STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
A decorated officer in the United States military, a noted expert on Ukraine once hired by President Trump's White House, a veteran United States diplomat and an official who contributed $1 million to the president's inauguration - those are four of the witnesses who have told a largely consistent story in recent days. President Trump's phone call to Ukraine's president last summer, the phone call in which he asked for investigations of Democrats, was part of a lengthy effort.
(SOUNDBITE OF HEARING MONTAGE)
ALEXANDER VINDMAN: My worst fear of how our Ukraine policy could play out was playing out.
DAVID HOLMES: This was a very distinctive experience in my - I've never seen anything like this in my foreign service career.
FIONA HILL: He was being involved in a domestic political errand, and we were being involved in national security foreign policy. And those two things have just diverged.
GORDON SONDLAND: Again, everyone was in the loop.
INSKEEP: We just heard Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, diplomat David Holmes, Russia expert Fiona Hill and U.S. Ambassador Gordon Sondland. They and others spoke before the House Intelligence Committee. The apparent next step is for all this information to go to the House Judiciary Committee to consider whether the president should be impeached.
Republican Congressman Mike Johnson of Louisiana is a member of that judiciary committee. And he's on the line from Shreveport. Congressman, good morning.
MIKE JOHNSON: Hey, Steve. Great to be with you.
INSKEEP: Welcome back. You have previously said a few days ago that you saw nothing here that rises to the level of impeachment, so we know what you don't see. But now that there's all this testimony, can you tell me in affirmative terms what you do see? What exactly do you believe the president was trying to do here?
JOHNSON: Well, look. Here's what we've had, Steve, in quick summary - two weeks now of open hearings, 12 witnesses and no bombshell. There's been no testimony affirming bribery or extortion. There's been a whole lot of readily admitted presumption and assumption and opinion. And it's all about a phone call with a transcript that every single American can read for themselves. So I think that the Democrats launched this impeachment exercise based on what everyone knows now is an anonymous complaint by a whistleblower that was followed by an ad hoc process determined by committees that don't even have historic jurisdiction over it. Now we have this...
INSKEEP: Well, let me...
INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about this, though, Congressman, because you've said you've poked a number of holes in the Democratic case. And I understand that. But what I want to know, is what was the president trying to do? It's not a matter of opinion what he said on the phone call with Ukraine's president. We have sworn testimony from a variety of very credible witnesses, including people who have supported the president in the past, that back that up as part of a lengthy campaign. What was the president trying to do?
JOHNSON: I think the president was trying to root out corruption. And I've seen our Democrat colleagues try to dismiss that explanation. But look. Here are the facts. If you look at the totality of the circumstances, if you look at the full context of what was going on - and, of course, the president of the United States has the benefit of all that, seeing the whole field and surveying it together - he made a commitment to drain the swamp. Here's the newly elected President Zelenskiy in Ukraine who made the same campaign promise to his people. And the president is having a frank discussion with him about that. He has a fiduciary obligation as the commander in chief, the president of our country, to ensure that the treasure of American taxpayers is not misspent overseas. And that is what...
INSKEEP: And when you say the Treasury was not misspent overseas, are you admitting, then, that the president was linking the holdup of military aid to getting an investigation of his political rival Joe Biden? Is that why he was doing that?
JOHNSON: No, not at all. I don't - I'm not admitting that because I don't think that's in the record of the facts here. What is in the record - in fact, of all the witnesses that have been paraded before the American people now, Ambassador Sondland is the only one who had a direct conversation with the president. And he famously said he asked the president directly, what do you want from Ukraine? The president's response was clear. Quote - he said, "I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo. I want Zelenskiy to do the right thing."
INSKEEP: Well, let's remember - You're exactly correct about that, Congressman. But, of course, as you also know, President Trump made that statement on September 9 after, as Democrats have pointed out, the lid was blowing up on this, when it was becoming apparent that the effort was exposed. He was saying something very different earlier. And Sondland said, it was his presumption, his understanding - two plus two equals four - that what he needed to do was get investigations of Democrats for the president in order to have military aid released for Ukraine.
JOHNSON: Yes. And that's what he said was his presumption, but he was also asked directly in the hearing by one of the Republicans on the committee, nobody has told you that aid was tied to the investigation, is that correct? Ambassador Sondland said, that's correct. We also have the Ukraine foreign minister, who came out on Thursday of last week with his statement saying that there was no link between funding and any investigation. That's...
INSKEEP: I think - Congressman, if I can just interrupt. I'm sorry. I think I hear you saying that the President's conduct was understandable, appropriate, within bounds. Of course, the president has said it was perfect. Given that, should the president seek more investigations of political opponents from more countries?
JOHNSON: No, I don't believe that's what he was doing. I think that's a mischaracterization of the summation of the fact.
INSKEEP: He literally asked for an investigation of Joe Biden, according to the White House call. That is a fact, and everyone can hear it.
