Zelenskyy meeting with Johnson alters trajectory of Ukraine aid package

House Speaker Mike Johnson, a Republican, was torn between wanting to keep his job and doing the right thing in helping Ukraine.
House Speaker Mike Johnson, a Republican, was torn between wanting to keep his job and doing the right thing in helping Ukraine.

During a meeting with House Speaker Mike Johnson in December 2023, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that Ukraine would be able to survive without U.S. aid until March-April at the latest, according to a Politico article dated April 26.

Based on interviews with eight congressional aides from the Republican and Democratic parties, as well as lobbyists and intelligence officials, the outlet describes how Speaker Johnson made the decision to allocate aid to Ukraine.

Johnson's decision was influenced, in part, by a December meeting with the Ukrainian president. At the time, Johnson had been in office for less than two months.

Read also: Congress members urge Johnson to promptly consider Ukraine and Israel aid

Volodymyr Zelenskyy came to him with a sharp message: time was running out. In the speaker's office, where the Ostroh Bible was brought in, Zelenskyy made it clear how much longer his country could withstand attacks from Russian missiles and drones.

"March or April," the Ukrainian president said, according to two people familiar with the conversation.

The December meeting with Zelenskyy was a significant contributor to Johnson's decision to go against his conservative colleagues and back a $60 billion aid package for Ukraine, according to three of the people familiar with the conversation.

Read also: In video: House approves $60 billion for Ukraine, adds border security

From the beginning of his tenure as speaker, Johnson was determined to tie the new military aid package to a number of other decisions, such as a border security provision (which, however, would have been unlikely to be supported by the Democratic majority in the Senate). And there was no reason why he should have changed his mind.

But after the Ukrainian president said that his troops would almost run out of weapons by spring, Johnson decided that he needed to take action before then, according to one of the sources in the House leadership.

The meeting gave Johnson a sense of urgency and a deadline to focus on with regard to an aid package for Ukraine, the sources said.

Read also: U.S. House of Representatives passes $60 billion Ukraine aid bill

The meeting with Zelenskyy marked the beginning of Johnson's four-month personal and professional agony. During this time, he had to decide whether to risk his position and challenge those Republicans who want to oust him in order to secure military aid for Ukraine.

Johnson's staff was then instructed to prepare "some workable" version of the speaker's aid package by the deadline, "just in case," according to Politico.

Johnson eventually met the deadline with just over a week to spare. On April 20, the House of Representatives finally voted on four separate bills: on aid to Ukraine, Israel, Indo-Pacific allies, and other national security issues. And now the first $1 billion in military aid has been sent to Ukraine.

Politico also provides details on how Johnson's version of the bill to help Ukraine was prepared. This task reportedly fell to his national security adviser, Josh Hodges.

"Josh is the one who did the majority of the heavy lifting during this period," the source said.

“He’s the one who slowly pieced it all together with the DOD, NSC, committee chairs and other members.”

Hodges also worked to ensure that Johnson had the space to get concessions and make an informed decision.

According to Politico, Hodges had a direct influence on Johnson. Other people in his office might have advised against moving forward with the aid or returning aid only to Israel. But Hodges argued that the United States has an opportunity to confront the growing axis between Russia, China, and Iran in a way that is immediate and cost-effective.

Failure to provide aid now, according to a person familiar with Hodges' position, would weaken the U.S. position in the world and empower America’s adversaries. In addition, this decision would allow sending more obsolete weapons to Ukraine and thus rationalizing military spending.

Another source close to Hodges added that the adviser was part of a larger team.

Johnson has heard similar arguments from other sources. So many Republican lawmakers, including Congressman Michael McCaul (R-Texas), have been in close contact with Johnson about the need to move forward with the foreign aid bill.

Johnson was also frequently visited by pro-Kyiv lobbyists, including evangelicals from Ukraine (the speaker is also an evangelical). The advocacy group Razom for Ukraine even placed billboards in Johnson's Louisiana district with his favorite Bible verse, Esther 4:14, which ends with the words "who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?"

In addition, over the past fortnight, intelligence officials and analysts have been briefing congressional lawmakers, including Johnson, on the situation on the front lines in Ukraine.

Officials said they increasingly believe that Putin's plans to conscript more men, combined with additional ammunition from Beijing and diminished Western support for Kyiv, are likely to win him victory in Ukraine – and sooner than expected – if new U.S. aid is not passed.

Putin would not get his desired result: a complete takeover of Ukraine. But by the end of 2024, he could have created a situation where he could have achieved favorable terms for negotiations, officials and analysts say. CIA Director William Burns made this assessment publicly in mid-April.

At the same time, Iran's massive missile and drone attack on Israel in early April also prompted Johnson to provide assistance to Israel with greater urgency. The next day, he called House Democratic Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries and said he was ready to move forward on all foreign assistance bills.

Fellow conservatives criticized Johnson, demanding that he only support aid for Israel or no package at all. Some said that bringing the Ukraine issue to a vote would lead to his removal as speaker.

According to Congressman McCaul, Johnson turned to prayer at the time: he was torn between trying to save his job and doing the right thing.

Later that night, Johnson reconvened his aides. They reviewed every argument for and against and thought through every scenario. Johnson then told his staff that he needed a night to think things through.

When the speaker returned to his office in the Capitol on the morning of April 24, he made his final decision: "I’m going to do the right thing. I’m going to do what I know is right. We’re going to move forward."

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Read the original article on The New Voice of Ukraine