U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson confirmed this week that the FBI warned him in August he was the target of Russian disinformation U.S. intelligence officials believe the foreign adversary was using to promote its interests in the lead-up to the November presidential election.
But Johnson, who confirmed to The Washington Post this week he received such a warning, said he disregarded it due to a lack of evidence provided by intelligence officials.
“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. “I asked the briefers what specific evidence they had regarding this warning, and they could not provide me anything other than the generalized warning. Without specific information, I felt the briefing was completely useless and unnecessary (since I was fully aware of the dangers of Russian disinformation).
“Because there was no substance to the briefing, and because it followed the production and leaking of a false intelligence product by Democrat leaders, 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.”
The warning was known as a “defensive briefing,” which are given to people to alert them they are being targeted by foreign governments for harmful purposes, according to the Post. Johnson told the newspaper that he did not view the FBI meeting as a “defensive briefing” on his probe into the Biden family’s foreign business activities.
Johnson, who served as chair of the Senate committee on homeland security, oversaw the committee’s investigation into President Joe Biden’s son Hunter’s role with a Ukrainian energy company while Biden was vice president. The final report, issued before the November presidential election, found no evidence that Hunter’s role affected U.S. policy.
Not the first time
His confirmation of receiving such a warning isn’t the first time Johnson, R-Oshkosh, has been swept up in news about Russian disinformation campaigns. In 2019, The Washington Post reported Johnson met with a former Ukrainian diplomat, Andriy Telizhenko, that summer to discuss unsubstantiated claims that Ukraine aided Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign for the presidency.
Telizhenko told the Washington Post he met with Johnson for at least half an hour on Capitol Hill and with Senate staff for another five hours. He said Johnson invited him to meet. The meeting purportedly occurred on July 11, according to a photograph taken of the two posted to Telizhenko’s Facebook page.
That was about two weeks before former President Donald Trump’s phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in which Trump told Zelensky he wanted him to do a “favor” and investigate Joe Biden. That phone call eventually led to Trump’s first impeachment.
According to The Washington Post, U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, claimed Johnson wanted to “give credibility” to disinformation advanced by Telizhenko and Andriy Derkach, a Ukrainian politician accused by the Treasury Department of having been an active Russian agent, for the purpose of helping Trump’s reelection campaign. Johnson has pushed back against that claim, and said his staff vetted the reliability of Telizhenko’s information.
A Johnson spokesperson shared a report by the homeland security committee he chaired that found it was “impossible” Derkach’s efforts could have shaped the committee’s investigation into Hunter Biden. The report also noted the FBI had provided assurances there was no reason the committee should not continue its investigation.
Telizhenko also met several times with former Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani, according to The Washington Post. The FBI recently seized Giuliani’s cellphone as part of a criminal investigation into whether he acted as an unregistered foreign agent.
According to the Post, the warning to Johnson was part of an effort by intelligence officials to tell members of Congress that they risked being used in Russia’s attempt to influence the 2020 presidential election. The FBI planned to inform Giuliani and at least one conservative news outlet of the disinformation campaign, according to the Post, but both denied being contacted.
Editor's note: This story was updated to reflect a correction in The Washington Post story. The Post retracted its report that Giuliani and a conservative news outlet had been contacted by the FBI.
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