What follows is the first article in a three-part series by Sidney Blumenthal, author and former adviser to President Bill Clinton, revealing the origins of the "Obamagate" conspiracy theory promoted by the Trump White House, its media allies, and Republicans on Capitol Hill. Blumenthal's investigation focuses on the role of Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee and a central figure in promoting the conspiracy. It is a vital story as the 2020 presidential election approaches – and with it the likelihood of an "October Surprise," based on Obamagate fabrications, emerging from Attorney General William Barr's Justice Department.
This series was first published by Just Security, an electronic journal based at the Reiss Center for Law and Security at New York University Law School, and is reprinted with permission.
The Lugar Center is a fairly recent addition of the sort of traditional institute in Washington that prevailed before Donald Trump. Its mission is to advance an internationalist foreign policy, "bipartisan governance," and bring together experts to "bridge ideological divides." It was founded by one of the last of the moderate Republicans, Richard G. Lugar, the late U.S. senator from Indiana, who once seemed to define the mainstream of a now bygone party, in the forefront of legislation to curb nuclear proliferation, but was purged in a brutal primary, losing to a Tea Party candidate who declared rape that resulted in a pregnancy was a "gift from God."
On May 27, the Lugar Center released its first comprehensive Congressional Oversight Hearing Index, an in-depth study of the due diligence of every committee of the House of Representatives and the Senate in holding the executive branch accountable, concluding with a grade for each committee. "If a House or Senate committee is failing to meet historical standards, because of partisan bias, the inattention of the committee chair, or any other reasons, the COHI will illuminate that shortfall," the Center stated. While many committees received high grades, the lowest grade—an "F" for failure—was awarded to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. The report observed that the committee previously had been "one of the most active in the Senate," but that its hearing schedule had "fallen dramatically." On the Lugar Center's carefully considered Bell Curve, the committee was at rock bottom and its chairman had flunked.
Just a week later, on June 4, that chairman, Ron Johnson, Republican of Wisconsin, who had come to power on the Tea Party wave that carried out Richard Lugar, rammed through authorization for 35 subpoenas to fulfill President Donald Trump's reported demand at a meeting on May 19 of Senate Republicans to get "tough" on the "Obamagate" conspiracy, a purported "Deep State" plot of the Obama administration and the intelligence community to destroy his presidency by investigating his campaign's links to and possible collusion with the Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Days before, on May 24, Trump declared, "I'm fighting the deep state…I have a chance to break the deep state. It's a vicious group of people. It's very bad for our country. And that's never happened before…They never thought I was going to win, and then I won. And then they tried to get me out. That was the insurance policy. She's going to win [Hillary Clinton], but just in case she doesn't win we have an insurance policy. And now I beat them on the insurance policy, and now they're being exposed…And a lot of other things are going to come out, but you don't even need other things. What they've done is so corrupt, they've tried to take down a duly elected president of the United States, happens to be in this case, me, but we can never allow it to happen again."
Then he praised Ron Johnson as his champion. "And I want to take my hat off to Ron Johnson. Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin. The job he's doing is incredible…I see that a lot of subpoenas out. So it's a much different thing. We caught them in a very corrupt, you could call it treasonous, because it is, it's treasonous. We caught them in a very corrupt act."
On May 11, when asked at a press briefing to explain the crime Trump was accusing former President Barack Obama of having committed, he said, "It's been going on for a very long time …You know what the crime is. The crime is very obvious to everybody." A short while later, on May 13, Trump tweeted it was "the greatest political scandal in the history of the United States, OBAMAGATE. Fake News@CNN and Concast's own MSDNC are only trying to make their 3 year Con Job just go away."
As Johnson geared up to send out his flurry of subpoenas, Trump tweeted encouragement to his tens of millions of followers, "America is proud of Ron Johnson. He never gives up!" Johnson retweeted, "Thanks, @realDonaldTrump."
