Ron Johnson's investigations thrust freewheeling GOP senator into election-year spotlight

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Ron Johnson's investigations thrust freewheeling GOP senator into election-year spotlight

Johnson’s allies say his concerns are legitimate and require appropriate congressional oversight — an area in which Johnson has distinguished himself among conservatives, in particular during the saga over Hillary Clinton’s email server and the attack on a U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya. Both of those probes were led by Republicans.

“I think he’s genuinely upset about what happened,” said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who is conducting a similar investigation into the origins of the Russia investigation and the appointment of Robert Mueller as special counsel. “Now, how could you have Hunter Biden milking the most corrupt company in the Ukraine for millions of dollars while you’re trying to have, you know, Joe Biden there to reform corruption?”

“So I think [Johnson] is just sort of a good-government guy, and that’s driving his passion,” Graham added.

Graham also pushed back against the allegation that he and Johnson are simply doing Trump’s bidding, citing recent revelations that call into question the genesis of the counterintelligence investigation into alleged ties between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin.

“Nobody said that about me when I supported the Mueller investigation. I was a great guy,” Graham said. “Now that I want to know how it got so off the rails and got so corrupt, I’m shilling for Trump. Not gonna work.”

Trump has mentioned Johnson by name on Twitter just twice — both coming in the past two months, when the senator’s investigations intensified and gained new momentum. In one tweet, Trump wrote: “America is proud of Ron Johnson. He never gives up!”

Still, that’s a stark contrast to the number of times Trump regularly boosts his top House defenders on Twitter, including Reps. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) and Jim Jordan (R-Ohio).

But unlike Nunes and Jordan, Johnson has a committee gavel — and he’s using it in a way that is, wittingly or unwittingly, advancing the president’s political interests.

His role has also strained his relationship with Michigan Sen. Gary Peters, the Homeland Security Committee’s top Democrat. Peters, one of the most bipartisan senators, rarely engages in the types of spats that have overtaken the committee in recent weeks, but he has been forced into that role given his seniority on the panel. As a result, he has treaded carefully so as to not further inflame his relationship with Johnson.

“Certainly, I would say it is more difficult. But I’ve tried not to let that get in the way,” said Peters, who is up for reelection this year. “It makes no sense to me. We’re in the middle of a pandemic, dealing with a whole host of threats to our national security. That’s where we should be focused. Not on what basically looks like a political witch hunt.”

Even some of Johnson’s fellow Republican senators have put the Wisconsin Republican in an awkward spot by warning him — directly and indirectly — that the investigation itself could be a front for Russian disinformation.

Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who chaired the Senate Intelligence Committee until stepping aside last month amid a federal probe into his stock trades, privately warned Johnson in December that going after Hunter Biden could aid Russian efforts to sow chaos and distrust in the U.S. political system. Burr’s temporary replacement as chairman, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), has expressed similar concerns about Russian disinformation, though he has declined to specifically call out Johnson.

And the Intelligence Committee is notably in the dark about the investigations. “I just hope that, when all the facts come out, the committee’s not being unwittingly used by Russia,” Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), vice chairman of the Intelligence Committee, said in a brief interview.

Those tensions boiled over during a classified election security briefing in March, during which several Democratic senators confronted Johnson over his Biden investigation, POLITICO previously reported.

Johnson was accused of playing politics with national security and enabling a repeat of Russian interference in the presidential election, especially as he was initially relying on disputed pro-Russia Ukrainian sources of information. One of those sources, former Ukrainian diplomat Andrii Telizhenko, had leveled unsubstantiated allegations about coordination between the Ukrainian government and the Democratic National Committee during the 2016 campaign. Concerns over Telizhenko’s credibility prompted Johnson to scrap a scheduled subpoena vote for him in March.

And at least one committee member, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), said it’s “apparent on its face” that the Hunter Biden probe is politically motivated, given that the elder Biden is the Democratic presidential nominee. Romney chose his words carefully, declining to explain why he has voted for Johnson’s subpoena authorizations targeting former Obama officials despite his criticisms. When asked if Johnson is doing a good job, he declined to answer.

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