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Despite Involvement, Sen. Ron Johnson Will Not Recuse Himself From Impeachment Trial

Chip Somodevilla
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Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., questions witnesses during a full hearing on U.S.-Russia affairs in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill Dec. 03, 2019, in Washington, DC.

The impeachment investigation and hearings have dominated headlines (and air time) for weeks. Thursday morning, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., announced the House will be moving forward with articles of impeachment. Wisconsin U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson has been at the center of these investigations. 

President Donald Trump is accused of abusing the power of the presidency — by requiring the Ukrainian government to investigate his political adversaries in exchange for critical aid and other political favors. The president is also accused of obstruction of justice — for trying to conceal his involvement in Ukraine and for advising federal employees to break the law, by defying congressional subpoenas.

Johnson is a member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, and the chairman of the subcommittee on Europe and Regional Security Cooperation. Johnson was one of the first people notified about President Trump’s alleged request to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

READ: Wisconsin's Johnson Is Trump Witness, Backer And Maybe Juror

Johnson is also a potential juror and says he will not recuse himself from the impeachment hearing despite his involvement. "This is a political process, this is not an Article 3 trial," he tells WUWM during a phone interview, stating he doesn't believe there's anything unethical about him acting as both a juror and a fact witness. 

Although Johnson believes in whistleblower protections, he also believes the whistleblower in this case should be unmasked.

"There is no guarantee of anonymity with whistleblowers, there's just a guarantee that they can't be retaliated against ... so there's no reason to ... continue to be anonymous."

"There is no guarantee of anonymity with whistleblowers, there's just a guarantee that they can't be retaliated against ... so there's no reason to keep this whistleblower's — you know, continue to be anonymous, because he's not anonymous, everybody knows who he is, " says Johnson. 

When questioned about public threats against whistleblowers and witnesses, Johnson first says, "I don't believe that ... let's face it, this whistleblower will be celebrated, just like professor Blasey Ford was celebrated." 

Professor Christine Blasey Ford has faced serious death threats in light of her testimony accusing now Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault. There have been accusations that the public and politicians, specifically President Trump, have threatened witnesses in that case. Contrasting his previous statement, Johnson then says threats of violence are commonplace in modern politics.

He says, "It's a horrible part, place that our politics are in today where that's just true across the board, OK?"


Lake Effect's JOY POWERS: This is Lake Effect from 89.7 WUWM - Milwaukee's NPR. Thanks for tuning in today. I'm Joy Powers. The impeachment investigation and hearings have dominated headlines and airtime for weeks. This morning Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the House will be moving forward with articles of impeachment. President Donald Trump is accused of abusing the power of the presidency by requiring the Ukrainian government to investigate his political adversaries in exchange for critical aid and other political favors. The president is also accused of obstruction of justice, for trying to conceal his involvement in Ukraine, and for advising federal employees to break the law by defying congressional subpoenas. Wisconsin U.S. Senator Ron Johnson has been at the center of these investigations. Johnson was one of the first people notified about President Trump's alleged request to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Senator Johnson is also a potential juror and says he will not recuse himself from the impeachment hearing despite his involvement. He joins me now by phone. Well, Senator Johnson, thank you so much for joining us here on Lake Effect.

SEN. RON JOHNSON: Happy, happy to be on your show.

POWERS: So I think like some Wisconsinites, I was listening to the impeachment hearing when I started to hear my senator's name mentioned quite a lot, which was both exciting and a little bit of an uh-oh moment. So take me back a bit. When did Ambassador [Gordon] Sondland first talk to you about the Trump administration's seemingly unusual request to Ukrainian President Zelenskiy?

