Sen. Portman heard from Ohio's Ukrainians about aid freeze

By Liz Skalka / The Blade
Tue, 03 Dec 2019 15:53:45 GMT

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Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, the Senate’s Ukraine Caucus co-chairman who urged President Trump to release frozen military aid to the eastern European nation, said he learned of the delay in part from Ohio’s sizable Ukrainian community.

“I was concerned as we got into September that the funding had not been delivered yet, so I started asking people all through the administration, and we were informed by the Ukrainian community in Ohio about it, and their concern about it,” he told reporters Tuesday.

Roughly 45,000 Ohioans claim Ukrainian ancestry and numerous Ukrainian cultural organizations exist across the state.

On the House side, Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo) is co-chairman of the lower chamber’s Ukraine caucus.

Mr. Portman became embroiled in the aid controversy after both he and Mr. Trump revealed the senator called the President specifically to ask for its release. Mr. Trump is now facing impeachment over whether he abused the power of his office to compel the new Ukrainian president to conduct politically motivated investigations using the $400 million in support as leverage. 

The Ohio Republican has said while he didn’t think it was appropriate for Mr. Trump to ask Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, he doesn’t believe it alone warrants impeachment.

Mr. Portman’s role as Ukraine caucus leader means that he’s been more involved in the events leading up to the impeachment inquiry than most other lawmakers. He visited Ukraine in May to meet with its new president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, and said he wasn’t aware then of any delay in aid.

As fall approached without its release, Mr. Portman said he grew concerned.

“I began to contact people at the State Department, the White House, and specifically, the Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, who had just been confirmed.”

In a Sept. 10 call with Mr. Esper, Mr. Portman said he learned time was running out to furnish the Javelin missiles Ukraine had been promised. 

“He told me the decision had to be made this week, in the next few days, so then I called the President, which I don’t do on a regular basis. I try to deal with the cabinet members and others, but the secretary of defense told me it wasn’t his call, it was up to the White House,” Mr. Portman said.

That conversation led to the Sept. 11 call between Mr. Portman and Mr. Trump, which the President said convinced him to reverse course and release the aid.

It was during that call the President raised the issue of Europeans “not doing enough” to support Ukraine, and “that was the only concern he raised to me in that call,” Mr. Portman said.

“I didn’t disagree with him,” the senator said. “In fact, they should do more. I wish they would. But don’t take it out on Zelenskiy. Remember he had just gotten elected and it was important, in my view, that they support him and not be viewed as backing off in a critical time.”

Asked whether Ukrainians meddled in the 2016 election, as other Republicans and President Trump have asserted, Mr. Portman laid the blame on Russia. 

“I believed that Russia meddled in a significant way in the election, and we shouldn’t let them off the hook, that’s where the big problem was.”