Every Democrat on both the Judiciary Committee and the Homeland Security Committee objected to the motion to issue subpoenas in pursuit of Trump's theories. "I can't support this kind of dragnet authority to conduct politically motivated investigations," said Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, the ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee, in response to the push from the Judiciary Committee's chairman, Senator Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina. Senator Gary Peters of Michigan, the ranking member on Homeland Security, called it a "fishing expedition… which did not become a priority until we entered into an election year." Then both committees approved on a Republican party line vote the authority to grant a total of 88 subpoenas to plumb the mysteries of "Obamagate."
Enter Barr's Justice Department
While Trump was furiously tweeting about "Obamagate" and urging on Ron Johnson, Attorney General William Barr stepped from behind his curtain to make a statement on May 18 about the ongoing investigation of the origins of the Russia investigation being conducted by his appointee, U.S. Attorney John Durham. In light of Trump's accusation of criminality aimed at former President Obama, Barr clarified that Obama and Biden would not be targets. "Whatever their level of involvement based on the level of information I have today, I don't expect Mr. Durham's work will lead to a criminal investigation of either man." He added, "Our concern over potential criminality is focused on others." Then he offered misleading words in his usual banal style: "As long as I'm attorney general, the criminal justice system will not be used for partisan political ends. This is especially true for the upcoming elections in November."
But Barr indicated something other than Olympian reserve above the campaign fray. His statement, while intended to make his actions appear purely non-political, laid out the political scenario for when the scheme will reach its crescendo. He pointed Durham to target and prosecute Obama subordinates for "potential criminality." Without naming names, Barr's list consists of those very same former prominent officials on the subpoena lists of Ron Johnson and Lindsey Graham. Those lists are the ramshackle skeleton of the "Obamagate" conspiracy theory: former CIA director John Brennan, former director of National Intelligence James Clapper, former FBI director James Comey, former national security advisor Susan Rice, former ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, and a host of former intelligence community officers who have long been hate figures in the Trump demonology. (As a matter of course, the Democrats' request to add the gallery of Trump usual suspects to the subpoena list was blocked: Michael Cohen, Michael Flynn, Rudy Giuliani, Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort, Roger Stone, and more.)
An agitated Barr would not allow his signaling in his May 18 remarks to remain his last. "We can't discuss future charges, but …." he said in an exclusive interview on June 10 with Fox News, as he then proceeded to discuss future charges. "But people should not draw from the fact that no action has been taken that taken yet [sic], that that means that people or people are going to get away with wrongdoing." Barr repeated the Trump conspiracy theory including parts that fly in direct contradiction of a Justice Department Inspector General conclusions on the matter: "For the first time in American history, police organizations and the national security organizations were used to spy on a campaign, and there was no basis for it. The media largely drove that, and all kinds of sensational claims were being made about the president that could have affected the election. And then and then later on, in his administration, there were actions taken that really appear to be efforts to sabotage his campaign." Barr promised that Durham was "looking at" a whole range of Obama officials to indict.
The Two Rivers Meet
The summer hearings seem barely disguised as preparation for an October Surprise. Barr has emerged from the shadows just as the previously moribund Senate committees suddenly have stirred to life as "Obamagate" star chambers. In a symbiotic relationship, the Senate operations will orchestrate propaganda for Fox News and the Wurlitzer of right-wing media in an overture to Durham's report and possible indictments that may be sprung during the climax of the presidential campaign. "I'm going to do this through October," Graham tellingly said in a June 5 interview on Fox News. At his hearing authorizing subpoenas, he filled the air with threatening cries. "Comey and McCabe and that whole crowd — their day is coming," he said. He felt compelled to demean Robert Mueller and the Mueller Report as "off script." The lengthy list of names he brandished "need to be fired, they need to be disciplined"—though none are in any current government position from which they could be "fired" or "disciplined"—or, Graham threatened, "they are good candidates to go to jail." Another Republican member of the committee, Senator Chuck Grassley, of Iowa, appearing to have a flashback, railed about Hillary Clinton. "What did Hillary Clinton know about the dossier and when did she know it?" he chimed in. But Hillary Clinton is not on the subpoena list, at least for now.