JOHNSON: Yes. But why, in this context? Not because he's a potential rival in 2020 - because of all of the corruption involved in the 2016 election. And look. This is very clear, and this is something every American knows - the president continues to and has always been frustrated by what happened in 2016. He talks about it all the time. He tweets about it constantly. He has for years. This is, in his mind, the mens rea. The intent behind what the president was doing, is trying to root that out. Of course, he wants to make sure it doesn't happen in the future. We all do. That's what many of the witnesses said yesterday.
And what the president believed was that Ukraine had involvement in that. We had Ukrainian officials writing op-eds against the president and all of that. Now, whether anybody agrees that's a reasonable conclusion on the part of the president, you know, that may be debatable. But in his mind, that's what this is about. I take him at his word on that. I think a large number of the American people do, as well.
INSKEEP: Well, let's just be clear the president is already ready to go on. He's publicly called for China to investigate Joe Biden. And I'd like to take this conduct to the next level, if I might, Congressman. And this does seem to me to be a plausible scenario because it's something that we've just talked about that you say does not rise to the level of impeachment. It's OK.
Let's say that this president or a future president calls up the attorney general of the state of Louisiana. It's a phone call. He says, listen. We give Louisiana lots of federal aid. It's a good relationship. You guys don't always reciprocate, but we give you lots of federal aid. I would like you to do us a favor, though. I need you to investigate Congressman Mike Johnson. Will that be appropriate, Congressman Mike Johnson?
JOHNSON: No, I don't think it would. And I don't think that's what happened here. Again, if you look at the facts here...
INSKEEP: It is exactly the same facts, sir. It's exactly the same facts.
JOHNSON: No, it's not.
INSKEEP: How is one inappropriate if the other is fine?
JOHNSON: To use your example, if I had been engaged or there was allegation or concern that I had been engaged in meddling with an election, with putting my son on the board of a Louisiana committee or some sort of a corporation that was notoriously corrupt where he was going to make $85,000 on bond or whatever it was, there may be concern about that it shouldn't be just the president. It should be the attorney general. It should be everybody...
INSKEEP: Oh, good point. That's a good point. Shouldn't that actually - shouldn't that normally be left to ordinary law enforcement officials rather than a political figure like the president? It's very unusual the president demands the investigation of a specific United States citizen, isn't it?
JOHNSON: Well, this goes back to the president. President Trump is a hands-on leader. He is a fiduciary...
INSKEEP: In this one instance. Let's remember, he was not hands-on in any other aspect of corruption.
JOHNSON: Well, wait a minute. Hold on. Let me answer.
INSKEEP: Go ahead.
JOHNSON: OK. So not only is he the president of the United States. He is also the commander in chief of the U.S. military. The Department of Defense has an affirmative obligation under federal law to ensure anticorruption measures are in place before we send military aid overseas. The president presides over all of that. Of course, he is the person who the attorney general responds to and answers to. Now, he can delegate a lot of this authority, but he has a personal interest in it, as well. His personal interest is the integrity of our election process. He wants to root out corruption, and so did Zelenskiy. And I think it was appropriate.
INSKEEP: The phrase that he has a personal interest is one in which I think a lot of your critics would perhaps agree. Congressman, thank you so much. Really appreciate it.
JOHNSON: Thank you, Steve. Appreciate it.
INSKEEP: Mike Johnson is a Republican congressman from Louisiana. He joined us from Shreveport.
NPR's congressional correspondent Tim Mak was listening in. Tim, what do you hear there?
TIM MAK, BYLINE: Well, you know, one of the major arguments here by the congressman and by a lot of Republicans is that the president was trying to root out corruption, that that was the basis for his request. And, of course, Democrats would say that if that were the case, he would've taken other steps, that the president, in his transcript that the White House released, does not ask about corruption measures, does not ask about, perhaps, corruption legislation that the Ukrainian government could pass or...
INSKEEP: He asked about the thing in which he had, to quote Congressman Johnson, "a personal interest." Although, Congressman Johnson, to be fair, went on to say his personal interest was rooting out corruption. But go on.
MAK: Right. And so that's one key argument of Republicans. Republicans have also argued that this - because the aid was ultimately released and the investigation did not ultimately occur, then no misconduct happened. But as you pointed out in the conversation, the context of the president's conversation with Ambassador Sondland and the ultimate release of the aid is that before that occurred, the House decided that it would be investigating this matter. And a whistleblower complaint had already begun circulating in - among the White House and in the intelligence community IG's office. So that was really interesting.
And another point that the congressman made was about how the president is the commander in chief and that he has a responsibility as commander in chief to ensure that no military aid is provided to a foreign country that has corruption issues. But his - but the president's Department of Defense had already attested that the Ukrainian government had dealt with - had met various anticorruption thresholds this spring.
INSKEEP: And I guess we should note it is normal for a president to leave law enforcement matters to law enforcement people, to avoid just this appearance of impropriety. In fact, sometimes, the attorney general - as we learned with both Jeff Sessions and Loretta Lynch, it can be controversial even for the attorney general to be involved in matters that appear political in this way.
MAK: Right. And as we heard through testimony this week, there is a formal channel for the Justice Department to request assistance from foreign governments.
INSKEEP: OK. That's NPR's congressional correspondent Tim Mak. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.