a White House transcript, “because what happened in China is just about as bad as what happened with — with Ukraine.”
There’s no reason to think that Trump was joking in any respect. Trump keeps talking about China and Ukraine in concert, allegations derived from a book that appears to have been the tipping point for Trump’s focus. Why Trump would be joking or be insincere about a Chinese investigation when he’s been adamant in his sincerity about a Ukrainian one is unclear — beyond that his request of China was massively problematic.
At least in the objective political world. In the subjective world of Trump’s political base, this is all just another effort to smear the president.
Johnson’s efforts on Trump’s behalf appear to have paid off with that audience.