Politics / March 22, 2024

An Anti-Biden Conspirator Now Acknowledges That Ron Johnson Was “Doing the Bidding” of Russia

In sworn testimony before Congress, a former Trump henchman says the senator from Wisconsin was “our guy in the Senate.”

John Nichols

Senator Ron Johnson, a Republican from Wisconsin, during a Senate Budget Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., on March 12.

(Photographer: Graeme Sloan / Bloomberg)

While Senator Ron Johnson acknowledged that he had received “an FBI briefing” in the summer of 2020, “warning me that I was a target of Russian disinformation,” the Wisconsin Republican went out of his way to say that he found the FBI’s counsel “completely useless and unnecessary.”

That seemed an odd response from a senator who, at the time that the FBI briefed him, was using his position as chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs to amplify charges that then–Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden had, during his previous tenure as vice president, inappropriately sought to influence affairs in Ukraine. Media outlets had carried reports suggesting that those charges were based on Russian disinformation, and now the FBI was offering what it referred to as a “defensive briefing.” But Johnson made no apologies when asked about the matter in the spring of 2021. “Regarding reports that I received an FBI briefing warning me that I was a target of Russian disinformation, I can confirm I received such a briefing in August of 2020,” Johnson said in a statement to The Washington Post.

Even as he bragged that he was “fully aware of the dangers of Russian disinformation,” however, the senior senator from Wisconsin complained, “Because there was no substance to the briefing, and because it followed the production and leaking of a false intelligence product by Democrat leaders, I suspected that the briefing was being given to be used at some future date for the purpose that it is now being used: to offer the biased media an opportunity to falsely accuse me of being a tool of Russia despite warnings.”

That was what we knew then. This is what we know now.

On Wednesday, Lev Parnas, the Ukrainian businessman who worked closely with former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani and other Trump associates to smear Biden in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election, and who eventually went to prison for his wrongdoing, said in testimony before the House Oversight Committee, “The American people have been lied to, by Donald Trump, Rudy Giuliani, and various individuals in government and media positions, all of whom worked to create a web of falsehood. They did this purely to serve their own interests, knowing that it would undermine the strength of our nation.”

In damning testimony at the hearing, which House Republicans had organized in a spectacularly unsuccessful attempt to develop their Ukraine-related argument for impeaching Biden, Parnas explained,

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The only information ever pushed about the Bidens and Ukraine has come from Russia and Russian agents, which everyone sitting here today knows. FBI informant Alexander Smirnov has admitted to getting all his so-called intelligence on the Bidens from Russia. According to their own statements, federal prosecutors found him guilty of “actively peddling new lies that could impact U.S. elections.” And as recently as November 2023, a number of Ukrainian politicians sympathetic to Russia were implicated as having helped funnel false information about the Bidens to Giuliani while also being connected to a Russian foreign influence network.

During more than a year of jetting around Europe, as part of what he described as a Giuliani-led effort to dig up dirt on Biden before the 2020 election, Parnas said,

I found precisely zero proof of the Bidens’ criminality. Instead, what I learned in that timeframe was the true nature of the conspiracy that the Kremlin was forcing through Russian, Ukrainian, American, and other channels to interfere in our elections. Ultimately this was meant to benefit Trump’s reelection, which would in turn benefit Vladimir Putin.

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Which brings us back to Ron Johnson. After the senator dismissed his briefing from the FBI, Johnson moved to release a report that The New York Times described as “little more than a rehashing six weeks before Election Day of unproven allegations that echo an active Russian disinformation campaign and have been pushed by Mr. Trump.”

Where was Johnson getting his material? Parnas told the House Committee on Wednesday that Giuliani and his allies convened “regular strategy meetings at BLT Steak in Washington, D.C.,” and “I was told in that setting that Senator Ron Johnson would be ‘our guy in the Senate,’ responsible for pushing all the information we were getting. But he would actually end up spreading unverified conspiracy theories instead.”

“Every person integral to this shadow diplomacy knew that the Biden corruption rumors were baseless,” Parnas testified.

Then-Congressman Devin Nunes, Senator Ron Johnson, and many other individuals understood that they were pushing a false narrative. The same goes for John Solomon, Sean Hannity, and media personnel, particularly at Fox News, who used that narrative to manipulate the public ahead of the 2020 election. They are still doing this today, as we approach the 2024 election.

After Parnas testified, US Representative Maxwell Frost (D-Fla.) followed up on the allegation regarding Johnson. Referencing the statement that the Wisconsinite would be the group’s “‘guy in the Senate’ to push all the information,” Frost asked, “What did you mean by that?”

“Senator Ron Johnson was our guy in the Senate,” replied Parnas. “It was told to me that, when we pushed the information, he was going to push it in the halls of Congress.”

Frost continued, “So when the media was getting skeptical about pushing disinformation—after they’ve proven it wrong time and time again—the plan was to have a US senator, Ron Johnson, to push that information even further?”

“Correct,” said Parnas, “because we had Congressman Nunes already doing it, so Senator Ron Johnson jumped on board.”

Johnson, of course, denies that he deliberately spread information, or that he was a dupe. A spokesperson claimed, “Anyone who ties Senator Johnson’s legitimate and accurate oversight work to Russia is amplifying a despicable lie that Democrats spread in 2020 to discredit the senator’s work and protect Joe Biden.”

But Parnas, who once worked closely with Republican operatives, was resolute in his assertions regarding Johnson.

When US Representative Jamie Raskin, the Maryland Democrat who is the ranking member of the committee, asked the witness about how he, Giuliani, and their team “were able to take these false allegations, peddled by corrupt officials and Russian agents, and promote and amplify them here in the United States, in our political system,” Parnas was clear. In addition to right-wing media outlets, Parnas said, “there was also other people that were doing the bidding for the Russians—people in Congress, like Senator Ron Johnson.”

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John Nichols

John Nichols is a national affairs correspondent for The Nation. He has written, cowritten, or edited over a dozen books on topics ranging from histories of American socialism and the Democratic Party to analyses of US and global media systems. His latest, cowritten with Senator Bernie Sanders, is the New York Times bestseller It's OK to Be Angry About Capitalism.

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