WASHINGTON ― Allies of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin hoping to give President Donald Trump a second term in office appear to have a new partner: Republican Ron Johnson, who is using his Senate committee to renew debunked allegations against presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden.
Johnson, a second-term senator from Wisconsin who chairs the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, is leading an investigation into the former vice president nearly identical to the one Trump pushed for in Ukraine that led to his impeachment earlier this year, and which echoes allegations being made in Russian-owned propaganda outlets.
On Wednesday, Johnson denied being part of any Russian effort. “This is all being fabricated by Democrats. Have them point to something that we’ve released that’s Russian disinformation,” he told HuffPost. “We’re gathering information, but I’m not aware of anything that is Russian disinformation.”
One former pro-Russian Ukrainian lawmaker, though, told The Washington Post that material showing the former vice president’s efforts to get a Ukrainian prosecutor fired has been turned over to Johnson’s committee. Oleksandr Onyshchenko is among a group of pro-Russian Ukrainians, including one graduate of a KGB school, who have ramped up claims against Biden and released batches of edited audiotapes. They have said more material would be released closer to the election, when it would be more useful to Trump.
The effort mirrors Putin’s role in 2016, when emails stolen by his intelligence services from the Democratic National Committee and from a top campaign aide to nominee Hillary Clinton were released through WikiLeaks on a near daily basis in the final month before the election. Then-candidate Trump had been informed starting with an August intelligence briefing that Russia was behind the email thefts, and that connection was announced publicly on Oct. 7 by the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
Despite this, Trump began using the material anyway, starting with his Oct. 10 rally straight through Election Day, citing it in his rally speeches and news interviews as proof that Clinton was corrupt.
Clinton and her campaign, while occasionally pointing out that Putin would prefer a Trump presidency, never made a serious effort to publicize Russia’s role in the WikiLeaks material. Four years later, the Biden campaign is taking a much more aggressive stance.
“I am putting the Kremlin and other foreign governments on notice. If elected president, I will treat foreign interference in our election as an adversarial act that significantly affects the relationship between the United States and the interfering nation’s government,” Biden said in a statement Monday. “If any foreign power recklessly chooses to interfere in our democracy, I will not hesitate to respond as president to impose substantial and lasting costs.”
On Wednesday, his campaign hit Johnson directly.
“As Ron Johnson demonstrated over the last 24 hours, he is complicit in a foreign attack against the very sovereignty of our elections, and that kind of assault against our democracy cannot stand,” Biden spokesperson Andrew Bates said in a statement to HuffPost. “Donald Trump himself has attempted to launch several foreign influence operations, including when he got himself impeached trying to force Ukraine to spread this same long-debunked, hardcore rightwing conspiracy theory.”
Trump in 2019, through his emissaries in the State Department and his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, tried to coerce the new Ukrainian president into announcing investigations of Biden, whom he and his campaign feared would be the strongest Democratic challenger against him. Trump eventually withheld $391 million in military aid to the country, which remains under siege from Russia, as leverage but released the funds after the hold became public.
Trump wound up getting impeached by the House for abusing his power and then trying to cover it up, but Johnson and every other Republican senator except Utah’s Mitt Romney permitted Trump to remain in office.
Trump and his campaign continue to push a claim that Biden, during his years as vice president, tried to protect his son’s role at a Ukrainian energy company by getting a prosecutor who was investigating the company and its owner fired. In fact, the prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, was widely viewed as corrupt, and his dismissal was a priority for the Obama administration, the European Union, the International Monetary Fund and others who saw it as a necessary step to increasing Western investment into the former Soviet republic. Indeed, Shokin had dropped an investigation into the energy company, Burisma, by the time he was fired ― meaning that Biden’s push to remove him actually endangered his son’s income stream rather than protected it.
During House hearings leading to Trump’s impeachment, officials from Trump’s own administration testified that Biden was carrying out both United States and Western European policy when he pressured the Ukrainian leader at the time into dismissing Shokin.
Fiona Hill, a Russia expert on Trump’s National Security Council, said a related claim by Trump ― that it had been Ukraine that had interfered in the 2016 election, and on behalf of Clinton; not Russia on Trump’s behalf ― was Russian propaganda.
“In the course of this investigation, I would ask that you please not promote politically driven falsehoods that so clearly advance Russian interests,” Hill testified during a House impeachment hearing, addressing Republican members who were trying to protect Trump.