Opinion: One Trump puppet stands between Ukraine and the aid it needs

Speaker Mike Johnson in just months has all but cemented his place among the weakest House leaders in its history. Alas, the Louisianan nonetheless holds enough power that he’s single-handedly blocking one of the most crucial matters of our time: bipartisan U.S. aid to Ukraine for its defense against Vladimir Putin’s murderous expansionism.

It’s not like Johnson is making a stand on principle by not scheduling a House vote. Oh, no. To hear him talk, he’s all for our Ukrainian allies and wants some kind of aid. But Donald Trump does not — he’s with Putin, as usual — and Johnson generally stands wherever the former president directs. Not for nothing is the novice speaker called “MAGA Mike.”

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Jackie Calmes

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And no issue illustrates better than Ukraine the dithering and subservience to Trump that have become Johnson’s hallmarks since October, when House Republicans ousted his predecessor, rejected several higher-ranking aspirants and then, exhausted by the impasse, settled on him.

Also, no issue holds more dire consequences if Johnson doesn’t change course — for Ukraine, peace in Europe and the United States’ security and international standing.

Johnson continues to straddle the question, saying all the right, supportive things — “Ukraine is the victim here. They were invaded,” he told reporters Wednesday — and yet doing nothing. President Biden’s aid request has languished for as long as Johnson has been speaker. It’s now been a month since the Senate overwhelmingly voted, 70 to 29, for the $95-billion foreign aid package — $60 billion for Ukraine and the rest for Israel, Taiwan and Palestinians in Gaza.

Give Johnson this much: He can take a lot of pressure, at least when he’s safely in Trump’s corner. Lately he’s been getting hit from all sides about Ukraine — from the president and congressional Democrats, sure, but also from pro-Ukraine Republicans and even from foreign leaders.

Members of both parties began trying in recent days to collect signatures from a majority of the House on two separate discharge petitions that would force a vote on Ukraine aid. The discharge strategy is rarely used, and it’s even more rarely successful because, by definition, the action is a slap at the party leaders who bottled up the legislation. But this could be one of the rare times.

Most Democrats already have signed the petition that would simply require a vote on the Senate bill, sending it to Biden. (The other petition is for a scaled-back bill that would require separate Senate approval and more time.) The Ukraine backers must get enough Republicans to buck their party leaders and sign to make a majority. That’s hard, but doable: The Ukraine issue is powerful, and Johnson is not. Republicans don’t fear him. To fend off the challenge, Johnson has suggested he’s trying to draft an alternative to the Senate bill.

In the Senate, meanwhile, Republican leader Mitch McConnell is fed up with Johnson’s pussyfooting. McConnell has almost never publicly criticized House Republicans or told them how to run their chamber. So it was a measure of his exasperation that he vented to reporters Tuesday: “We don’t have time for all of this. We’ve got a bill that got 70 votes in the Senate. Give members of the House of Representatives an opportunity to vote on it.”

Visiting leaders from Poland, Ukraine’s neighbor and our NATO ally, on that same day publicly singled out Johnson for some less-than-diplomatic kvetching. “Mr. Johnson’s failure to make a positive decision will cost thousands of lives” and affect “the fate of millions of people,” Prime Minister Donald Tusk said.

After Johnson met privately with Polish President Andrzej Duda, he issued the kind of have-it-all-ways remarks he’s now known for. The statement was silent on the Ukraine aid bill yet proclaimed, “America must remain united with our friends against those who threaten our security.”

What do those words mean if they’re not an argument for more aid to Ukraine?

The “remain united with our friends” part is particularly rich. Contrary to what Trump and his America First Republicans would have us believe, nearly all European and NATO allies have given more assistance to Ukraine than the United States, measured as a percentage of the size of the nations’ economies. They’re panicky at the prospect of a U.S. retreat from the bloodiest combat in Europe since World War II.

As for “those who threaten our security,” certainly Russia looms large among those threats, at least for everyone but Trump and his sycophants.

Of which Johnson is one. And that’s the problem.

Johnson, stalling, insists that the Senate and the House first must finish the long-overdue work of funding the government. But the annual spending bills won’t be completed before Friday, and then Congress skedaddles for a 17-day recess. The Republican chair of the House Armed Services Committee, Alabama Rep. Mike D. Rogers, had a word for Johnson’s timetable: “reckless.”

As Johnson waffles, Ukrainian troops are rationing ammunition and giving ground to Russians that they could hold if they had a reliable pipeline of U.S.-made weaponry. CIA Director William Burns and other U.S. intelligence officials recently warned Congress that Ukraine’s losses would only mount without U.S. aid. For this country to abandon Ukraine after pledges to the contrary would not only embolden revanchist Russia, it would encourage the Chinese in their global ambitions.

As Biden said in his State of the Union address, the necessary lifeline for Ukraine “is being blocked by those who want us to walk away from our leadership in the world.”

Johnson would deny that’s what he wants. Let’s see him prove it. In the words of McConnell: “Let the House speak.”

And if it does — with a bipartisan vote for Ukraine — that will echo the support of a majority of Americans. But first Johnson must get out of the way. Or be pushed.