Ron Johnson's statement at the June 4 meeting of the Homeland Security Committee in which he hammered through his authority to mass produce subpoenas made plain that a good deal of the animating motive and guiding focus of both the Senate and Durham investigations is the case of Michael Flynn, Trump's first and short-lived national security advisor.
Flynn committed perjury by lying to the FBI about his discussions after the election with the Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak, telling him not to retaliate in kind to U.S. sanctions imposed under Obama because there would be a new policy under Trump, an implication that the sanctions would be lifted. Flynn then lied about his conversations to Vice President Mike Pence, who publicly repeated his falsehoods. Through the FBI's "Crossfire Hurricane" investigation into whether Trump's associates were cooperating or conspiring with Russia to influence or interfere in the 2016 election, Flynn's contacts were discovered and exposed. He was fired by Trump, pled guilty twice and then sought to rescind his plea. In December 2019, the Inspector General of the Department of Justice, David Horowitz, issued a report stating that the standard for "predication," opening an FBI investigation into Flynn's Russian ties, was legitimately authorized, based on "an articulable factual basis that [he] may wittingly or unwittingly be involved in activity on behalf of the Russian Federation which may constitute a federal crime or threat to the national security," and finding no evidence of political bias or improper motivation.
What Really Happened with Flynn
On February 14, 2017, the day after Flynn's dismissal, Trump pressured FBI director James Comey not to open an investigation. "I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go." The Mueller Report concluded that "the circumstances of the conversation show that the President was asking Comey to close the FBI's investigation into Flynn." Trump directed Flynn's deputy, K.T. McFarland, to write a document to "confirm" that Trump had not directed Flynn. She refused and instead wrote a memo to the White House legal counsel to memorialize the "irregular" request that appeared "like a quid pro quo in exchange for an ambassadorship," according to the Mueller Report. When Comey refused to drop the Flynn probe, Trump fired him, triggering the appointment of Robert Mueller as special counsel to investigate the Russian interference in the election. Trump's personal attorney John Dowd called Flynn and left a voicemail for him: "We need some kind of heads up. Um, just for the sake of…protecting all our interests, if we can, without you having to give up any…confidential information." Then he called Flynn's attorney to warn him that if "there's information that…implicates the president, then we've got a national security issue." Trump refused to provide a written answer to Mueller's question to him about Flynn.
On May 5, Barr's Justice Department filed a motion to dismiss the case against Flynn, who was awaiting sentencing. Barr's filing claimed that the FBI investigation was "conducted without any legitimate investigative basis," Flynn's lies lacked "materiality," he was somehow tricked by the FBI agents into lying, and anyway the FBI really didn't think he was lying. The DOJ prosecutor quit the case in protest. In a report on the DOJ motion on June 10 to the judge overseeing the case, U.S. District Court judge Emmet Sullivan, former federal judge John Gleeson stated that the DOJ's claims "are not credible," and instead are "preposterous," and "riddled with inexplicable and elementary errors of law and fact." "The facts surrounding the filing of the Government's motion to dismiss constitute clear evidence of gross prosecutorial abuse," Gleeson wrote. "They reveal an unconvincing effort to disguise as legitimate a decision to dismiss that is based solely on the fact that Flynn is a political ally of President Trump." On Trump and Barr, Gleeson concluded, "If the Executive wishes for the Judiciary to dismiss criminal charges—as opposed to issuing a pardon or taking other unilateral action—the reasons it offers must be real and credible."
