Inside the White House's months-long push for Ukraine aid


Washington
CNN

The A Senate vote on approval on Tuesday New help Ukraine It ended six months of public lobbying and private lobbying by the White House to build support, including a key mission to win over House Speaker Mike Johnson.

For months, President Joe Biden and his team have publicly and privately sued for more help, leaning on courting Johnson — whose young speaker has been under pressure from his right — behind-the-scenes White House meetings, phone calls and detailed briefings. Battlefield implications, administration officials said.

Seizing the leadership dynamic at a House GOP conference, Biden, who opposes more aid, directed his team to take every opportunity to communicate directly to Johnson the consequences of inaction. That includes warnings about what a win for Russian President Vladimir Putin would mean not only for Ukraine, but also for Europe and the United States, administration officials said.

In conversations with the speaker and his staff, the president specifically urged his team to provide a full intelligence picture of the battlefield situation in Ukraine, as well as discuss the national security implications for the United States, officials said. That push continued over the next six months, starting with a briefing room a day after Johnson became speaker.

National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and Office of Executive and Budget Director Shalanda Young explained to the Speaker and other key lawmakers how ending aid to Ukraine would jeopardize the country's efforts to fight Russia. Biden stopped the meeting and met with Johnson, who was by his side, to deliver a similar message. Four days later, Sullivan called Johnson to highlight measures to monitor aid in Ukraine.

But Johnson quickly offered unequivocal aid to Ukraine and Israel — an approach the White House opposed and one that will be tested repeatedly in the coming months.

The trial ended on Tuesday in the Senate passed a $95 billion foreign aid package; The nearly $61 billion for Ukraine represents a long-awaited foreign policy victory for Biden, who has spent the past two years rallying Western support for the war-torn country against Russia. At the same time, the president returned home on his own war to get approval for more aid amid opposition from some Republicans. The White House has said it will sign the legislation as soon as possible — more than $26 billion in humanitarian aid to Israel and more than $8 billion to the Indo-Pacific region, including Taiwan.

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Biden, as he prepares to present a new funding request to Congress, used a prime-time Oval Office address in mid-October to link Ukraine's war against Russia to Israel's early war with Hamas to initially make the case for a stronger aid package.

“Hamas and Putin represent different threats, but they share this in common: They both want to completely destroy their neighboring democracy and destroy it completely,” Biden said in the speech. Our responsibilities as a great nation. We will not let terrorists like Hamas and tyrants like Putin win.

Biden indicated Tuesday night that he plans to sign the bill Wednesday.

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 ranking member.

The president directed his team to stay in touch with Johnson, House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Another early directive from the president to his team — try to avoid targeted attacks against Johnson as much as possible, and instead focus on the greater need for Republicans to act, hoping to leave more room for productive conversations.

“He kept telling me to keep talking. Keep working.' You know, keep looking for ways to resolve differences. That was his direction,” said Steve Ricchetti, adviser to the president.

Ricchetti and Schwanza Goff, director of legislative affairs, served as key 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 Giants, Ricchetti and Goff spoke almost daily with Schumer and Jeffries and their staff to strategize how to push Ukraine aid forward. Giants, Ricchetti, Goff and Young also remained in constant contact with McConnell, who was eager to promote the initiative in the Senate.

The administration facilitated regular briefings for House members on Ukraine, working closely with bipartisan national security committee leaders, including House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul and House Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Michael Turner.

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CIA Director Bill Burns told Johnson's staff in late March to brief Republican leaders of the relevant national security committees to discuss the worsening situation in Ukraine.

U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Bridget Brink Johnson met with McConnell and other GOP senators and House and Senate Republican staffers. The Defense Department held briefings for House Republicans, and the administration also briefed Reps. Chip Roy of Texas and Ralph Norman of South Carolina at Johnson's request, administration officials said.

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

After Thanksgiving, the president urged his advisers that it was clear funding was drying up and that Congress needed to act. Young, Sullivan, and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin met with congressional leadership to deliver the news. Young wrote a sharply worded letter to lawmakers warning America “Ukraine on its knees on the battlefield” if the funds are not approved.

The White House tapped Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to make a direct pitch to Johnson at a meeting just before Christmas in Washington, DC. But even Biden seemed to agree A challenging road to Ukraine When he met with Zelensky at the White House, the aide said the United States would “continue to provide the country with weapons and military equipment as much as we can,” a subtle shift from his earlier pledge to support Ukraine.

After entering the year without a deal in hand, President Johnson called on McConnell, Jeffries, Schumer and the National Security Council leaders to the White House to help Ukraine. Sullivan and Director of National Intelligence Avril Hines outlined specific examples of the potential consequences of not receiving additional US funding for Ukraine.

But those conversations further highlighted the need for action to address the influx of immigrants along the U.S. southern border, which has become too much of a political problem for the president and his aides to ignore. Republican and Democratic senators have been working for months on a border security measure for aid to Ukraine and Israel. Eventually a bipartisan group of senators arrived Together in an agreement in early February And the door seemed to open.

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At the insistence of former President Donald Trump, the door was closed and the deal was off. Biden publicly blamed Republicans in Congress Failed compilation.

Senate leaders then moved forward with a bipartisan national security package soon without a border deal.

Biden hosted Johnson and congressional leaders again at the White House in late February to discuss efforts to avoid a partial government shutdown and push for more aid to Ukraine. Burns was on hand to learn how Ukraine's forces were affected as the war reached its second year, with aid payments dwindling and running low on ammunition.

In the six weeks that followed, administration officials found a sense of urgency as lawmakers continued to receive additional assessments and briefings on the battlefield landscape. But on April 13, Iran attacked IsraelIn the days that followed, Israel changed the dynamic, with the pace of aid building.

A day after the attack, Johnson indicated to Jeffries that he was willing to support foreign aid, which angered his right wing and threatened the future of his speakers. Biden and Johnson spoke by phone the next day as the speaker explained to him his plan to move the aid package forward. The speaker told reporters he was moving forward with the aid vote because of “the rapid pace of events around the world.”

Sources told CNN before the air that Burns gave a briefing that painted a grim picture of the battlefield situation for Ukraine and the global consequences of inaction.

The House ultimately passed the $95 billion aid package on Saturday — a moment Biden celebrated in separate calls with the speaker and Jeffries. The Ukraine aid measure passed with the support of 210 Democrats and 101 Republicans.

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

“We discussed the contents of the next US military aid package,” Zelensky said. “The President has assured me that the package will be approved soon and will be powerful in strengthening our air defense and long-range and artillery capabilities.”

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