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Ripping Down Trump’s Phony ’Treason’ Conspiracy

History matters, especially when an unscrupulous president constantly seeks to revise and distort fundamental facts as events unfold. This week, a courageous law enforcement official stepped forward to correct the record at last, and under oath.

Over the past two years, as the Russia and Ukraine investigations unfolded, President Donald Trump has tried repeatedly to turn the expanding indictment of his own criminal misconduct into a case against his political adversaries. "Treason!" he tweets every few days, punctuating his outlandish claim that the investigations of sleazy and potentially unlawful behavior by him, members of his family, his campaign aides and his appointees represented a nefarious "deep state" conspiracy.

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October Surprise Part III: 'Nonpartisan' Johnson Crashes Impeachment As Trump Surrogate


With this third and final installment we complete a series by Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the "Obamagate" conspiracy theory promoted by the Trump White House and its allies -- with particular attention to Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee. In the first installment Blumenthal explained how Johnson came to serve as Trump's instrument in the creation of "multiple untruths" to distract from the criminal realities exposed by the Mueller Report and the prosecutions of Michael Flynn and Roger Stone. In the second, Blumenthal examined Johnson's ill-fated intervention in Trump's attempt to coerce the new government of Ukraine to corruptly intervene in the 2020 election. The following article recounts Johnson's role as a Trump surrogate during impeachment -- and how the false narrative he advanced then has served as the template for White House "Obamagate" mythology.

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.

Johnson Serves His Purpose: The House's Impeachment Investigation

Trump's main strategy in dealing with the House impeachment inquiry was to engage in character assassination of the witnesses. Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the Ukraine specialist on the National Security Council, had listened in on Trump's July 25 call with Zelensky and afterward reported it immediately to the White House Legal Counsel. "It is improper for the President of the United States to demand a foreign government investigate a U.S. citizen and political opponent," he would testify on Nov. 19. What Vindman would say was well known.

In anticipation of his appearance, Ron Johnson trotted out as Trump's surrogate to trash him. In an 11-page letter dated Nov. 18 addressed to the ranking Republican members of the committee, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), Johnson attacked the inquiry "as a continuation of a concerted, and possibly coordinated, effort to sabotage the Trump administration that probably began in earnest the day after the 2016 presidential election," but which he also traced even farther back, omnisciently stating that "my first-hand knowledge and involvement in this saga began with the revelation that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton kept a private email server."

Throwing in his kitchen sink—the Steele Dossier, the Strzok-Page text messages, and "the false narrative of Trump campaign collusion with Russia"—the discerning Johnson could see that these elements "all fit a pattern and indicate a game plan that I suspect has been implemented once again." Vindman's testimony, according to Johnson, could be understood as part of that very "pattern" and "game plan." His background—coming to America as an immigrant from the Soviet Union at the age of three, his rise within the army from combat officer in Iraq to Russian expert for the Joint Chiefs of Staff to the NSC—was dismissed. Johnson suggested that Vindman's true motive was subversion by acting as an agent of the "Deep State."

"I believe," he accused, "that a significant number of bureaucrats and staff members within the executive branch have never accepted President Trump as legitimate and resent his unorthodox style and his intrusion onto their 'turf.' They react by leaking to the press and participating in the ongoing effort to sabotage his policies and, if possible, remove him from office. It is entirely possible that Vindman fits this profile."

After arranging Vindman into his conspiracy theory, Johnson wandered into further recollections of his August 31 meeting with Trump. He added a new anecdote about Trump that pointed to yet another underlying reason for his withholding aid from Ukraine: his anti-NATO bias and pro-Russian tilt. Trump, in Johnson's telling, "reminded me how thoroughly corrupt Ukraine was and again conveyed his frustration that Europe doesn't do its fair share of providing military aid. He specifically cited the sort of conversation he would have with Angela Merkel, chancellor Germany. To paraphrase Trump: 'Ron, I talk to Angela and ask her, 'Why don't you fund these things,' and she tells me, 'because we know you will.' We're schmucks, Ron. We're schmucks.'"

In his fervent defense of Trump, Johnson seemed blithely unaware that his story of Trump calling the U.S. "schmucks" for playing the leadership role within NATO, in order to explain withholding military aid to Ukraine, only undercut his argument. Johnson didn't appear to grasp how he was further establishing the pattern of Trump's bad faith.