JOHNSON: Well, let me go back just a little bit further and talk about my involvement in Ukraine. It really started within a couple months of my becoming an United States senator in 2011. And as my first congressional delegation, we went to Georgia, Ukraine and the Baltic states. And then that was followed up as I got on to Senate Foreign Relations Committee and I became chairman, first ranking member then chairman, of the European subcommittee, so I made numerous trips. I think six over to Ukraine. Certainly witnessed the maidan, you know, hundred Ukrainians slaughtered in their quest for freedom. So I just, I think Americans ought to have an affinity for the people of Ukraine. They're trying to shed the legacy of Soviet corruption, that type of thing. But yeah, I got involved with the Ambassador Sondland first during his confirmation, came before my subcommittee and obviously was first passed on Senate Foreign Relations Committee. And then as Ukraine is going through the elections, we have former President [Petro] Poroshenko lost in just a landslide victory for President Zelenskiy. 73% of Ukrainians voted for a complete political neophyte, and President Zelenskiy basically with the mandate to rid the country of corruption. And so they called the inauguration very short notice, I was the only member of Congress that could rearrange my schedule to get there. I thought it was pretty important we had representation from, from Congress. Ambassador Sondland was there. Kurt Volker was there. Secretary [Rick] Perry was the head of the administrative delegation. So we met with President Zelenskiy. We met with a number of his future advisors and we came away from that meeting thoroughly convinced that President Zelenskiy was the real deal. He really was. He understood that this election wasn't about him is really about the mandate to rid Ukraine of corruption. So we, we felt he's dedicated to doing that. And so, Ambassador Sondland thought it was important that we meet directly with the president, which we did a couple days later in the Oval Office, the four of us, and to really encourage the president to get fully behind supporting the people of Ukraine, their new president, offer Oval Office visit, appoint an ambassador that could get strong bipartisan support, to again, for the signal of strong support for Ukraine. And they were also, I was certainly surprised, I shouldn't talk for, speak for the other ones, at President Trump's reaction. But my point has been his reaction has been incredibly consistent. Yeah, it literally starts with what a corrupt place it is. I think Kurt Volker has some paraphrased quotes of the president, which, which pretty well describes what the president's viewpoint was, as well as President Trump's long standing beef that Europe just does not do enough for its own defense and certainly wasn't stepping up to the plate adequately in terms of support for Ukraine. That's what, that's kind of where the whole involvement with Ambassador Sondland. I thought Ambassador Sondland was, was really trying to do the right thing and encourage the president to support Ukraine and I support his efforts there.

POWERS: But Ambassador Sondland did say that he thought there were some real issues with President Trump's conversation with President Zelenskiy.

JOHNSON: I'm not so sure that was his testimony. He certainly understood, as we all understood, that we had a real sales job to do with President Trump. President Trump had legitimate concerns. I mean everybody recognized the issue of corruption in Ukraine. And when you're the head guy, when you are the president of the United States, and you're looking at spending or releasing hundreds of millions of dollars of hard earned taxpayer, American taxpayer money, that you really should satisfy yourself that this is a country that is going to move beyond that corruption. And you know, what one of the points I kept making it, I don't think it's made enough. This is toward the tail end of the fiscal year, that money still hadn't been spent. I still haven't found out why. We had this administration had provided the Javelin missiles, which were still in place, fortunately hadn't been used. So those Javelin missiles were still there as a deterrent for further Russian aggression with their tanks. So to me, and this is what I conveyed to President Zelenskiy when we were in Ukraine, let's try and minimize this hold. Let's talk about as being a year-end fiscal issue, and we've got Senator [Chris] Murphy who's part of the appropriations process, I came back and talkrf to Senator [Dick] Durbin, who's also on the appropriation committee. And, again, let's not blow this into a big deal. We want to show our support for Ukraine. Let's not show a division. Let's just talk about well, if the president decides not to release the hold, we'll make sure that Congress restores that funding. It gives the president no flexibility. So this was being taken care of, between branches and within the branch. It's unfortunate its blown into a whole impeachment battle.

POWERS: Well, Senator Johnson, the vast majority of the corruption that you're talking about, it seemed to happen about four years ago. Why is this coming up now? Why is this coming up in 2019?

JOHNSON: Well, first of all, no, the corruption is pretty much endemic. And again, I, I wanted to surface that he, President Zelenskiy...

POWERS: The issue with Burisma that, that's something that came up in 2015. And that's what's been cited continuously, including in the phone call that Donald Trump, President Trump had with President Zelenskiy.

JOHNSON: Well, what drives me nuts and this is coming from somebody who, who really is investigating this and taking everything I hear from everybody with a big grain of salt. Okay. There are a lot of unanswered questions. And when I hear members of the media or folks on the other side say, 'Well, that's all debunked.' Well, there's certain aspects that have been debunked. But also when they say, 'Well, that there's no evidence of that,' well, there's no evidence because people literally have not done a real serious deep dive and done the kind of investigations ... [talking over each other] ... as what they've undertaken against President Trump ....

