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Aug. 14, 2020, 7:55 a.m. EDT

Wisconsin Republican Ron Johnson on defensive over probe of Biden and Ukraine in wake of intelligence assessment about ongoing Russian election interference

Stark warning that Russia is working to denigrate the Democratic presidential candidate adds to questions about the probe by Johnson’s Senate committee and whether it is mimicking Kremlin propaganda

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By Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — Even before last week’s intelligence assessment on foreign election interference, Republican Sen. Ron Johnson was facing criticism from Democrats that his investigation of presidential candidate Joe Biden and Ukraine was politically motivated and advancing Russian interests.

But the stark warning that Russia is working to denigrate the Democratic presidential candidate adds to questions about the probe by Johnson’s Senate committee and whether it is mimicking, even indirectly, Russian efforts and amplifying its propaganda.

The investigation is unfolding as the country, months removed from an impeachment case that had centered on Ukraine, is dealing with a pandemic and confronting the issue of racial injustice. Yet allegations about Biden and Ukraine remain a popular topic in conservative circles, pushed by Russian media and addressed regularly by President Donald Trump and other Republicans as a potential path toward energizing his supporters.

Johnson’s own interest in the topic, from his perch as chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, has drawn concerns during a presidential election that U.S. intelligence officials warn is ripe for foreign disinformation.

“Particularly as a public official and somebody who’s responsible for keeping the country safe, you should always be suspicious of narratives that are trying to sort of damage or target the electoral process in your country,” said former CIA officer Cindy Otis, a foreign disinformation expert and vice president of analysis at Alethea Group. “You should always be suspicious of narratives that foreign countries are pumping out.”

The intelligence assessment has put Johnson on the defensive, with the Wisconsin Republican issuing a 5,000-word open letter Monday in which he laid out what he said was the basis for scrutinizing both the FBI’s Russia investigation and the dealings of Biden and his son Hunter with Ukraine.

See: Wisconsin lawmaker’s Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee is one of multiple Republican-led Senate panels scrutinizing the FBI’s investigation into ties between the Trump campaign and Russia


Associated Press
Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., speaks to Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., before a Senate Foreign Relations committee hearing last month.

In an interview Wednesday, Johnson said his investigation was rooted in facts, not Russian propaganda, and that the “American people deserve the truth” about his probe and what he said were its damning findings. He said he hoped to get the information out, in report form, before November’s vote.

Johnson said that though he was sensitive to the threat of Russian interference, he was not responsible for peddling any disinformation in his investigation and described as “completely false” the idea that he is pushing foreign propaganda.

“I completely reject this entire narrative, this coordinated attack on me,” he said. “It’s ridiculous if it weren’t so serious.”

The statement last Friday from William Evanina, the government’s top counterintelligence official, made no reference to Johnson in particular but did allude to foreign efforts to smear Biden that in some ways parallel Johnson’s own probe. That includes the work of Andrii Derkach, a member of Ukraine’s parliament and 1993 graduate of a Russian spy academy, who has disclosed leaked recordings of Biden meant to cast the candidate in a negative light.

Johnson suggested he was not willing to unequivocally trust the assessment without seeing the underlying intelligence. In his open letter, he distanced himself from Derkach, saying he had never received any information from him and “almost all of the documents we are seeking and will make public are from U.S. sources.”

But, Otis said, given how easily Russia launders its information, and how swiftly material originating in Russia can get picked up and spread to English-language forums, “it is very difficult to peel back the origination point for this stuff, even with the aid of having technology on our side.”

Johnson’s preoccupation with Biden has dismayed Democrats on the committee who view it as a politically motivated distraction at a time when the panel, which oversees the response to national disasters, should be focused on the coronavirus outbreak.

“At this moment when Americans need us to work together, this extremely partisan investigation is pulling us apart,” Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan, the committee’s top Democrat, said at a May 20 meeting at which the panel authorized a subpoena related to the Biden investigation.

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