Ron Johnson: Sondland told me Trump wanted a quid pro quo from Ukraine -- but Trump told me he didn't

“Sondland” is Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the EU. He was on that text exchange with acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor and U.S. special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker that I wrote about yesterday and Ed wrote about this morning. At one point in an exchange from September, Taylor said, “I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign” — evidence that even Trump’s own diplomats feared the possibility of a secret quid pro quo.

It was Sondland who replied to him, “Bill, I believe you are incorrect about President Trump’s intentions. The President has been crystal clear no quid pro quo’s of any kind.” And who then asked that the conversation be continued offline.

Now here’s GOP Sen. Ron Johnson telling the WSJ that *Sondland* was the one who told him in August that a quid pro quo appeared to be in the works. But when Johnson raised that possibility with Trump himself, Trump denied it firmly.

Mr. Johnson, who supports aid to Ukraine and is the chairman of a Senate subcommittee with jurisdiction over the region, said Mr. Trump was adamant on the issue. “He said—expletive deleted—‘No way. I would never do that. Who told you that?” the Wisconsin senator recalled [of their August 31 phone call]. Mr. Johnson told Mr. Trump that he had learned of the arrangement from Mr. Sondland…

Mr. Johnson said he learned of the potential arrangement involving military aid through a phone call with Mr. 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.”

He said he doesn’t believe Mr. Biden’s name came up during his conversations with Mr. Sondland or Mr. Trump.

Trump’s denial is obviously a good fact for him. At no point during this Ukraine saga has anyone accused him of directly condoning a quid pro quo in discussions with aides or anyone else. It’s all read-between-the-line stuff, like his request for a “favor” from Zelensky during their phone call after Zelensky mentioned purchasing U.S. missiles. On the other hand, the fact that Sondland saw some sort of quid pro quo in the works with Ukraine while the military aid was on hold is … not a great fact. This makes two separate diplomats, including Taylor, who appear to have believed that an aid-for-investigation trade was happening.

And it creates a mystery around Sondland. Why was he under the impression on August 30 when chatting with Johnson that there was a quid pro quo and then, 10 days later, eager to remind Taylor via text that Trump has been clear about there being no quid pro quo? If he had his facts wrong when he spoke to Johnson, how did he come to be so badly misinformed? Note that Johnson says he named Sondland when Trump asked on August 31 who had told him about a quid pro quo. Maybe the president gave his diplomat a talking-to afterward, although whether that was to correct him on the facts or to involve him in a cover-up is unclear right now.

In fact, we know from the Times that Sondland was consulting with Trump even during the now-famous text exchange with Bill Taylor on September 9. After Taylor texted that it was crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign, five hours passed without a reply from Sondland. At some point in that period, he spoke to Trump. Then he texted Taylor back with his for-the-record “The President has been crystal clear” response. What did he and Trump talk about that morning?

Gordon Sondland is going to be a very important witness.

Maybe this is why Sondland believed in August that there was a quid pro quo:

Two of President Trump’s top envoys to Ukraine worked on a statement for the country’s new president in August that would have committed Ukraine to pursuing investigations sought by Mr. Trump into his political rivals, according to three people briefed on the effort and documents released Thursday night…

The statement was worked on by Gordon D. Sondland, the United States ambassador to the European Union, and Kurt D. Volker, then the State Department’s special envoy to Ukraine, according to the documents and the three people who have been briefed on the statement. Rudolph W. Giuliani, Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer and the de facto leader of a shadow campaign to push the Ukrainians to press ahead with investigations, provided the critical element of the language, Mr. Volker told House Democratic investigators on Thursday, a person familiar with his testimony said…

Late Thursday, House Democrats released a series of texts between Mr. Volker, Mr. Sondland and Andriy Yermak, a top aide to the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, that also showed that officials in both countries understood that Mr. Trump would not grant Mr. Zelensky an Oval Office meeting he was seeking until Ukraine agreed to make a public commitment to the investigations being sought by the American side.

A key line from later in the article: “The idea behind the statement was to break the Ukrainians of their habit of promising American diplomats and leaders behind closed doors that they would look into matters and never follow through, the people briefed on it said.” That makes sense in light of the strange fact that Trump and Zelensky seemed to agree during their July 25 call that it was important to investigate corruption and yet *Trump held up Ukraine’s military aid anyway*, with the Ukrainians reportedly not realizing until a month later that the aid wasn’t coming. People have pointed to that as evidence that there wasn’t a quid pro quo after all, that if the aid really had been tied to Ukraine’s cooperation then it would have been released immediately after Zelensky’s call with Trump. In reality, though, it may simply be that Trump was skeptical — understandably — that the Ukrainians would follow through on their pledge to probe Biden once they had the aid in hand. The aid may have been Trump’s leverage to make sure Zelensky actually kept his promise. “Sure, you’ll get your aid. But first let’s see some movement on that Biden investigation.”

Coincidentally, the Ukrainian government announced today that they are in fact reopening the probe into the owner of Burisma, along with several others. From their standpoint, that’s the smart play. There’s a decent chance that Trump is reelected next fall; staying on the president’s good side may be the difference between being overrun by Russia before 2024 and holding them off. They’re going to play ball with him as much as they think they can without alienating the Democrats too much.

One more point on the quid pro quo. This text is awfully hard to justify and explains why Volker, Taylor, and Sondland may have believed early on in this process that Trump was interested in a quid pro quo.

There’s no mention of military aid there but Volker claims he’s been told by someone in the White House itself that Trump is approaching relations with Zelensky transactionally, with 2016 investigations a crucial part of the transaction. If Zelensky wants an audience at the White House, he knows what he has to do. Go figure that the hold-up in military aid later would be viewed by Taylor and many others through the same prism.

Exit question: How good of a relationship does Trump have with Senate Republicans, especially Ron Johnson? Would he feel comfortable enough to shoot straight with Johnson, in which case his denial of a quid pro quo during their phone call carries more weight? Or would he have worried about Johnson exposing the quid pro quo if Trump admitted to it, in which case the denial matters less? Bear in mind that Senate Republicans are almost uniformly pro-Ukraine and anti-Russia and Trump knows it. He would have had reason to believe that if he told Johnson he was blocking Ukraine money to get leverage over Biden, Johnson would have reacted badly for foreign-policy reasons, if not ethical ones.