POWERS: Senator Johnson, I don't know exactly what you're talking about right now. When you say that they're not investigate, what are they not investigating?

JOHNSON: Sure, well for example, there is ... I've known about this document for quite some time. But there's a file document, contemporaneous memo to the file. A week after the new prosecutor general took over for [Viktor] Shokin, the one that was fired on behest of Vice President Biden. It's a memo about a meeting with Burisma, Hunter Biden's American legal team to set up a meeting with the new acting prosecutor general and says the purpose of the meeting was to apologize for the false information spread by U.S. Representatives against Shokin, the former prosecutor general. Now Burisma, I've seen the, I think, the 13 page document that lays out the case to start an investigation, they're talking about Burisma basically being a conduit for laundering money from Russian interests. So there's a lot of corruption.

POWERS: So you believe this is Russian corruption?

JOHNSON: For people to say there's no illegality there, for them to say there was no wrongdoing. I would just say what do you think it was right for Hunter Biden to take a board position in a company that was suspect in a country that is known to be corrupt when his father was the vice president, and have a portfolio for Ukraine. I mean, I think on its face, that doesn't seem like the right thing to do. I, I certainly wouldn’t let my son do that.

POWERS: Well, I suppose. So I'm going to take a step back. You've said, you know, Americans, quote, 'We solve our political differences at the ballot box, not in the streets or through impeachment.' But this impeachment process, it's laid out in the constitution for cases of this kind where the president is accused of high crimes and misdemeanors, and let's not, you know, mince words here, he is accused of some very serious things. So are you criticizing the constitution with this criticism of impeachment?

JOHNSON: No, I think what I would criticize is the the low level of the bar being set in terms of what's going to be considered an impeachable offense. And the fact that I don't think this ever should have been raised as an issue. I have real questions about how this whole whistleblower complaint came into being and ...

POWERS: Do you have an issue with whistleblowers more generally?

JOHNSON: Absolutely not. I defend them. I, you know, I'm shocked at how much retaliation there is against whistleblowers. So I'm, I'm chairman of the committee, Oversight Committee of the Senate, we rely on whistleblowers so I want strong whistleblower protections, but because I am aware of a number of whistleblowers, you know, they're not all created equal. Some have personal and political axe to grind. And, and by the way, there is no guarantee of anonymity with whistleblowers. There's just a guarantee that they can't be retaliated against. In fact, the whistleblower statutes contemplate if an accused wants to call a whistleblower for, for, in his defense, they'll have the right to do that. So there's no reason to keep this whistleblowers continue to be anonymous. He's not anonymous. People, everybody knows who he is.

POWERS: Well, in unmasking this whistleblower, aren't you opening them up to some real threats? A lot of the people who have testified have been threatened.

JOHNSON: No, I don't believe that.

POWERS: You don't believe that?

JOHNSON: First of all, first of all, I haven't unmasked him. OK. Others have. I mean the name is widely known. There's a charade going on, like, like we don't know who the whistleblower is. I think we do. Let's face it, this whistleblower will be celebrated just like Professor [Christine] Blasey Ford was celebrated. I don't think there's any ...

POWERS: She has also received a number of death threats. She's had to have security with her. And, this gets to another point here. It seems like whenever anybody speaks out against the Trump administration, against what he's doing or even just contradicts his timeline, they're subject to a number of threats, not just from the public at large, but seemingly in some cases, the president himself.

JOHNSON: First of all, this is a horrible part, place that our politics are in today where that's just true across the board. OK, I've had my own share of death threats. You know, we there were death threats lodged to people like Leah Vukmir and other members of the Wisconsin State Legislator during Act 10. So that's a very regrettable state that our politics are in but it occurs on both sides. It's unfortunately, the nature of the beast right now. And I deplore it, but that's part of the thing I'm trying to speak out against is this strong division in our country where people are just talking by each other. You know, whether you'd acknowledge it or not, I will tell you that conservatives view the press as highly biased, that this president is not getting a fair shake, and that is part of the reason why the country stays divided. If we had a more unbiased, a more even-handed press, you may not have quite the same issue. So I know, I know members the press don't like hearing that and they won't admit to it but that is one of the divisions. It's one of the reasons that conservatives continue to support the president and their support is even growing, because they think this president has been treated unfairly. Take a look at,  take a look at the attorney for the whistleblower, 10 days after the inauguration is tweeting using terms like coup, rebellion, impeachment will follow ultimately.

