Ron Johnson Looks Like Russian Tool
He once condemned Russia and Vladimir Putin. What explains the turnabout?
The news last week, first reported by the Washington Post, that the FBI gave Wisconsin’s Republican U.S. Senator a “defensive briefing” about Russia, warning that the country was peddling false information, was just the latest in a curious history. Going back years, Ron Johnson has been deaf to information showing Russia was working to undermine the United States.
For decades Republicans had seen Russia as one of America’s foremost enemies, and just four years ago, Johnson still seemed to be in that camp. “I’m very wary of Vladimir Putin,” Johnson said of the Russian autocrat back in January, 2017. “There have been close to 30 suspicious political assassinations since he has taken power.”
Johnson sponsored resolutions calling for a full investigation into the murder of a Russian political opposition leader and for an investigation of Russia’s attacks on the Ukraine.
But despite these statements, there was already evidence Johnson was going soft on Russia. In September 2016, as chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Johnson was one of the top 12 congressional leaders who attended a meeting where they were informed by intelligence leaders of Russia’s cyberhacking of the 2016 election.
Johnson had an opportunity to be a patriot and condemn the fact that Russia was engaged in this attack on American democracy. Instead he went along with Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell in keeping the whole thing quiet, issuing no statement and not one word on this.
Meanwhile Johnson engaged in a pattern of misinformation on the subject. In January 2017, after the CIA publicly released a report concluding that Russia meddled in the presidential election to help Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, Johnson issued a statement saying he would “would need more definitive information before drawing further conclusions.” Johnson did not reveal that he had been informed back in September this was happening.
Johnson went on to complain that the CIA refused to brief him on Russian hacking, saying “I have not seen the evidence that it actually was Russia,” while failing to note the CIA report’s echoed the briefing he’d received from other intelligence leaders in September.
By 2018 Johnson had begun to part with other Republicans on Russia. He went on a trip to Russia with other Republican senators who came back condemning Russia’s interference with the 2016 election. But Johnson seemed somewhat swayed the denials of interference by Russian officials, and declared that Congress went too far in punishing Russia and “we’ve blown it way out of proportion.”
In 2019, Johnson met with Andrii Telizhenko, a former Ukrainian diplomat who was promoting claims that it was the Ukraine and not Russia that interfered with the 2026 election. Telizhenko told The Washington Post last year that “he cooperated extensively with an investigation” by Johnson.
That investigation, done by the Senate Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs Committee in 2020, and overseen by Johnson, was heavily influenced by information from Telizhenko. “Chairman Johnson… cited Mr. Telizhenko 42 times in the letters sent as part of this investigation, and ignored repeated warnings to not give credibility to disinformation,” noted Oregon’s Democratic U.S. Senator Ron Wyden in a statement that later condemned the committee’s report.
Among those warnings was one that came privately from the FBI, which met with Johnson a month before his committee report was released in September of 2020. “Regarding reports that I received an FBI briefing warning me that I was a target of Russian disinformation, I can confirm I received such a briefing in August of 2020,” Johnson said in a statement to The Washington Post.
But Johnson said it was a “generalized warning” that lacked “specific information” and “I suspected that the briefing was being given to be used at some future date for the purpose that it is now being used: to offer the biased media an opportunity to falsely accuse me of being a tool of Russia despite warnings.”
Johnson is basically accusing the FBI of operating as an arm of the Democratic Party and seeking to embarrass him. In fact, it would appear they were trying to help him avoid getting embarrassed by disinformation.
And four months later the U.S. Treasure Department, then still under President Trump, announced it had “sanctioned a group of Russia-linked Ukrainians for trying to influence the 2020 election by attempting to smear President Trump’s Democratic rival, Joe Biden,” as the Washington Post reported. Among the seven sanctioned was Telizhenko.
Telizhenko and the other six Ukrainians “have made repeated public statements advancing malicious narratives that U.S. Government officials have engaged in corrupt dealings in Ukraine,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said.
“Telizhenko sparked U.S. officials’ concern in early 2019 when he began promoting pro-Russian, anti-Biden narratives by sharing information with GOP lawmakers,” the story noted.
But Johnson fell for Telizhenko’s malicious narratives and amplified them in his Senate committee report, even after the FBI warned him it was disinformation. As Wyden put it, “By imposing sanctions on Telizhenko, the Trump administration confirms that Senate Republicans’ year-long investigation [led by Johnson] was based on Russian disinformation.”
So yes, Johnson does look like a Russian tool, which is exactly what the FBI warned him.