Johnson insisted on adding another story in his letter that he believed would exonerate Trump, this one from his September 5 meeting in Kyiv with Zelensky. "At no time during this meeting—or any other meeting on this trip," he wrote, "was there any mention by Zelensky or any Ukrainian that they were feeling pressure to do anything in return for the military aid, not even after [Senator Chris] Murphy warned them about getting involved in the 2020 election—which would have been the perfect time to discuss any pressure."

Johnson made a mistake in bringing up Murphy. The Connecticut Democrat was not a mannequin. He knew what he had said and what Zelensky replied, and that it was not what Johnson portrayed. The same day that Johnson issued his letter, on November 19, Murphy responded with a letter of his own, addressed to Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), chairman of the intelligence committee, and Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), chair of the oversight committee, conducting the impeachment inquiry.

Murphy wrote that "the most disturbing element of Senator Johnson's letter was his assertion that certain Administration staffers, most notably Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, may be actively working to 'sabotage' the President's foreign policy agenda, despite having no actual evidence of such sabotage." Murphy rejected the "deep state" conspiracy theory, instead describing how "ethical public officials saw corruption occurring" and decided to "tell the truth" about "a shadow foreign policy."

Murphy then recounted some of the recent sordid history of US-Ukraine relations. He criticized the composition of the delegation to Zelensky's inauguration that included Johnson as unfortunately "mid-level" and "partisan." While Murphy wrote that Johnson "did not support the president's decision to withhold military aid to Ukraine," he noted that Johnson was not in the dark but cognizant of the game being played and "was not alarmed like I was about Giuliani's efforts."

In their meeting with Zelensky, it was Murphy who took the initiative in raising "the pressure on Zelensky from Rudy Giuliani and the president's other emissaries to launch investigations into Trump's political rivals—namely the Bidens." Murphy urged Zelensky "to ignore requests from Trump's personal political representatives" and only deal with the United States "through official channels." Murphy described the scene as anxious and fraught. Zelensky was "gravely serious" about the withheld military aid, and Murphy wrote, "I felt the enormous burden this suspension of aid was putting on the new leader of an already fragile democracy."

Johnson, for his part, did not join his colleague in supporting Zelensky against the Giuliani juggernaut, but sat close-lipped. In Johnson's version of this meeting, he denied that Zelensky expressed any concern. Murphy, however, directly contradicted Johnson. With customary senatorial courtesy, Murphy wrote that while he did "not dispute any of Senator Johnson's factual representations…I came to a very different conclusion regarding the way that Zelensky reacted to my comments…. I interpreted Zelensky's answer to my question as a concession of the premise of my question—that he was receiving improper overtures form Giuliani to interfere in the 2020 election."

Murphy then deconstructed Trump's use of the charge of "corruption" as a lever to advance his scheme. He observed that Johnson conveyed to Zelensky "that 'corruption' was a clear concern of President Trump…simply relaying what the president had told him." "But," Murphy explained, "it's clear that in other conversations through the Giuliani back channel, 'corruption' had become synonymous with two specific investigations that would personally benefit the president, and indeed, as we learned later, these were the only two 'corruption' matters that Trump raised directly with Zelensky on the July 25 phone call."

Murphy concluded: "President Trump preyed on a vulnerable foreign nation, dependent on the U.S. for its very survival, and used taxpayer money as leverage to get that nation to work for the personal political benefit of the president." Johnson had no response to Murphy whatsoever.

The Witness and the Juror

At noon on January 16, 2020, the House Managers walked from their side of the Capitol to the Senate to deliver their counts of impeachment and a 111-page memorandum of new evidence that had emerged since the House vote on impeachment on December 18, including the Government Accountability Office's report that Trump's withholding of aid to Ukraine without notifying Congress was illegal. Chief Justice John Roberts swore in the senators in "the trial of the impeachment of Donald John Trump, president of the United States."

Trump attorneys opened their defense on January 25, insisting that there was "no evidence," according to Pat Cipollone, the White House legal counsel, while Jay Sekulow, Trump's chief lawyer, suggested that Ukraine had interfered in the 2016 election.

The next day, on January 26, the New York Times reported of an "explosive account" by John Bolton in an unpublished manuscript that Trump had told him "that he wanted to continue freezing $391 million in security assistance to Ukraine until officials there helped with investigations into Democrats including the Bidens."

