Inside Dupe

Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson is pushing Russian disinformation just months before the 2020 election

Senator Ron Johnson, the Wisconsin Republican who has called the FBI a “secret society” that is corrupt “at the highest levels,” is not letting go of his campaign to discredit the investigations into ties between Russia and President Donald J. Trump. 

The former plastics company CEO, who also called reports of Kremlin interference in the 2016 elections “overblown” after a visit to Moscow in 2018, now appears to be trying to revive a conspiracy theory tying Joe Biden to a “Deep State” plot to undermine Trump — one that also happens to echo a Russian disinformation campaign to help re-elect the president.

Just two months before the 2020 election, Johnson’s latest foray is to subpoena Jonathan Winer, an ex-State Department official, to testify about his relationship with former MI6 official Christopher Steele, the author of the controversial dossier — funded by the Democratic National Committee — that reported alleged Russian attempts to collude with the Trump campaign and help it win the 2016 election, among other things.

Johnson says his objective is to follow through on a theory that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 election, and that Joe Biden and his son Hunter were involved in corruption in Kiev. In an open letter on August 10, Johnson also slammed his critics saying: “We intend to uncover the truth and make it public.”

But the decision by Johnson, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, to subpoena Winer, runs counter to a years-long inquiry by the Republican-led Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Within days of Johnson’s open letter, the panel’s acting chairman, Marco Rubio of Florida, and its GOP majority signed off on a bipartisan final counterintelligence report which concluded that Moscow had undertaken “a wide range of Russian efforts to influence the Trump Campaign and the 2016 election.” It added that Moscow's intent was ”to harm the [Hillary] Clinton campaign, tarnish an expected Clinton presidential administration,” help Trump win the White House and continue to “undermine the U.S. democratic process.”

The Intelligence Committee singled out “false narratives” about Ukraine promoted by Trump and his allies — precisely the theme of Johnson’s pursuit, saying it had “observed numerous Russian-government actors” pushing the same conspiracy theory. The committee report pointedly said it had “identified no reliable evidence that the Ukrainian government interfered in the 2016 U.S. election.”

Meanwhile, Senator Gary Peters of Illinois, the top Democrat on the Homeland Security committee, says Johnson’s subpoena of Winer is a violation of committee rules. “The subpoena for his personal appearance for a deposition is therefore unenforceable,” Peters wrote in a letter to Johnson, a copy of which SpyTalk obtained. “Should you consider that deposition notice to Mr. Winer to constitute notice to me or your intent to notice Mr. Winer’s deposition, I disapprove.”

Yet Johnson has continued his campaign. Through Winer, a veteran Democratic Senate staffer before joining the State Department, Johnson is apparently trying to revive the false notion that Steele was the original source of the FBI’s investigation of the Trump campaign’s ties to Moscow. He also claimed that Steele was manipulated by Russian intelligence. 

Confronted with criticism of his pursuit in a CNN interview on Sunday, Johnson said “you know, the only Russian disinformation that I’m aware of that has been involved in our politics is first of all in the Steele Dossier….it’s the Democrats, they are being Putin’s puppet, not me…” Johnson says he’s also pressing the FBI for documents related to Steele. 

Because of their mutual interest in combating Russian money laundering and organized crime, Winer knew Steele for several years before the former MI6 man came to him in 2016 with his concerns “about possible ties between Donald Trump, his campaign and senior Russian officials,” he explained in a 2018 op-ed for The Washington Post. Winer, who served at the Department of State as Special Envoy to Libya, put him in touch with other State Department officials, though these efforts had nothing to do with the FBI investigation of Russian activities, which was already underway. 

From an investigative standpoint, Johnson’s efforts seem to amount to raking over old coals for a new spark. Winer was not part of any investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia. An attorney for Winer, Lee Wolosky, said Winer’s knowledge was limited to introducing Steele and his reports to U.S. officials. “Mr. Winer made sure that specific information about the alleged compromise of the Republican nominee for president by a foreign government was brought to the attention of the right people in the U..S. government,” Wolosky told SpyTalk in an email. He said Winer has “no personal knowledge” of other claims raised by Johnson and other Trump allies, including Hunter Biden’s business affairs in Ukraine, the FBI’s investigation of onetime Trump foreign policy advisor Carter Page. He denies an alleged meeting Winer had with the Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska. (Winer once worked for a law firm that had Deripaska as a client, but Wolosky said Winer “did not lobby for or meet Oleg Deripaska.”) 

All these allegations and investigations amount to a distraction from the main issue, critics say. Among them: Fiona Hill, a former top-ranking intelligence analyst in the Trump White House National Security Council, who warned last spring that some Republicans “appear to believe that Russia and its security services did not conduct a campaign against our country — and that perhaps, somehow, for some reason, Ukraine did. This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves.”

Johnson is having none of it. 

As he put it in his open letter: “We will not be deterred…” 

SpyTalk Contributing Editor Peter Eisner is the co-author with Michael D’Antonio of the upcoming book, High Crimes: The Corruption, Impunity, and Impeachment of Donald Trump.

An earlier edition of this story misidentified Sen. Gary Peters as Charles Peters. We regret the error.