Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin is using his investigative powers as chair of a Senate panel to push forward with a thinly veiled attempt to stir up Russian disinformation about presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden.
Johnson, who chairs the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, says he's investigating if the hiring of Biden's son Hunter by a Ukrainian gas company posed a conflict of interest for Biden while he was serving as vice president. Hunter Biden, a trained lawyer, served on the board of Burisma Holdings from 2014 to 2019 as the company sought to repair its image following allegations of corruption in its ranks.
No credible news organization has found any meat to the allegation that Biden's diplomacy in Ukraine was improperly influenced in any way. In fact, Biden's work in 2015 and 2016 to help oust the corrupt Ukrainian top prosecutor had the support of U.S allies across the international spectrum.
But however thoroughly discredited this right-wing conspiracy theory is, The Washington Post reports that Johnson is intent on rehashing it along with the help of GOP Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee. And Democrats charge the probe is just a gateway into fanning the flames of a bunch of Russian disinformation about Biden and Ukraine. In other words, Johnson and Grassley are giving Trump the investigation he got impeached over—trying to force Ukraine into doing his dirty work. Ukraine officials ultimately declined to even announce such a probe, let alone conduct one.
But Johnson and Grassley? Sure, let's give legitimacy to an investigation Ukrainian officials already declared illegitimate. Apparently, there aren't more important things to do right now as Senate Republicans let a relief package flounder that's critical to keeping the country from sliding into an economic depression.
“Senator Johnson is diverting his committee from oversight of the failing response to the pandemic — even though over 4.5 million Americans have been infected — and is instead facilitating a foreign influence operation to undermine our democracy,” Biden campaign spokesman Andrew Bates said.
But Johnson's no neophyte when it comes to doing Trump's bidding on Ukraine. During the House impeachment probe, Johnson admitted to The Wall Street Journal that he had been alerted early to Trump's quid pro quo pressure campaign in which he withheld $400 million in U.S. aide from Ukraine. But Johnson was content to raise the issue with Trump and take his denial of the allegation at face value—because Trump's nothing if not a man of his word. Just FYI, that’s the type of interview a senator gives to a friendly outlet when they want to frame a story before it’s publicly revealed by someone else. In fact, a House impeachment probe might be just the type of incentive that makes a senator want to come clean.
Ukraine is currently a hotbed of disinformation on the topic. "Johnson’s probe is proceeding as Ukrainians with a variety of competing agendas and links to Trump attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani have been releasing apparently pilfered official conversations that Biden conducted while vice president with Ukraine’s then-President Petro Poroshenko, aiming to tarnish the presumptive Democratic nominee and his longtime interlocutor in Kyiv," writes the Post. So there's lot of dubious fodder for Johnson to blow up.
When the Post asked Johnson if he was getting information from "pro-Russian Ukrainians," he offered only that he was receiving input from "a variety of sources," including the U.S. government. He also said that they would "verify" all information before publicizing it in a report he's promising to deliver in September.
In response to the probe, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer have asked the FBI to deliver a “defensive counterintelligence briefing” to all members of the House.
“Congress appears to be the target of a concerted foreign influence campaign, which seeks to launder and amplify disinformation in order to influence congressional activity, public debate, and the presidential election in November,” Pelosi and Schumer wrote in a July letter to the FBI.
Of all people, even Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and former GOP intelligence chair Richard Burr of North Carolina have raised concerns about Senate staffers potentially using Russian disinformation supplied via Ukraine as the basis for a bogus investigation.
Johnson declined an interview with the Post but issued a statement saying he refused to be deterred by "despicable tactics designed to discredit a legitimate investigation."
Nothing good will come of this. Not with Johnson behind it. He already discredited himself by admitting how easily he let Trump off the hook for soliciting foreign interference in the upcoming election. But now Johnson is actually doing Trump's dirty work for him. Can't imagine why a sitting U.S. senator would do that.