Right around the time Joe Biden started winning Democratic presidential primaries, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) started gearing up to use the Senate Homeland Security Committee to investigate Biden-related conspiracy theories touted by the Trump White House.
At issue are bizarre claims about the former vice president, Ukraine, and a Burisma controversy that doesn't appear to exist outside the Republican fever swamp. Indeed, as the Washington Post's Greg Sargent explained in a great piece several months ago, Johnson, among other Republicans, was entirely on board with Joe Biden's reform efforts in Ukraine in 2016. It's why, four years later, it's difficult to see the senator's renewed interest in the matter as sincere.
On the contrary, by all appearances, Johnson appears to be using the Homeland Security Committee he chairs as some kind of political action committee -- to the point that the Wisconsin Republican has even been accused of serving as a vessel for Kremlin-backed propaganda intended to undermine Biden's candidacy.
As the election draws closer, the pressure on Johnson is clearly increasing. Democrats are characterizing the GOP senator as some kind of useful idiot for Moscow; the U.S. intelligence community is issuing warnings about a Ukrainian official who claims to have fed information to Johnson's committee; and conservative media figures seem annoyed that Johnson hasn't used his position to help Donald Trump's campaign even more.
It was against this backdrop that Johnson admitted this week his election-season investigation would advance the president's political interests. As Politico noted, this immediately ignited fury from Democrats "who say it was an explicit admission he's using his committee to damage Joe Biden's candidacy for president.'
"The more that we expose of the corruption of the transition process between Obama and Trump, the more we expose of the corruption within those agencies, I would think it would certainly help Donald Trump win re-election and certainly be pretty good, I would say, evidence about not voting for Vice President Biden," Johnson said in a little-noticed Tuesday interview with Minneapolis-based radio hosts Jon Justice and Drew Lee.
At this point, we could certainly explore in more detail the fact that there was no corruption during the transition process -- not unless we're talking about the corruption among members of Team Trump, such as Michael Flynn -- but the larger significance was in Johnson's acknowledgement of the political circumstances.
To hear the Senate committee chairman tell it, his probe has obvious electoral motivations. It's what Democrats have said for months, and now Johnson has effectively confirmed their suspicions.
"This damning acknowledgment totally exposes that Ron Johnson's disgraceful conduct is the definition of malfeasance," Biden spokesman Andrew Bates said. "It is beyond time for him to end this embarrassing and deeply unethical charade once and for all -- as a number of his Senate Republican colleagues have long wanted."
This calls to mind, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) blurting out during a 2015 television interview that the House Republicans' Benghazi investigation was really just a partisan scheme intended to undermine Hillary Clinton. Ron Johnson's confession wasn't identical, but it was certainly a rhetorical cousin in which the Wisconsin Republican left little doubt about his electoral interests.
Michael Kinsley once said a political gaffe occurs when a politician accidentally tells the truth. By this measure, the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee made an important mistake this week.
I don't doubt that Johnson's probe will continue. In fact, he's come this far, and as Election Day draws closer, the GOP senator will almost certainly want to maximize the electoral effects of his efforts.
But if Johnson believes his partisan findings will be seen as credible, independent, and above-board, he's likely to be disappointed.