The Tracks of Senator Johnson's Disinformation
Seeking to "dominate the battlespace" for Trump's retribution, Lindsey Graham and Ron Johnson have been assigned the task of serving subpoenas throughout the long hot summer, the equivalent of lobbing flash grenades and tear gas to clear the path for Barr's march to October. Johnson's statement to his committee, amounting to his order of battle, was a haphazard series of distortions, omissions and half-truths, which he claimed were "undisputed," his characteristic method, as he said, to challenge the "false narrative" against Trump.
Well, no, the Steele Dossier, compiled by Christopher Steele, the former MI6 British secret service agent who had spent much of his career doing intelligence work in Russia, was not, as Johnson asserted, ordered up by the DNC and Clinton campaign to produce "fabricated foreign opposition research." Steele was in fact initially hired by the conservative website The Free Beacon and paid by Republican donor Paul Singer to help the Jeb Bush campaign. There has been no proof that the Steele Dossier's principal substantive allegation regarding the Russian effort to assist in Trump's election was false, or that the information was manufactured by the Russian government or its agents deliberately using Steele as its outlet. On the contrary, the U.S. intelligence community as well as the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence have stated that the Russian government and its intelligence services intervened in the election to help Donald Trump. Some of the indisputable facts of that interference are set forth in the Mueller investigation's indictment of 13 Russian agents and three Russian companies, including the Internet Research Agency, which the group itself described as "'information warfare against the United States,'" using "fraud and deceit for the purpose of interfering with the U.S. political and electoral processes, including the presidential election of 2016…. supporting the presidential campaign of then-candidate Donald J. Trump ('Trump Campaign') and disparaging Hillary Clinton." The Mueller Report, moreover, identified 272 contacts between Trump agents and Russian operatives, not one of which was reported to the FBI. Mueller stated, "the investigation established that several individuals affiliated with the Trump Campaign lied to the Office, and to Congress, about their interactions with Russian-affiliated individuals and related matters. Those lies materially impaired the investigation of Russian election interference."
Well, no, despite Johnson's insistence, it was not the Steele Dossier that "was used to instigate an FBI investigation of the Trump campaign and obtain FISA warrants." The origin of the investigation can be traced to the former foreign minister of Australia and ambassador to the UK, Alexander Downer, who was alarmed after Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos informed him that Russia indicated to the Trump campaign that the Kremlin could assist in the election through the anonymous release of derogatory information on Clinton. Downer told his government, which in turn related it to the FBI, which then interviewed him.
Well, no, the "unmasking" of "Trump officials by dozens of political appointees in the waning days of the Obama administration"—that is, national security and law enforcement officials—was neither unusual nor illegal. And, as it happened, Flynn, often claimed to have been unmasked, was not after all masked in the FBI document on his conversations with the Russian ambassador.
Well, no, Flynn was not the innocent victim of a "surprise" FBI interview. His perjury cannot be blamed on being startled. No FBI agent instructed him to lie. And, well, no, the case against Flynn would not have been dismissed on the basis of an FBI memo that was suddenly suppressed. And so on.
Johnson's tendentious complaint amounts to a defense of Trump on the curious assumption that the FBI has no legal predicate to engage in counter-intelligence operations against foreign adversaries, particularly Russia in light of its history of corrupting American officials and intelligence officers, not that Johnson or the staffers who wrote his statement grasp the absurdity of their own argument. In order to vindicate Trump—and Flynn—both of them must be the victims of the "Deep State" (i.e., the U.S. intelligence community, State Department and professionals of the Justice Department), who must be the true perpetrators, and the official findings of culpability for those who have committed crimes must be reversed. "The Department of Justice has a solemn responsibility to prosecute this case—like every other case—without fear or favor and, to quote the Department's motto, solely 'on behalf of justice,'" stated former judge Gleeson. The perversion of justice requires the inversion of the storyline.
