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Democratic Rep. John Garamendi Discusses His Recent Trip To Ukraine

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A bipartisan delegation of Congresspeople is just back from Ukraine. It was a trip designed to strengthen the U.S.-Ukraine alliance, and it was planned before news broke of the whistleblower complaint against President Trump involving that same country. Congressman John Garamendi led the delegation as a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee. And the Democrat from California joins us now.

Welcome, Congressman.

JOHN GARAMENDI: Good to be with you.

SHAPIRO: One central question in the impeachment inquiry is whether President Trump demanded help investigating a political rival in exchange for U.S. aid to Ukraine. And I know that aid was a central topic on your trip, so what did you learn about Ukraine's reliance on American assistance?

GARAMENDI: Well, first of all, Ukraine is an extraordinary country. These citizens of that country are determined to be independent. They have been fighting a war against Russia for the last five years. They've lost 13- to 14,000 soldiers in the field. Crimea has been stolen from them. And they continue to fight in the Donbas eastern region. They are strong. They are resilient. They have a new government. And what I've learned is...

SHAPIRO: And to the question of U.S. aid?

GARAMENDI: It's absolutely essential - absolutely essential. When the government - when President Trump withheld that money, it put them at dire risk. The bullets, the ammunition, the equipment that they need to fight back against Russia was in that money. And the president withheld it - unconscionable.

SHAPIRO: And did officials tell you that their understanding was that it was withheld for a substantive reason or for political pressure? What was their understanding when you spoke to them?

GARAMENDI: We actually decided not to get into that issue. We wanted to know what their needs were, what they - what equipment they needed for the future, how they were going to protect their coastline; issues of that sort - the training that's necessary. We did not consider ourselves to be there to ferret out further information.

SHAPIRO: OK.

GARAMENDI: That's going to be done in the halls of Congress.

SHAPIRO: OK, so I understand you didn't discuss that with Ukrainian officials. I know you also met with Bill Taylor, who is the charge...

GARAMENDI: Yes.

SHAPIRO: ...D'affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine. He is one of the people involved in the text messages that were turned over to Congress. Did you ask him about those texts, in particular, one saying that it was crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign?

GARAMENDI: Yes, we did discuss that with him. He said that it was true, that the text is accurate. He didn't go into further discussions beyond acknowledging that his view was that it was the wrong thing to do. And obviously, he said that in his emails and made it clear. He is - he knows Ukraine. He is a very, very good person for us to have there at this extremely awkward and very difficult time between the United States and Ukraine.

SHAPIRO: And as he was raising this red flag, I mean, did he explain to you anything about his reaching out to the White House or State Department about the aid being delayed? I mean, what was his narrative of what was going on at the time?

GARAMENDI: What he did share with us was that it was essential that we tell, in any way possible, the new Ukraine government that the Congress of the United States stands firmly with Ukraine, regardless of what the president may be doing, and that in the new legislation that we're writing - the National Defense Authorization Act - that we make it clear that there will be a continuation of the money that they need, the aid that they need, the soldiers that are training their troops - all of those things. And we did that.

SHAPIRO: And just in our last 30 seconds or so, what did the Ukrainians tell you about being at the center of this massive American political story?

GARAMENDI: They're very, very concerned. We met with the parliament. It was of concern to the parliamentarians when you speak to them privately. But what I found was a group of leaders that are strong, resilient. And they're going to soldier on. They're going to protect their country.

SHAPIRO: All right. Congressman John Garamendi, senior member of the House Armed Services Committee, thanks for joining us.

GARAMENDI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.