Sen. Ron Johnson joined the Devil’s Advocates radio show Thursday to defend his vote against a bill to address the VA Hospital scandal. During the interview, he got in a few choice criticisms of President Obama’s handling of Iraq and the prisoner exchange that freed Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl before finding himself in a corner over Politico’s report that he urged a donor to fork over cash to the Koch brothers’ political network instead of the RNC.
Johnson is an occasional guest on the show, part of the liberal radio network The Mic 92.1.
The senator has been catching a lot of flak since Wednesday’s vote against a bill to give veterans alternatives to delay-plagued VA care and give the beleaguered hospital system funds to hire more doctors and nurses. He was one of only three lawmakers to oppose the bill, citing last-minute estimates of an alarmingly high price tag.
But the interview with radio hosts Mike Crute and Dominic Salvia gave the Wisconsin Republican a chance to air his views on a number of issues.
On the prisoner exchange to free Bergdahl, the only U.S. prisoner in Afghanistan, for five Taliban detainees, Johnson accused the president of compromising national security.
“We should all be thankful, I’m certainly thankful, that we did get one of our guys back and now he can return to America and return to his family,” Johnson said. “But we also have to understand the basic principal that we don’t negotiate with terrorists. And it’s probably closer to negotiating with terrorists than really negotiating a prisoner swap at the end of a conflict. And the reason you don’t negotiate with terrorists is you hear exactly what you’re hearing right now, the Taliban saying, ‘Oh, the Americans are now high-value targets because this American president will negotiate with us, will swap prisoners if we can get a prisoner from America.’ So we’ve actually made people over in Afghanistan targets.”
Crute reminded Johnson of Republican icon Ronald Reagan, whose arms-for-hostages negotiations led to the Iran-Contra scandal, and whose 1980 presidential run left lingering questions over whether his campaign negotiated with Iran hostage-takers to postpone the release of 66 Americans until after the election.
“Didn’t Reagan also negotiate with terrorists on many different levels, sir?” asked Crute.
“Mike, there’s never anything absolute here,” Johnson replied. “Once again, take a look at this specific example and look what was given up. In exchange, we gave the Taliban a huge morale boost. We set free five terrorists that President Obama’s own commission, a commission designed to close Guantanamo said these individuals should never be released because they are so dangerous.”
Johnson also put responsibility for the chaos that is engulfing Iraq squarely in the president’s lap.
“This is a tragedy that is a direct result of President Obama’s strategic blunder, of not being able to negotiate a status-of-force agreement,” he said. “So we could leave a residual force to stabilize and consolidate the hard fought gains we made in Iraq. This is a strategic blunder and we’re sowing the seeds of exactly what President Obama did. This is a tragedy. I don’t know what we could do at this point in time. It looks like Iraq is lost. I mean, it’s degrading at such a rapid pace here I’m not sure there’s anything you can do at this point in time, but it never should have happened.”
Johnson sounded a little flummoxed, however, when Crute asked him about the Politico report in which reporter Kenneth Vogel recounted hearing Johnson at a Koch seminar suggesting that a donor contribute to the Koch political machine rather than the Republican National Committee.
“Without getting into the specifics of this allegation,” Crute said, “let me ask you more broadly …”
Johnson broke in: “First of all Mike, there’s no allegation. You’re just totally misreporting this. I attended an event. I’m supportive of anybody that’s willing to promote the benefits of a free market competitive, cooperative system, lifting people out of poverty, creating a strong economy so we can create jobs. I just showed up at a seminar. There’s no … the way you’ve typified this is utterly false. So I just had to quick challenge it."
After a bit more discussion, Crute asked, “Ron, is money free speech?”
Without hesitation, Johnson said, “It is.”
“If you want to be heard, sure you can set up a soapbox on the corner of a park and you can be heard. But it’s a pretty limited audience. If you want your message to be heard by a wider group of Americans it costs money to broadcast that message, and Americans should have the right across the political spectrum whether you’re far left, far right, or right dead in the middle, you have that right as an American to be able to convey your ideas, your ideology to Americans. That is a first-amendment right. It’s a sacred right.”