Sen. Ron Johnson wouldn’t appear to be one of President Donald Trump’s closest allies at first glance.
The Wisconsin Republican doesn’t flood the airwaves to defend the president. He isn’t a fixture in the conservative media world, and he hasn’t seen his political stock boosted by a barrage of tweets and retweets from the president. In 2018, he even criticized Trump’s mix of tariffs and bailouts as a “Soviet-style economy.”
But Johnson, chairman of the Senate’s chief oversight body, is playing a major role in advancing a key theme of the president’s reelection bid — that he and his associates were targeted unfairly by the outgoing Obama administration.
He is also investigating corruption allegations involving Hunter Biden, son of the presumtive Democratic presidential nominee, stemming from the younger Biden’s role on the board of the Ukrainian gas company Burisma. Trump and congressional Republicans have claimed the former vice president sought to shield his son from a Ukrainian-led investigation into Burisma — though Biden denies the allegation.
In both instances, Democrats have accused Johnson of abusing his power, misusing the Senate’s oversight resources to boost Trump’s political prospects and even operating a Russian disinformation front that jeopardizes U.S. election security — all serious allegations, even in today’s hyperpartisan Senate. But Johnson insists it’s just the opposite.
“I’m a very nonpartisan guy. I just am,” Johnson said in an interview. “I like using the word nonpartisan.”
Privately, Senate Republicans are worried that the efforts to relitigate the Russia investigation and the events of 2016 could backfire, according to a GOP senator who was granted anonymity to candidly address the situation. Republicans are especially concerned about the perception that their priorities are not in order as the country is reeling from the coronavirus pandemic, staggeringly high unemployment and unrest over recent police killings of unarmed African Americans.
Despite the partisan tensions and intensifying harshness of the disputes, Johnson is unfazed by the criticism — even as he increasingly finds himself on defense.
“I’m not doing anybody’s bidding,” said Johnson, who has chaired the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee since 2015. “I am doing this because I’m concerned about this democracy, and I’m concerned about what happened starting before the election, during the transition, and what continued certainly through the impeachment trial.”
According to Johnson, the Homeland Security panel’s probe has uncovered information that shows the incoming Trump administration was “sabotaged” by the outgoing Obama team. Johnson portrays his investigation as an honest effort to find the truth and reform the presidential transition process to ensure a peaceful transition of power.
“I’m just a straight shooter. I call them as I see them,” he said.
Democrats contend that’s far from the truth. They note that Johnson intends to release reports in the summer and the fall on his twin investigations, which would thrust the issues back into the spotlight as Election Day nears. They also point to his comments earlier this year in which he said former Vice President Joe Biden “has not adequately answered” for his son’s role on the board of a Ukrainian energy company, adding: “If I were a Democrat primary voter, I’d want these questions satisfactorily answered before I cast my final vote.”
And after Johnson released a declassified list of former Obama administration officials who potentially “unmasked” former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s name in intelligence reports, the Trump campaign seized on the fact that Joe Biden’s name was on the list — even as Biden’s precise involvement was not clear.
“We’re in the middle of a pandemic and a peaceful uprising against police brutality, and [Johnson is] running errands for the Republican National Committee,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) said in a brief interview. “And it’s a misuse of his position.”
Minutes later, Schatz ran into Johnson outside the Senate chamber and told him: “Hey Ron, somebody asked me about your investigations and I wasn’t that nice.” Johnson laughed and replied, “That’s OK.”
Johnson later dismissed the interaction as being representative of the “collegial” nature of the Senate. But it also underscored the reality of how investigations into Trump’s political enemies that began after the Senate’s impeachment trial have been gripping the body ever since.
As he defended himself, Johnson contended that Democrats are simply “afraid of the truth.”
“Anybody that could take a look at what we already know and say, well we should just close our eyes and ears to this, let’s stop looking at this — I would say doesn’t really care about the fact that the transition was corrupted,” Johnson said.
“I’m just tenacious. I’m dedicated to getting the information,” he added. “And the question I have for my Democratic colleagues — what are you afraid of? What part of the truth that I hope we can reveal are you worried about?”
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 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 trod 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 him 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 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 whether Johnson is doing a good job, he declined to answer.
In recent days, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has dubbed the GOP the “conspiracy caucus” over its election year investigations, arguing that Republicans are more consumed with helping Trump get reelected than working to solve the country’s problems.
Rank-and-file Democrats have largely echoed that message, though some Democrats are privately frustrated that the party has not responded to the investigations more substantively. But Schatz suggested that it might not be breaking through the partisan jabs, which have become increasingly vitriolic.
“Let me just be as crystal clear as I can — nobody cares. I don’t think the public is paying any attention to this,” an animated Schatz said. “This is a fool’s errand for them, and my response is: ‘Meh.’”
Burgess Everett contributed to this report.