Senator Joseph McCarthy's Successor
Johnson's mélange of misleading assertions may be fabricated, but it is also prefabricated. The rickety edifice of his argument was manufactured prior to arriving at his shop, indeed, delivered to him with instructions and quickly constructed. His value appears to be in following instructions. If he were an imaginative flimflam man in his own right, Trump (and Barr) would not rely on him to perform as expected. (In this respect he stands as a contrast to Lindsey Graham.) Johnson's method is apparently second-hand, borrowed from Trump, who acquired its secrets from his first lawyer and mentor in the dark arts, Roy Cohn, who honed it as counsel to another senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy.
The original technique perfected by McCarthy was best described by Richard H. Rovere, the writer for The New Yorker, who knew McCarthy and was the author of the most incisive biography. Rovere wrote:
The multiple untruth need not be a particularly large untruth but can instead be a long series of loosely related untruths, or a single untruth with many facets. In either case, the whole is composed of so many parts that anyone wishing to set the record straight will discover that it is utterly impossible to keep all the elements of the falsehood in mind at the same time. Anyone making the attempt may seize upon a few selected statements and show them to be false, but doing this may leave the impression that only the statements selected are false and that the rest are true. An even greater advantage of the 'multiple untruth' is that statements shown to be false can be repeated over and over again with impunity because no one will remember which statements have been disproved and which haven't.
The Senate hearings on "Obamagate" promise to be a cavalcade of witnesses, each linked in a chain of "a conspiracy so immense" to prove the "multiple untruth." The witnesses' appearances under subpoena project a perceived assumption of guilt, as McCarthy instinctively understood when he exploited his senatorial immunity to use the Chamber as the stage setting for a courtroom where his accusations never had to meet the rules of evidence. Even the odd disconnected fact that somehow arises in the "Obamagate" hearing will be, as it was by McCarthy, hammered out of shape and into line to fit the larger untruth.
But Ron Johnson is no Joe McCarthy, who was, at least before Trump, "the most gifted demagogue ever bred on these shores," according to Rovere, "a fertile innovator, a first-rate organizer and galvanizer of mobs, a skilled manipulator of public opinion, and something like a genius at that essential American strategy: publicity." McCarthy was a little-noticed sleazy Republican senator, pocketing money on the side from various lobbyists, and looking for a dramatic issue to exploit for his reelection when at a dinner a companion suggested that he use his perch as chairman of the subcommittee on Permanent Investigations to seize on Communist subversion. "That's it," said McCarthy. "The government is full of Communists." In a speech in 1950 at Wheeling, Wester Virginia, he told a Lincoln Day gathering of a Women's Republican Club that he had the names of 205, or 81, or 57 Communists in the State Department. His crusade of "Multiple Untruth" was off to the races, the first against the "Deep State," accusing not only the State Department but also the CIA and the Army of being infiltrated by Communist agents, and accusing General George C. Marshall of being part of "a conspiracy so immense." McCarthy's youthful counsel, Roy Cohn, created new investigations to ferret out subversives and homosexuals when McCarthy himself was stumped for fresh targets. McCarthy played the Washington press corps like a Stradivarius, inventing stories as he walked the corridors of the Capitol with reporters, terrorized two presidents, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, reached 50 percent approval with the public (a number that Trump has never attained), and was allowed free rein by his fellow Republican senators until his utility as a weapon to smear Democrats as traitors ended when he veered too far off the rails in his attack on the Army. He was censured (Senator Prescott Bush of Connecticut was prominent in proposing the motion), fell into an alcoholic stupor, and drank himself to death.
Roy Cohn went back to New York, where he would meet Donald Trump and introduce him to the Mafia families who were Cohn's clients and would pour the concrete for Trump Tower. Cohn would teach him his methods of intimidation and deceit, and before his death from AIDS pass his handling over to his protege Roger Stone, who made his chops as a "ratfucker" doing dirty tricks in Nixon's reelection campaign and became Trump's chief political advisor.
