Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Moscow) has often been the butt of jokes about his desire to please Russian dictator Vladimir Putin and his disregard for Russian interference in U.S. elections or threats to U.S. troops. Johnson may be only one of the four Republican senators who chose to spend their July 4 vacations in Moscow chatting with Putin, but he was the only one who promptly returned and devoted himself to explaining how Russian interference in U.S. elections is no big deal.
More recently, Johnson has been famous for his attempts to bushwhack Dr. Anthony Fauci, attacks that have gone badly—and often hilariously—wrong. But that was just one part of Johnson’s overall coronavirus-denying, mask-scorning, vaccine-doubting routine, one that is still continuing as Johnson does his best to uphold Republican vaccine aversion.
There’s no doubt that Johnson has a lot of nonsense on his plate, so it’s not surprising if he often has a hard time seeing reality. For example, there’s a Washington Post report that the FBI approached Johnson to tell him that he was being used as part of a Russian disinformation campaign to smear then-candidate Joe Biden. Johnson shrugged it off. After all, the FBI wasn’t telling him anything he didn’t already know.
In one of those “elections have consequences” moments, it’s sobering to remember that at the time the FBI approached Johnson last year, Johnson was chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. Once that’s sunk in, follow that up with the realization that the reason the FBI came calling was because Johnson was seriously considering Rudy Giuliani’s fantasies about Biden using his power as vice president to meddle about in Ukrainian politics so his son Hunter could collect a paycheck.
Everything that Giuliani was peddling had long been disproven. In fact, the whole claim was an upside down retelling of events that had played out entirely in public:
In 2016, the U.K. complained to the United States that Ukrainian prosecutor Viktor Shokin wasn’t cooperating in an investigation of Burisma Holdings, the same company where Hunter Biden was on the board. Rather than warping U.S. policy to protect his son, Biden went to Ukraine and demanded that Shokin be ousted and replaced by someone who would cooperate with the U.K. investigation. The International Monetary Fund and other U.S. allies backed Biden’s play. Within weeks, Shokin was out and a new prosecutor actually did open an investigation into Burisma. That investigation found some tax problems, assessed appropriate fines, and closed that investigation a year later. None of this was secret or mysterious, and both Joe Biden’s actions and Hunter Biden’s position were widely reported on at the time.
It wasn’t until after the election that “Clinton Cash” author and serial plagiarist Peter Schweizer took the pieces of the actual story, shuffled them together in a box, and tossed out a version that was designed to fit an all-Democrats-are-evil narrative. In the new version, Shokin was a hard-charging prosecutor out to stop the horrible Burisma and send Hunter Biden packing until Joe Biden came in to wave a $1 billion threat at a Ukrainian official and got Shokin sacked. And in this version, the role of the U.K., the IMF, and other allies are just … Well, they’re missing.
None of it made any sense, which is why six days after Giuliani first published these claims in The New York Times, actual reporters dispatched to the scene by Bloomberg were able to confidently report that the only reason anyone in the Ukraine was going along with the lies was to please Trump. In fact, the whole thing was so fabricated that the “letter” Giuliani was waving around as proof had been written at least in part by Giuliani.
Many of those who lined up to hand Giuliani his “evidence” were, not surprisingly, pro-Russian officials and members of the former regime installed with the help of Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort. Not only was supporting this conspiracy theory spreading discord in the United States—always good for Russia—it was also driving a wedge between the U.S. and allies in Ukraine. Even better for a nation that was already occupying a large slice of Ukraine and facing sanctions for that invasion.
So in the summer of 2020, the FBI went in to give Johnson a “defensive briefing,” letting him know that much of what he’d been pushing, and the key information behind his “investigation,” was actually Russian propaganda designed to smear Biden, weaken the U.S., and damage relations with a key ally. Johnson’s reaction was, “So what?”
Actually, that’s underselling the level to which Johnson dismissed the FBI’s concerns. After admitting to the Post that he did receive such a briefing, he declared he found it “completely useless and unnecessary.” Then Johnson went right on pushing the same conspiracy theories.
And to be fair, Johnson is likely telling the truth here. He probably did know that everything he was selling was Russian disinformation. And warning him to stop doing so really was worthless.