The Times also reported that Bolton gave a more detailed version of the May 23 Oval Office meeting where Johnson had been present. Trump "railed about Ukraine trying to damage him and mentioned a conspiracy theory about a hacked Democratic server, according to Mr. Bolton." Trump thundered his denial on twitter: "I NEVER told John Bolton that the aid to Ukraine was tied to investigations into Democrats, including the Bidens." Queries to Johnson were directed to a statement he had made in October when the meeting first was revealed: "Senator Johnson does not recall in any meeting or discussion with the president, or any member of the administration, that the term 'quid pro quo' was ever used. Nor does he recall any discussion of any specific case of corruption in the 2016 election, such as Crowdstrike, the hack of the DNC servers, Hillary Clinton campaign involvement, or Hunter and Joe Biden, during general discussions of corruption, which is endemic throughout Ukraine."

"A show-trial spectacle," Johnson called the impeachment trial. "This has been blown so far out of proportion." He yawned that he would "be bored if both sides took 24 hours." He waved away the GAO finding that Trump's impoundment of the funds approved by the Congress for Ukraine was illegal. "I don't think it's particularly relevant." And he showed contempt for the emergence of Bolton as a prospective witness. "The House had an opportunity to call John Bolton," Johnson said. "They decided not to. The House was in such a rush to do this impeachment. They did, from my standpoint, a pretty sloppy job. Now, they want the Senate to do their job for them."

Those glib statements elided the fact that Bolton had threatened to fight any House subpoena in a drawn-out court battle, but had since promised to comply with a subpoena from the Senate. There was, Johnson claimed, "no impeachable offense." He denied that Trump's actions were an attempt to eliminate Joe Biden as a candidate. "I never viewed his desire to find what happened in Ukraine as having anything to do with the 2020 election. It was all a look back, trying to explain in some way, shape or form how he ended up with the special counsel."

Johnson voted against allowing the House Managers to call any witnesses, including John Bolton. At the time, three-quarters of Americans believed that witnesses should be allowed to testify in the Senate trial, according to Quinnipiac polling. Before the closing arguments, Johnson announced there was no case: "That's why I will not vote to convict. I'll vote to acquit." On February 5, Trump was acquitted with only one Republican, Senator Mitt Romney, of Utah, voting guilty on one count of impeachment.

Headlong into "Obamagate"

As soon as the trial without any witnesses ended in his favor, Trump launched a retaliatory purge, firing Lt. Col. Vindman; firing the Inspector General of the Intelligence Community, Michael Atkinson; firing the Inspector General of the State Department, Steve Linick, who was investigating alleged misconduct by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo; firing the chairman of the oversight panel of the federal government's economic stimulus fund, Glenn Fine; firing the deputy Inspector General for the Department of Health and Human Services, Christi Grimm, who was probing Trump's failed response to the coronavirus crisis; firing the Inspector General of the Department of Transportation, Mitch Behm, who was investigating irregular contracts awarded by Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, the wife of Republican Senator Majority leader Mitch McConnell.

Johnson dashed to the Green Room to defend Trump's vengeance, appearing on May 17 on CNN's State of the Union with Jake Tapper. "I'm not crying big crocodile tears over this termination," he said about the dismissal of Inspector General Linick at the State Department. Johnson explained that the independence of inspector generals was strictly a fiction. "And so," he said, "they serve at the president's will." Yet under Obama, Johnson had been a champion of inspector generals, declaring it essential that they be "completely independent," warning against "retaliating against people that were issuing reports," and proposing a bill to strengthen the system. Now, he encouraged the wrecking of what he had previously tried to shield.

Johnson was already floating the "Obamagate" scheme, Trump's through-the-looking-glass conspiracy theory to explain the appointment of Robert Mueller as special counsel and the impeachment as all one connected plot against him, and to weaponize it for the campaign.

Johnson's work started with a letter on May 18 to Barr demanding that a supposedly incriminating email — from Susan Rice summarizing a meeting with President Obama and other officials presumably about unmasking Michael Flynn on January 5, 2017 — be declassified in the interest of "transparency." The next day the mysterious email was released. It showed that Obama had stated that any investigation into Flynn's discussions with Russian officials must be done "by the book." "The only encouraging bit," commented Tim Miller, the former spokesman for the Republican National Committee, "is the realization that if By-The-Book Gate is the best these goobers have got, then it turns out that they're as incompetent as they are corrupt."

