Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) has put aside the urgency of a global pandemic and urgency to help unemployed Americans and turned to focus instead on investigating a conspiracy he helped cook up over former Vice President Joe Biden and Ukraine. The so-called "investigation" came after President Donald Trump was impeached for trying to bribe Ukraine to come up with "dirt" on Biden.
Johnson and House colleague Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) were both caught receiving documents from a pro-Russia and Kremlin-linked Ukrainian official named Andrii Derkach.
After being questioned about his conspiracy, Johnson claimed, “What have I published, what have I reported on, that is not true, that is any form of Russian disinformation? There has been nothing.”
In an 11-page letter, Johnson promised Russia had nothing to do with the information.
“It is neither me, Chairman Grassley, nor our committees that are being used to disseminate Russian disinformation," he claimed.
Johnson didn't deny links between Derkach and Russia however. The two scandals that Johnson is "investigating" is the false claim that Russia had nothing to do with intrusion in the 2016 election. While that is a fact that has gone undisputed by every intelligence agency in the world other than Russia, Johnson seems to be parroting Trump's talking point that it was actually Ukraine that tried to steal the election for Hillary Clinton. The other investigation is into Biden's son Hunter, who was on the board of a Ukrainian gas company.
"The senator surely knows better," wrote counterintelligence expert Asha Rangappa and former Department of Defense special counsel Ryan Goodman. "Published on Monday, Aug. 10, the letter itself contains apparent products of Russian disinformation. And while Johnson denies taking information directly from two specific Ukrainians linked to Russia and its disinformation efforts, he makes no mention of his staff taking information directly from one of those individuals’ principal collaborators, which reportedly occurred over the course of several months."
In their roadmap to the Hail Mary investigation, Goodman and Rangappa outlined three major channels of Russian misinformation that Johnson has been somehow captured by.
Channel 1. Russian-linked Ukrainian operatives communicating directly with Sen. Johnson and his staff.
Channel 2. Russian-linked Ukrainian operatives spreading disinformation via media outlets, which have been picked up and expressly relied upon by Sen. Johnson.
Channel 3. Russian-linked Ukrainian operatives providing information via “Team [Rudy] Giuliani.”
They noted that a contested Politico piece by Ken Vogel used Russian disinformation to citing Ukrainian national Andrii Telizhenko.
But in March 2020, Goodman and Rangappa explained that Sen. Johnson and the Senate committee was warned about the counterintelligence threat that Telizhenko posed. Johnson's 11-page latter relies explicitly on Vogel's Politico piece, calling it "an accurate history," but providing no other proof than Vogel's piece to confirm the claim.
The FBI "warned lawmakers in a briefing that it had concerns that Mr. Telizhenko was a conduit for Russian disinformation about the Bidens and claims that Ukraine conspired to help Democrats in the 2016 election,” reported the New York Times.
So, the main person Vogel based his 2017 article on and Johnson is basing his "evidence" is a counterintelligence threat to the U.S.
"Casual followers of Johnson may wonder whether he is oblivious or disingenuous as to how he is amplifying Russian disinformation by continuing to champion Vogel’s article," said the authors. "But there’s reason to believe the senator is not unwitting. In fact, it appears that Telizhenko himself is now one of Johnson’s sources."
Telizhenko met with Johnson personally, even taking a photo together that was posted on social media in July 2019. Telizhenko has also said that he's remained in contact with Johnson's committee, continuing to send them documents this year. Committee staff also told the New York Times that they've been working with Telizhenko "for months" on the conspiracy.
"In other letters signed by Johnson, he has not only referred to Vogel’s report but also referred to Telizhenko by name while recounting, at great length, specific allegations the Ukrainian operative made in Vogel’s report," wrote Goodman and Rangappa. "In Sept. 2019, Johnson sent a letter to Attorney General Barr referring to Telizhenko by name three times. In Nov. 2019, Johnson sent a letter to the National Archives which referred to Telizhenko by name four times. In the 11-page letter in defense of his actions, Johnson refers only to Vogel’s report, but Telizhenko’s name is conspicuously absent."
They explained that Channels 1 and 2 have clearly been in operation, which one would assume Johnson is aware of.
"If he isn’t, he may be even more of a threat to his Republican colleagues and to the national security interests of the United States," they warned.
The report went on to cite Johnson parroting Kremlin talking points during television appearances using Vogel's story along with discredited Hill reporter John Solomon.
It has been two years since the Vogel article and Johnson continues to cite it as his only source for Johnson's investigation without any other documents to verify Telizhenko's allegations.
Then there's the Rudy Giuliani channel.
"According to in-depth reports Telizhenko, along with two Russian-linked operatives, Oleksandr Onyshchenko and Andrii Derkach — have been working as 'collaborators' in conjunction with Rudy Giuliani," the report continued. "Collectively, they comprise, “Team Giuliani,” Onyshchenko said in an interview. Each has said in interviews that they provided information to Sen. Johnson’s committee, but Johnson denies it. But this specific denial is something of a ruse."
Johnson and other republicans were warned not to go down this path, Goodman and Rangappa explained. Clearly, he didn't listen. The FBI told senators that the idea of Ukraine interference in 2016 was linked to a Kremlin effort to spread disinformation. They were warned again by former senior White House official Fiona Hill who explained on Nov. 21, 2019 why parroting Russian talking points enables their disinformation campaigns. Still, Johnson has refused to listen.
“This is a fictional narrative that is being perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves...I would ask that you please not promote politically derivative falsehoods that so clearly advance Russian interests … we need to be very careful as we discuss all of these issues not to give them more fodder that they can use against us in 2020,” Hill said in her opening statement.
"Part of the Kremlin’s effort is to drive a wedge between Ukraine and the United States, part is to sow political discord inside the United States, and another part is, as now confirmed publicly by the US intelligence community, to support Trump’s re-election bid. Johnson has enabled all three," Rangappa and Goodman closed.