In 2016, Stone apparently kept Trump closely informed in advance of Wikileaks' schedule for publication of Clinton campaign emails stolen by Russian military intelligence. In written testimony to Mueller's questions, Trump denied any such knowledge. But in the unredacted version of the Mueller Report, the special counsel wrote that "the President's conduct could also be viewed as reflecting his awareness that Stone could provide evidence that would run counter to the President's denials and would link the President to Stone's efforts to reach out to WikiLeaks." Stone was scheduled to report to federal prison on June 30 for seven counts of federal crimes including lying to Congress, witness intimidation and obstruction of justice, before being sprung by Trump's commutation that raises questions whether the two might be prosecuted in the future for obstruction of justice. The line from McCarthy to Trump, from demagogue to demagogue, is just a hop, skip and jump.
Johnson's Political Groundings
In Ron Johnson's telling, the miraculous revelation that he should run for the U.S. Senate struck him in a single blinding moment like St. Paul on the road to Damascus. A voice spoke to him. "I was sitting at home watching Fox News and Dick Morris came on," he recalled. The polymorphous perverse political consultant, a Fox News talking head, in 2010 flacking for the Tea Party, from which he was personally profiting with a series of front groups, uttered these inspirational words: "You know, if you're a rich guy from Wisconsin, step up to the plate." Johnson turned to his wife and asked, "Is he, like, talking to me?"
Johnson had not run for any political office before. He was an accountant who made his fortune the old-fashioned way: he married it. His wife's brother, Patrick Curler, installed him as president in the family business, which Curler had inherited from his father. The Pacur company (named for Pat Curler), based in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, manufactures specialty plastic wrapping for medical devices among other products.
Johnson's most notable public appearance before his Senate run was as a witness in early 2010, testifying before a state senate committee hearing against the Child Victims Act that would eliminate the statute of limitations for reporting crimes of pedophilia. The Green Bay, Wisconsin Catholic Diocese had just confessed that there were "substantial" allegations of sexual abuse of minors against 48 priests. Johnson, a Lutheran, was a member of the diocese's financial council, which would be involved in any compensation, and he made the novel argument that efforts at achieving justice would only "have the perverse effect of leading to additional victims of sexual abuse if individuals, recognizing that their organizations are at risk, become less likely to report suspected abuse." Johnson, however, failed at the time to inform the committee of his membership on the Church's finance counsel. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, which identified him as an "Oshkosh businessman," reported, "Johnson had little to say about the victims of sexual abuse in his testimony. His was largely a financial concern." The bill was also opposed by the insurance industry. Johnson later explained he was concerned about its financial effect on other groups and businesses. The bill was successfully killed. Johnson's shielding of child molesters in the priesthood was his first success in public policy.
In 2009, a year before Johnson said he heard the commanding voice of Dick Morris, he was already speaking at Tea Party rallies, the start of his self-financed campaign for the Republican senatorial nomination. "I'm happy to associate myself with the people of the Tea Party," he said. But few knew who he was, he seemed vague about specific Tea Party doctrines, and Tea Party groups denied that they endorsed his candidacy. Yet his money overwhelmed opposition and wariness. When he gained the nomination at the state convention, he admitted, "I think what was most gratifying to me about it is it really wasn't endorsing me because people don't really know who I am." He was elected in the Republican wave of 2010, defeating the incumbent Democrat, Senator Russ Feingold.
Johnson proved himself to be a reliable party-liner. He called Obamacare's provision for contraception "an assault on religious freedom," accused Planned Parenthood of being "vested in the barbaric practice of harvesting human organs," insisted there was no "scientific evidence" for climate change, tried to gut financial regulation, and, echoing what he heard on Fox News, took to denouncing "The Lego Movie," which he labeled "insidious" anti-business "propaganda." The film's cartoon villain was an evil businessman. "That's done for a reason," he explained. "Our news media is not on our side, certainly not entertainment media."