The fizzle of the Rice email did not dampen Johnson's zealotry. He shifted into a high gear, publicly releasing his lengthy list of targets of the imaginary perpetrators of "Obamagate." But as Johnson readied his subpoenas, John Bolton finally published his book.

Bolton's memoir, The Room Where It Happened, filled in the gap in Johnson's airbrushed version of his May 23, 2019 Oval Office meeting with Trump. Bolton added additional episodes of Trump bargaining U.S. national security for his reelection effort, for example, with China. And he corroborated the other evidence gathered for Trump's impeachment as an eyewitness to the Ukraine "drug deal," all too late for the impeachment but not for the 2020 election. Bolton's direct account refuted Johnson's cynical credulity about what Trump knew and when he knew it. On August 20, 2019, Bolton wrote, "I took Trump's temperature on the Ukraine security assistance, and he said he wasn't in favor of sending them anything until all the Russia-investigation materials related to Clinton and Biden had been turned over." Case closed.

In anticipation of the "Obamagate" and Durham investigations, Trump appeared on the Christian Broadcasting Network on June 22 to accuse President Obama. "Treason. It's treason," Trump said. "Look, when I came out a long time ago, I said they've been spying on my campaign, I said they've been taping…Turns out I was right. Let's see what happens to them now…100 years ago, or 50 years ago, they would have been executed."

* * *

Charles Sykes was a Republican talk show host in Wisconsin who was responsible for helping to launch Ron Johnson on his political career. After his election to the Senate, Peggy Noonan, the conservative columnist for The Wall Street Journal and President Reagan's former speechwriter, brightly described how a star was born. "A conservative radio host named Charlie Sykes got hold of a speech Mr. Johnson gave at a Lincoln Day dinner in Oshkosh. He liked it and read it aloud on his show for 20 minutes. A speech! The audience listened and loved it. A man called in and said, 'Yes, yes, yes!' Another said, 'I have to agree with everything that guy said.' Mr. Johnson decided to run because of that reaction, and in November he won. This week he said, 'The reason I'm a U.S. senator is because Charlie Sykes did that.'"

"We were a thing," Sykes recalled. He imagined Ron Johnson was an independent free of the Republican "establishment," "very much his own man." Since Trump's election the talk show host and the sorcerer's apprentice have taken different paths. Sykes has been thoroughly disillusioned with the Republican Party, become a leading Never Trumper, written a book titled How the Right Lost Its Mind, and helped found the Never Trumper journal, The Bulwark. "What happened to Ron Johnson?" Sykes asked. "On one level, his story is not all that much different from the rest of the GOP, which has transformed itself into Trumpist camp followers." It turned out that Ron Johnson was not who Sykes thought he was. "He was poised to be very much his own man. Instead, he became Trump's."

Yet, in an interview with Politico on the "Obamagate" investigation, Johnson presented himself as the same old Ron Johnson. "I'm a very nonpartisan guy. I just am," Johnson said in an interview. "I like using the word nonpartisan. I'm not doing anybody's bidding." The record is otherwise.

(Author's note and full disclosure: When Ron 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 Ron 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.

October Surprise: Ron Johnson's Journey Through 'Multiple Untruths' To The Fable Of Obamagate

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.

Trump's Senators

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.

Obamagate Is Fake — The Real Scandal Is What The FBI Did To Clinton

Reprinted with permission from Alternet

Politicized investigations, interference in elections, and abusive targeting by law enforcement are all the makings of a juicy political scandal. And President Donald Trump would like us to believe that such a scandal, with each of these components, is real and — even if he can't name any crime that might have been committed — directed at him. That's why he has promoted the lazy moniker "Obamagate," an all-encompassing term for the vague allegations of wrongdoing surrounding the conduct of the previous administration and the investigators probing the ties between his campaign and the Kremlin's interference in the 2016 election.

On Friday, another arm of the Trump administration revealed yet another inquiry into the "Obamagate" haze. FBI Director Christopher Wray, apparently under pressure from the president himself, has opened an internal review of the handling of the case of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.

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