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How the White House convinced Mike Johnson to support aid to Ukraine

How the White House convinced Mike Johnson to support aid to Ukraine

 



Washington
CNN

Senate votes Tuesday to approve an aid package for Ukraine that has capped six months of public pressure and private lobbying by the White House to build support, including the not-insignificant task of winning over House Speaker Mike Johnson. .

For months, President Joe Biden and his team have been pressing for additional aid both publicly and privately, tending to confront Johnson, whose new speaker has been under pressure from his right wing back. scenes through White House meetings, phone calls and detailed battlefield briefings. impacts, administration officials said.

Facing leadership dynamics in a House GOP conference increasingly resistant to more aid, Biden instructed his team to use every possible opportunity to present the consequences of inaction directly to Johnson. That included warnings about what it would mean not just for Ukraine but for Europe and the US if Russian President Vladimir Putin were to succeed, administration officials said.

The president specifically asked his team to rely on providing a complete intelligence picture of the situation on the battlefield in Ukraine in their conversations with the speaker and his staff, as well as discussing the national security implications for the U.S. in, officials said. This push took place over the next six months, beginning with a briefing in the Situation Room the day after Johnson became speaker.

National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and Office of Management and Budget Director Shalanda Young briefed the speaker and other top lawmakers on how aid to Ukraine was running out, jeopardizing the country's efforts to fight Russia. Biden stopped by the meeting and met with Johnson on the sidelines to deliver a similar message. Sullivan followed up four days later with a call for Johnson to highlight measures in place to track aid to Ukraine.

But Johnson quickly made it clear that aid to Ukraine and Israel would have to be split, an approach the White House opposed and one that would be tested repeatedly in the coming months.

The ordeal ended on Tuesday when the Senate approved a $95 billion foreign aid package, with nearly $61 billion for Ukraine, marking a long-awaited foreign policy victory for Biden, who has spent the past two years rallying Western support. for the war-torn country. in the war against Russia. At the same time, the president has faced his own battle at home to get more aid approved amid resistance from some Republicans. Biden signed that legislation which also provides more than $26 billion for Israel and humanitarian aid and more than $8 billion for the Indo-Pacific, including Taiwan, on Wednesday morning.

He alluded to the lengthy process to approve the aid in a speech marking the bill's return to law, saying, “I'm grateful to all of those Congressional Democrats, Republicans, independents who voted for this bill. The road to the table mine was a tough road. It should have been easier and it should have come faster. But in the end, we did what America always does: We rose to the occasion, and we pulled through.

Biden tried to make the case for a powerful aid package early on, using an Oval Office address in mid-October to link Ukraine's battle against Russia to Israel's nascent war with Hamas as he prepared to Congress a new funding request.

Hamas and Putin represent different threats, but they share this in common: They both want to completely destroy a neighboring democracy, completely destroy it, Biden said in that speech. great nation. We cannot and will not allow terrorists like Hamas and tyrants like Putin to win.

Less than a week after that speech, the White House faced the task of working with a new House speaker who was relatively unknown to them and had previously voted against aid to Ukraine as a next member.

The president instructed his team to stay in regular contact with Johnson, House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a staunch supporter of more aid to Ukraine.

Another early directive from the president to his team tries to refrain from targeted attacks against Johnson as much as possible and instead focus on the larger need for Republicans to act, hoping to deliver more plenty of space for productive conversations.

He just kept saying, Keep talking. Keep working. You know, keep finding ways to settle disputes. And that was his direction, said Steve Ricchetti, adviser to the president.

Richetti and Shuwanza Goff, director of legislative affairs, served as the primary conduits between the White House and Johnson and his team. Ricchetti spoke regularly with Johnson over the past four weeks and traveled to Capitol Hill with Goff to meet with Johnson and his team in December and March. They spoke frequently with Johnson's staff, including meetings at the White House and on Capitol Hill.

Meanwhile, White House Chief of Staff Jeff Zients, Ricchetti and Goff spoke with Schumer and Jeffries and their staffs almost daily to strategize how to move aid to Ukraine forward. Zients, Ricchetti, Goff and Young also stayed in regular contact with McConnell, who was eager to push the effort in the Senate.