There was one other position on which Johnson hewed to the party line: the Obama administration's supposed weakness toward Vladimir Putin, a "megalomaniac" and "a danger to the civilized world." Johnson demanded in 2015 that Obama take a more aggressive stance against Russia, especially on Ukraine. Obama, he charged, had "not taken the time to explain why Vladimir Putin's aggressive expansion threatens our national security and the world order."
When Trump clinched the Republican nomination for president, but before the Republican National Convention, Johnson tried to create some degree of separation from him. His endorsement, he said, would not be "a big embrace." "I'll certainly be an independent voice where I disagree with a particular nominee." After the Access Hollywood tape was disclosed—"Grab 'em by the pussy"—Johnson behaved as though Trump would lose. "I'm not going to defend the indefensible," he said. "But I will hold whoever is our president accountable." At a campaign rally just before the election, Johnson called for Hillary Clinton to be impeached for her emails when she became president. "I'm not a lawyer," he said. "I would say, yes, high crime or misdemeanor. I believe she is in violation of both laws." He may have never realized how foolish that sounded.
With Trump's freakish victory Johnson instantly transformed himself into a courtier. He was more than a dependable vote, more than another Republican who held his tongue and held on for dear life. He has aggressively inserted himself into peculiar situations abroad, suddenly popping up in the middle of Trump's clandestine relationships with Russia and Ukraine, and giving murky explanations for why he was there, what he was doing and who sent him. In Moscow and Kyiv, here was Sinclair Lewis' Babbitt-like American archetypal figure from the 1920s, the conventional businessman booster from the small-town Midwest, as Zelig, Woody Allen's nebbish chameleon who makes startling appearances ingratiating himself with almost every celebrity of the same period. The key to both fictional personalities is the urge for conformity. Johnson's one-dimensional lack of complication has landed him in the midst of tangled situation. His simple-minded Republican ambition to get ahead has propelled him into Trump's abyss, which he has mistaken for a ladder of success.
Johnson Goes to Russia
"What does July 4th mean to me? Freedom," tweeted Ron Johnson, on July 4, 2018. He celebrated that day in Moscow with a group of seven other Republicans. (There were no Democrats on this congressional delegation.) The Republicans announced that they hoped to meet with Putin, who would have a summit with Trump the next month in Helsinki, where Trump declared that he accepted Putin's statement that Russia had not interfered in the U.S. election. But Johnson and the others were not granted an audience with the Russian leader. Instead they were greeted by Sergei Kislyak, the former Russian ambassador to the United States, Michael Flynn's interlocutor, and now a member of Russia's upper house of parliament. "We heard things we'd heard before, and I think our guests heard rather clearly and distinctly an answer that they already knew—we don't interfere in American elections," said Kislyak. Another Russian official they met, Duma member Vyacheslav Nikonov, said "he had met with many American lawmakers in years past and that this meeting 'was one of the easiest ones in my life,'" according to the Washington Post. "The question of election interference, he said, was resolved quickly because 'the question was raised in a general form.' 'One shouldn't interfere in elections—well, we don't interfere,' Nikonov said." The Post reported: "On Russian state television, presenters and guests mocked the U.S. congressional delegation for appearing to put a weak foot forward, noting how the message of tough talk they promised in Washington 'changed a bit' by the time they got to Moscow. 'We need to look down at them and say: You came because you needed to, not because we did,' Igor Korotchenko, a Russian military expert, said on a talk show on state-run television."
As soon as Johnson returned home, on July 7, the former hardliner on Russia told the right-wing Washington Examiner that "he's worried that Congress over-reacted to Russia's election interference, which resulted in legislation that tied Trump's hands with mandatory sanctions. 'I've been pretty upfront that the election interference —as serious as that was, and unacceptable—is not the greatest threat to our democracy,' he said. 'We've blown it way out of proportion—[as if it's] the greatest threat to democracy…We need to really honestly assess what actually happened, what effect did it have, and what effect are our sanctions actually having, positively and negatively.'" He added, "And I think you'd be hard-pressed to say that sanctions against Russia are really working all that well."
