MADISON, WI – Sen. Ron Johnson is taking on the unusual role of being one of President Donald Trump’s most vocal defenders at the same time the Wisconsin Republican has emerged as a witness to key moments at the heart of the impeachment inquiry and could serve as a juror on the president’s fate.
Despite his personal involvement, the former plastics manufacturer has said he won’t recuse himself if there’s a Senate trial on removing Trump should the House impeach him. If anything, Johnson has become more outspoken as his ties to impeachment have deepened.
“He’s in a very awkward position,” said Michael J. Gerhardt, author of “Impeachment: What Everyone Needs to Know” and a University of North Carolina law professor. “He’s really becoming more of a participant than a witness.”
The impeachment inquiry is focused on whether Trump improperly withheld U.S. military aid that Ukraine needed to resist Russian aggression in exchange for Ukraine’s new president investigating Trump political rival Joe Biden and his son. While Democrats say the request to investigate the Bidens represents a quid pro quo, Trump says he was within his rights to ask the country to look into corruption and that the impeachment effort is just an attempt by Democrats to remove him from office.
The sometimes verbose 64-year-old Johnson, a second-term senator who emerged from the tea party movement in 2010, has a background similar to Trump’s. They both spent their careers in the business world before launching outsider bids for office, and Johnson has been public about an affinity for the president. In 2016, when they were both on the ballot in Wisconsin, Johnson lightheartedly joked that they run as “the Ronald and the Donald.”
Johnson has occasionally broken with the president. Last year, he likened Trump’s plan to provide $12 billion in trade assistance to farmers hurt by tariffs to a “ Soviet-type economy.” Johnson also was one of the most vocal critics of Trump’s plan to ban most flavored e-cigarettes before the president backed down from that this week.
But when it comes to impeachment, few Republicans have been vocal in sticking up for the president than Johnson, who is weighing whether to run for a third term in 2022.
He is chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee and a member of the Senate's bipartisan Ukraine Caucus, putting him at the heart of the issues at stake. He has given numerous interviews to lay out his involvement, and on Monday released an 11-page letter that detailed his discussions on releasing foreign aid to Ukraine during trips to the country, conversations with its new president, White House meetings and his talks with fellow lawmakers, Trump and high-ranking members of his administration.
Johnson was part of a U.S. delegation that attended the May 20 inauguration of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, a trip Johnson said he made to show U.S. support for the new president and his country. Two months later, Trump asked Zelensky in a July 25 phone call to do him a “favor” and investigate the 2016 election and the Bidens. It was that call that resulted in a whistleblower’s complaint and the ongoing impeachment inquiry.
Johnson repeated in his letter Monday that he “winced” when told of the arrangement by U.S. diplomat Gordon Sondland to withhold aid to Ukraine. Johnson said Trump strongly denied in an Aug. 31 phone call that withholding the aid was tied to Ukraine launching political investigations. Johnson said Trump told him the reason for withholding the aid was to address corruption in Ukraine.
“I have accurately characterized his reaction as adamant, vehement and angry — there was more than one expletive that I have deleted,” Johnson wrote of Trump’s response.
The Trump administration ultimately released the aid to Ukraine in September, after it became clear the whistleblower’s report was being given to Congress.
While defending Trump, Johnson has also repeated GOP criticism of the Democratic-led impeachment proceedings. During a Sunday interview on “Meet the Press,” Johnson said the whistleblower “exposed things that didn't need to be exposed. This would have been far better off if we were just taking care of this behind the scenes."
Johnson has cast the impeachment as part of a "continuation of a concerted, and possibly coordinated, effort to sabotage the Trump administration.”
That position has won him praise from influential conservative talk radio outlets in Wisconsin, especially after a combative interview on “Meet the Press” last month in which Johnson defiantly stood by Trump.
Frank O. Bowman III, author of “High Crimes and Misdemeanors: A History of Impeachment for the Age of Trump” and a law professor at the University of Missouri, was critical of Johnson’s rhetoric surrounding impeachment, including questioning the loyalty of some witnesses and suggesting those willing to testify against Trump were part of the supposed “deep state” plot to force him from office.
But he said he didn’t know of any requirement that would force Johnson to recuse himself from a Senate trial. In fact, some framers of the Constitution envisioned cases where senators would sit in a case where they were also witnesses, he said.
Whether a senator should recuse himself as a matter of fairness or to avoid the appearance of impropriety is another question, Bowman said.
Johnson wouldn’t be the only senator with direct knowledge of the facts sitting in judgment of Trump. Connecticut Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy, for instance, also traveled to Ukraine with Johnson and spoke to Zelensky about U.S. aid. Murphy, like Johnson, detailed the facts as he saw them in his own letter to those leading the impeachment inquiry on Wednesday.
Johnson has insisted he has no conflict of interest and never considered recusing himself.
"I represent the people that elected me,” Johnson said in October. “Those individuals deserve a voice and my vote in the process."
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This story has been corrected to show that Johnson emerged from the tea party movement in 2010, not 2008.