The administration also facilitated regular briefings to members of the House of Representatives on Ukraine, working closely with the chairs of the bipartisan national security committees, including House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul and the Chairman of the Standing Committee on House Selectman for Intelligence, Michael Turner.

CIA Director Bill Burns hosted Johnson's staff in late March to discuss the dire situation in Ukraine, ahead of briefings for the Republican chairs of the relevant national security committees.

US Ambassador to Ukraine Bridget Brink met with Johnson, McConnell and other GOP senators, as well as House and Senate Republican staff. The Defense Department briefed House Republicans, and the administration also briefed Reps. Chip Roy of Texas and Ralph Norman of South Carolina at the Johnsons' request, administration officials said.

At the White House, Biden's senior team met at an oval table in Zients' office every morning to discuss how to highlight the need for more help. Those meetings included Zients, Ricchetti, Goff, Young, senior adviser Anita Dunn, Sullivan and deputy national security adviser Jon Finer.

Just after Thanksgiving, the president asked his advisers to make it clear that funding was running out and Congress needed to act. Young, Sullivan and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin met with congressional leadership to convey that message. Young sent a strongly worded letter to lawmakers warning that the US will bring Ukraine to its knees on the battlefield if the funding is not approved.

The White House even tapped Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to speak directly to Johnson in a meeting just before Christmas in Washington, DC. But even Biden appeared to acknowledge the challenging path forward on aid to Ukraine as he met with Zelensky at the White House, saying the US would continue to provide the country with weapons and military equipment as long as we could, a subtle shift. from the previous one. pledge to support Ukraine as long as necessary.

After entering the year without a deal in hand, the president invited Johnson, McConnell, Jeffries, Schumer and the chairs of the national security committee to the White House to make the case for aid to Ukraine. Sullivan and Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines outlined specific examples of the potential consequences of Ukraine not receiving additional US funding.

But those talks underscored the need for action to address an influx of migrants at the US southern border that has become too big a political problem for the president and his aides to ignore. Republican and Democratic senators had been working for months on a border security measure to go along with aid to Ukraine and Israel. A bipartisan group of senators finally came together on a deal in early February, and the door appeared to be open.

At the instigation of former President Donald Trumps, the door was closed and the deal fell apart. Biden publicly blamed congressional Republicans for the failed package.

Senate leaders then proceeded with the complementary bipartisan national security package without a border deal soon after, putting the ball back in Johnson's court in the House.

Biden hosted Johnson and congressional leaders back at the White House in late February to discuss efforts to avert a partial government shutdown and push for more aid to Ukraine. Burns was on hand to see how Ukraine was affected as its troops ran low on ammunition with the aid bill dwindling as the war hit the two-year mark.

In the six weeks that followed, administration officials saw a sense of urgency as lawmakers continued to receive more assessments and briefings on the battlefield landscape. But the Iranians attack Israel on April 13 it also changed the dynamic, with the momentum to get aid to rebuild Israel in the days to come.

A day after the attack, Johnson told Jeffries he was ready to back foreign aid, a move that angered his right wing and has put the future of his mandate in jeopardy. Biden and Johnson spoke by phone the next day, as the speaker briefed him on his plan to move the aid package forward. The speaker told reporters that he continued with aid votes because of accelerating events around the globe.

Sources previously told CNN a briefing by Burns, who painted a dire picture of the situation on the battlefield for Ukraine and the global consequences of inaction, was part of Johnson's motivation in pushing the aid package forward, even though the future his political was in progress. air.

The House of Representatives finally approved the $95 billion aid package on Saturday, as Biden celebrated in separate phone calls with the speaker and Jeffries. The aid measure for Ukraine passed with the support of 210 Democrats and 101 Republicans

Before the final passage, Biden spoke with Zelensky on Monday, assuring him that help was on the way after months of waiting.

We discussed the content of the next US military aid package, Zelensky said. The President has assured me that the package will be approved quickly and that it will be robust, strengthening our air defenses as well as our long-range and artillery capabilities.

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