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Image: Senators Hold Press Availability After Weekly Policy Luncheons
Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wi., speaks to members of the media as he arrives for the weekly Senate Republican policy luncheon in the Hart Senate Office Building on June 30, 2020.Stefani Reynolds / Getty Images file

Why Ron Johnson blew off FBI concerns about Russian disinformation

The FBI warned Ron Johnson last year that he was "a target of Russian disinformation." He thought the smart move would be to blow off the FBI's concerns.


According to a striking overnight report from the Washington Post, the FBI was concerned about a Russian influence operation targeting the U.S. 2020 presidential election, and as such, the bureau issued direct warnings to key players. For example, the FBI reportedly told Rudy Giuliani that he was a target of a Kremlin-backed scheme.

At face value, that may not seem especially surprising. After all, Donald Trump's lawyer partnered with an active Russian agent during the campaign. But this new reporting, if accurate, suggests the FBI told Giuliani the Kremlin intended to use him, and the former New York City mayor did not need heed the warnings. Indeed, Giuliani continued to peddle Russian disinformation anyway.

The same Post report added the bureau also warned One America News, a rabidly pro-Trump outlet, that it "faced a risk of being used to further Russia's attempt to influence the election's outcome." [Update: See below.[

But of particular interest from the reporting was the FBI's communications with one controversial Republican senator.

The FBI last summer also gave what is known as a defensive briefing to Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who ahead of the election used his perch as chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee to investigate Biden's dealings with Ukraine while he was vice president and his son Hunter Biden held a lucrative seat on the board of a Ukrainian energy company.

The Wisconsin Republican acknowledged to the Washington Post that he received an FBI briefing last summer, "warning me that I was a target of Russian disinformation." Johnson added that he didn't take the warning seriously, finding the FBI's briefing "completely useless and unnecessary."

Let's take a moment to remember how we arrived at this point.

After years of indifference about Joe Biden's efforts in Ukraine, congressional Republicans decided -- right around the time the Delaware Democrat locked up his party's presidential nomination -- this was an area of potential controversy.

Johnson helped take the lead in the search for anti-Biden dirt, and a Russian agent claimed he fed information to Johnson. Asked last summer whether he'd possibly relied on information from Kremlin-backed sources, the Wisconsin Republican evaded direct questions.

What we didn't know at the time was that the FBI specifically alerted Johnson that he was "a target of Russian disinformation," but he questioned the value of the briefing.

In other words, the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee was targeted by the Kremlin, while the senator was seeking dirt on the future American president, and when the FBI warned him directly about what was transpiring, Ron Johnson thought the smart thing to do would be to blow off the FBI's concerns.

I realize that Johnson remains a sitting U.S. senator in good standing. I'm less sure why. Under normal circumstances, today would be the day in which other Republican senators started putting some distance between themselves and their beleaguered Wisconsin colleague.

Update: The Washington Post report referenced above has retracted the parts of the story related to Giuliani and OAN. An NBC News report on the same subject did the same thing. The reporting related to Ron Johnson, however, remains intact.