Dems fear foreign influence campaign is using Ron Johnson probe

Democratic leaders fear a foreign adversary may be trying to "launder and amplify disinformation" through Ron Johnson's committee.
Image: Sen. Ron Johnson, R-WI, speaks at a hearing on Capitol Hill on Nov. 14, 2019.
Sen. Ron Johnson, R-WI, speaks at a hearing on Capitol Hill on Nov. 14, 2019.Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
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By Steve Benen

The "Gang of Eight" is a congressional colloquialism that refers to the top eight lawmakers who receive intelligence briefings unavailable to other members. The octet is made up of the top two House leaders from both parties, the top two Senate leaders from both parties, and the top two members from the House and Senate Intelligence committees.

With this in mind, the Democratic half of the "gang" -- Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, Adam Schiff, and Mark Warner -- recently sent a formal request to FBI Director Christopher Wray, asking that the bureau provide "a defensive counterintelligence briefing" to literally every member of Congress "regarding foreign efforts to interfere in the 2020 U.S. presidential election."

The Democratic lawmakers' letter added, "We are gravely concerned, in particular, that Congress appears to be the target of a concerted foreign interference campaign, which seeks to launder and amplify disinformation in order to influence congressional activity, public debate, and the presidential election in November."

It's not every day that four members of the "Gang of Eight" make such a request to the FBI, and the concerns raised in the letter sound extremely serious. These congressional leaders believe Congress is the current target of a foreign interference campaign? An adversary may be trying to launder and amplify disinformation through Capitol Hill? To influence our elections again? What's this all about?

Well, a Politico report late yesterday shed some additional light on the Democrats' efforts.

Among the Democrats’ concerns is that a Senate investigation being led by Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) has become a vehicle for “laundering” a foreign influence campaign to damage Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, according to two people familiar with the demand.

It's worth emphasizing that the letter to Chris Wray did not reference Johnson by name. What's more, the Wisconsin Republican -- who also happens to lead the Senate Homeland Security Committee -- has denied being used by a foreign influence campaign.

That said, the Democrats' letter included a classified annex, fleshing out in more detail what they were referring to. And while there's no public access to that annex, Ron Johnson has made little effort to hide the fact that he's eager to use his powerful committee post -- including the use of partisan subpoenas -- to pursue a probe related to Joe Biden's son, Hunter Biden.

Could a foreign power -- say, Russia, for example -- try to exploit this GOP scheme to "launder and amplify disinformation"? It appears to be a point of concern among Democratic leaders, and there's reason to take those fears seriously. From the Politico report:

Johnson renewed his demand for transcribed interviews and documents from the former officials days after a Ukrainian lawmaker -- Andriy Derkach, who has met with Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani to discuss investigating the Biden family -- used a news conference to accuse the Bidens and Amos Hochstein, a former special envoy for international energy affairs at the State Department, of an elaborate conspiracy to steal hundreds of millions of dollars from Ukraine.

The article added that Johnson had previously sought testimony from Andrii Telizhenko, "who has pushed unsubstantiated claims about coordination between the Ukrainian government and the Democratic National Committee in 2016." That didn't turn out well: the FBI's foreign-influence taskforce warned senators to be skeptical of Telizhenko's claims.

Let's also not forget that late last year, even Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who was chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee at the time, warned Johnson that his efforts could have the effect of helping the Kremlin.

We don't yet know whether the FBI is prepared to provide the all-members briefing Democrats requested, but Dems want a response from Wray this week. Watch this space.

Postscript: Given the Wisconsin Republican's record of using talking points that line up with a Russian disinformation campaign, Johnson's credibility in this area was already rather shaky.