POWERS: Senator Johnson, I understand that you have some issues with the media at large. But at the same time, especially local media, which I am, I'm talking to your constituents, but I'm also one of your constituents, we have to keep our politicians accountable. And often when we see these things that you or the president have taken issue with, these are articles that are just pointing out that what he said or what someone said, isn't accurate, that it's not true. How do we keep people accountable?

JOHNSON: So when I say the bias in the media is revealed, by the way I'm very accessible, I try to have a good relationship with media, we need a free press, it is vital. But an unbiased free press would even be better. But the bias in the media is revealed far more often in what they don't report, what they're not curious about versus the sometimes very overt bias in what they do. And it's one of the reasons I think President Trump was talking about Biden. He just gone through a special counsel investigation on a completely false charge of collusion between his campaign and Russia. And he looks at that and there, again, there are questions. Was there any kind of DNC involvement with actors in Ukraine? Could that have been part of what caused him to get a special counsel? He was just asking, I think as any human being who'd gone through that torment, but, 'You've given me a special counsel to investigate, investigate everything I've done, why don't you look at what Vice President Biden did?' I mean, to me, that's just kind of a human reaction. And now we're impeaching somebody on the basis of what I consider very sympathetic human reaction.

POWERS: He conditioned a number of things on these investigations, he conditioned critical aid to Ukraine, a country who you believe the United States should actively, vociferously support.

JOHNSON: So when I, when I asked the president about that before my trip on September 5, I talked to him on August 31. He was again very consistent the reason he was looking at this was because corruption and Europe's not stepping up to the plate. I'm the one that raised the issue was is there some arrangement that, you know, if Ukraine does something you'll provide, you'll lift the hold and he vehemently, angrily, adamantly denied that.

POWERS: That's not what the transcript said.

JOHNSON: Toward the, toward the tail end. Well, they didn't even know about the hold back then. There wasn't, I don't think there was even a hold back then, even in July. Let me finish. At the tail end of my conversation in August 31, the president wrapped up saying, 'Ron, I gotta deal with a hurricane but I hear what you're saying. We are reviewing it right now. I think you might even like my decision.' So on August 31, it was already under review. He was already leaning toward releasing that hold. He released hold on September 11, and there was no conditions placed on it, he released it. So, again, I understand how the press was putting the worst possible construction on everything. This has been blown way out of proportion, it never should have risen to an impeachment trial, this sausage making process of foreign policymaking shouldn't have to be revealed.

POWERS: OK, so that gets back to this point, you're considered a fact witness in this trial. But you also have said that you intend to be a juror. Now in any other courtroom that would be considered incredibly unethical. Why do you believe it's ethical for you to act as both a juror and a fact witness in this case?

JOHNSON: Do you know how many fact witnesses might the other senators be?

POWERS: Well then, why would it be ethical for them to be there either?

JOHNSON: Because this is not a jury trial. This is a political process. I'm a United States senator, and people elected me deserve representation in this process, they deserve my voice, they deserve my vote.

POWERS: Don't they also deserve a fair trial?

JOHNSON: There's absolutely nothing unethical about it. I want to ask senator, I wonder, I wonder how many members of the press has asked Senator Murphy whether he's going to recuse himself because he's also a fact witness because he's with me in that meeting with Zelenskiy.

POWERS: Well, shouldn't he?

JOHNSON: No, he should not, he should not recuse himself.


JOHNSON: Because it's not a jury trial. It's not the same type of thing. We're not actual ...

POWERS: So, it's not as ethical as a jury trial? I don't understand why it's more ethical?

JOHNSON: This is, this is a political process. This is not an Article 3 trial. It's a political process.

POWERS: Does that speak to whether or not it's ethical?

JOHNSON: There is nothing unethical about me having knowledge of something. And by the way, a lot of senators have knowledge about what's happening with, with Ukraine and the funding and everything else. But there's nothing unethical about me being potentially a fact witness. I've already provided what I know. And then actually sitting in, in the Senate as one of the senators that will decide to vote whether to impeach, to convict this president or not. There's nothing unethical about that at all.

POWERS: It is in no way a conflict of interest in your mind?

JOHNSON: No. no.

POWERS: OK. Well, Senator Johnson, thank you so much for taking the time out to speak with me today. I really appreciate it.

JOHNSON: Happy to do so. Have a great day.

Joy is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.