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.