The next day, TASS, the Russian state news service, publicized: "US Sanctions Against Russia Not Working–US Senator Johnson." Sputnik International headlined: "GOP Senator After Moscow Visit: US Sanctions On Russia 'Not Working That Well.'" Johnson had provided a propaganda coup for Putin.
Later that July, Trump was busily engaged in what the Mueller Report documented as the fourth of his ten obstructions of justice against the investigation into his collusion with Russian interference in the 2016 election: "The President Orders [Chief of Staff Reince] Priebus to Demand [Attorney General Jeff] Sessions's Resignation." Trump was obsessed with raising a conspiracy theory that the Clinton campaign had colluded with Ukraine against him to counter the reality of what Russia actually had done. The Mueller Report cited his tweet of July 25, 2017: "Ukrainian efforts to sabotage Trump campaign—'quietly working to boost Clinton.' So where is the investigation A.G."
Trump soon worked his obsession into an elaborate "multiple untruth" that it was Ukraine that hacked the DNC server, not Russia, that Ukraine falsely blamed Russia, that when the FBI attempted to retrieve the server Ukraine gave it to the cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike, which he claimed was a Ukrainian company and supposedly hid the server in order to protect Hillary Clinton's role in the secret plot against him. None of these claims were true.
Fiona Hill, the National Security Council senior director on Europe and Russia, in her testimony before the House impeachment committee, called Trump's story "an alternative narrative" that undermined U.S. interests and aided Russia. "These fictions are harmful even if they are deployed for purely domestic political purposes," she said. This "alternative narrative" is a Trump conspiracy theory that could be quashed by facts, yet became an impetus behind Johnson's investigation, one of his Holy Grails.
Even before Johnson's mission to Moscow, Trump had for months been piecing together the operation that would attempt to force an investigation into Joe Biden's alleged promotion of his son Hunter Biden's business interests in Ukraine—a charge that was entirely false and has been repeatedly refuted—and would eventually seek to force an exchange for the manufacture of that political smear for U.S. military aid to Ukraine—the proposed transaction that was the grounds for Trump's impeachment. Johnson would soon plunge right into the middle of the Trump team's machinations in Ukraine.
(To be continued.)
Author's note and full disclosure: When Sen. Johnson disclosed his list of people he intends to subpoena in his "Obamagate" probe, my name appeared on it. Apparently, this involves the most obscure conspiracy theory within the larger conspiracy theory, a "second dossier" to Christopher Steele's Dossier originating with the Clinton campaign. There is, in fact, no such "second dossier," which is not a "dossier" at all but two emails consisting of raw notes of an inquiring journalist that he collected from conversations about Trump's Russian relationships, sent to some friends, including me, which I shared with another longtime friend, who unbeknownst to me happened to share it with his longtime friend, Christopher Steele, who unbeknownst to that friend sent a paragraph he found interesting in one of the emails to the FBI. None of this had anything to do with the Clinton campaign; no one in this chain knew who the next person would share it with; and none of it had any relevance to anything significant that subsequently occurred. I debunked this conspiracy theory in testimony to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on June 16, 2019. It seems that Johnson and his crack staff have failed to properly acquaint themselves with the work of that Republican-led but bipartisan committee.
Sidney Blumenthal is the author of All the Powers of Earth, the third volume in his five-volume biography, The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln, published in September 2019 by Simon and Schuster. the first two volumes are A Self-Made Man and Wrestling with His Angel. He is the former assistant and senior adviser to President Bill Clinton and senior adviser to Hillary Clinton. He has been a national staff reporter for The Washington Post and Washington editor and writer for The New Yorker. His books include the The Clinton Wars, The Rise of the Counter-Establishment, and The Permanent Campaign. He has been a senior fellow of the NYU Center on Law and Security and is a fellow of the Society of American Historians.