How Johnson and Biden locked arms on Ukraine

How Johnson and Biden locked arms on Ukraine

Speaker Mike Johnson’s sudden bid to deliver aid to Ukraine came days after fresh intelligence described the U.S. ally at a true make-or-break moment in its war with Russia.

It was exactly the kind of dire assessment that President Joe Biden and the White House had spent months privately warning Johnson was inevitable.

The House GOP leader is embracing $60.8 billion in assistance to Ukraine in a push to prevent deep losses on the battlefield, amid warnings that Ukrainians are badly outgunned and losing faith in the U.S. following months of delay in providing new funds.

The intelligence, shown to lawmakers last week and described by two members who have seen it, built on weeks of reports that have alarmed members of Congress and Biden administration officials. On Thursday, CIA Director William Burns warned that, barring more U.S. aid, Ukraine “could lose on the battlefield by the end of 2024.”

It heightened the sense of urgency surrounding a White House effort to convince Johnson to hold a public vote on Ukraine aid that has dragged on behind the scenes since the day he became speaker. Johnson had resisted for months in the face of growing threats to his speakership if he sided with Biden and allowed the vote.

Since the last time Congress approved aid to Ukraine in late 2022, conservative skepticism of sending U.S. weapons and dollars to the country has grown, threatening Johnson’s speakership as well as Biden’s foreign policy agenda.

But he has now effectively locked arms with the president: Johnson’s alignment with Biden this week has extended at times even to deploying similar talking points in favor of funding Ukraine, and comes in defiance of efforts by conservatives like Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) to rally a rebellion.

“He realizes that he can’t put it off any longer,” one lawmaker said of Johnson, granted anonymity to discuss private conversations. “We’ve been working with him for months to try to get him there.”

The lawmaker characterized the Ukraine intel now circulating as “pretty stark compared to where we were a few months ago.”

Johnson’s support for the aid bill, part of a package that could pass the House as soon as this weekend, would grant Biden a major foreign policy victory that has eluded him for a year. It would stabilize a Ukrainian defense running low on munitions and bracing for a renewed Russian offensive in early summer.

It’s also validation, Biden aides and allies said, of a White House strategy focused on slowly courting Johnson behind the scenes while letting him find his own path to a solution — even if it meant weathering frequent setbacks and building frustration within its own party.

“Everybody knows we’ve got to get Ukraine funding,” said another lawmaker, a Democrat close to the White House, “We’re at the precipice.”

Johnson had grown increasingly vocal for the last several weeks in privately promising lawmakers that he’d allow Ukraine aid to come to the floor for a vote. With other pressing priorities such as government funding and spy authority stacked through March and into April, this week provided one of the first openings to move on Ukraine.

“Here is an opportunity to make that stand at a really crucial time in world history,” he said on CNN on Wednesday, framing the aid push as a moral imperative for the GOP and critical to standing up to Russia’s aggression.

Over the past several months, the White House sought to build indirect pressure on Johnson, stressing the seriousness of the situation to Ukraine-sympathetic GOP lawmakers. The administration held several closed-door briefings for Johnson and other lawmakers to update them on the deteriorating situation in Ukraine, starting just days after Johnson became speaker.

Senior Biden officials, including Burns and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, have also kept in close personal touch with a handful of lawmakers to discuss the evolving intel.

“Speaker Johnson understands the gravity of the situation. He’s been provided with different information now,” said Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.).

But only in recent weeks did Johnson’s calculation appear to shift definitively. Pressure from the White House and Ukraine-supporting lawmakers was building. Conservatives opposed to helping Ukraine made clear they’d threaten Johnson’s job no matter how he handled the situation. And Iran’s strikes on Israel generated renewed momentum for crafting an overall aid package that could help a range of U.S. allies.

It was the kind of opening that Democrats had hoped for months they could convince Johnson to seize before it was too late.

“I think he’s made some hard choices and he’s putting his job in peril as a result,” said Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.). “I don’t think I agree with him politically on anything, but I do think he has integrity. And I do think he’s acting like a leader.”

The White House declined to comment on its discussions with Johnson and the speaker’s camp pointed to his recent interview on CNN and other media outlets. The administration has steered clear of the debate in Congress this week for fear of derailing the aid package.

Biden during a Monday night call urged Johnson to pass the new funding by the end of the week. But he’s been out of town since then, and has not addressed the effort beyond a short statement of support.

Republicans who support Ukraine have largely dismissed suggestions that Biden has played any defining role in delivering a Ukraine aid bill. They have long argued the president hasn’t made strong enough use of his bully pulpit to make the case for defending Ukraine against Russian aggression.

“I’m not trying to take a cheap shot at the administration, but they have not really done a very good job of extending an olive branch,” Tillis said.

Biden allies said the president and his top aides have prodded Johnson since he took over as speaker, encouraging him to hold a public vote on the Ukraine aid he privately told them he supported. That backchannel remained open even as the White House publicly criticized Johnson for rejecting a Senate-passed bill that would have sent funds to Ukraine.

The administration has “been pushing and they think he has the insight and intelligence as well as the temperament to be a listener,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). “I’m not sure that [former Speaker Kevin] McCarthy was a listener in the same way. But from what I hear, the White House has said they’ve had some fairly reasonable conversations, even if they didn’t agree.”

Biden aides’ effort to privately cajole Johnson toward action mirrors the approach that the president and his advisers have taken on other high-profile issues. It stems from a belief that they have a better shot at success by persuading skeptics rather than strong-arming them.

The administration worked for months to convince centrist Sen. Joe Manchin to sign onto landmark legislation that eventually became the Inflation Reduction Act, refusing to criticize him even as Democratic allies fumed. More recently, Biden broke his vow not to negotiate over the debt ceiling so that his administration could pursue a longer-term budget deal with Republicans.

But the strategy has exposed the limits of Biden’s power and undermined his administration’s insistence that the U.S. will remain an unwavering ally to those under threat. It’s also served as a tacit admission that even as the president’s foreign policy legacy hung in the balance, his White House had no alternative than hoping Johnson would eventually come around.

“I’m really sad that [Johnson] didn’t evolve more rapidly on Ukraine, because there’s been terrible damage that didn’t need to happen,” Himes said. “The situation has been dire for a long time, and the direness is accelerating.”

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