How Sen. Ron Johnson’s Investigation Became an Enabler of Russian Disinformation: Part I

Part II of this two-part series is now available here.

 

Senator Ron Johnson’s investigations involving Ukraine have become a conduit of Russian disinformation.

Earlier this month, Johnson defended himself on a local Wisconsin news station saying, “What have I published, what have I reported on, that is not true, that is any form of Russian disinformation? There has been nothing.” Similarly, in his 11-page letter, Johnson asserted, “It is neither me, Chairman Grassley, nor our committees that are being used to disseminate Russian disinformation.”

The senator surely knows better, and his 11-page defense of his actions reveals it. Published on Monday, Aug. 10, the letter itself contains apparent products of Russian disinformation. And while Johnson denies taking information directly from two specific Ukrainians linked to Russia and its disinformation efforts, he makes no mention of his staff taking information directly from one of those individuals’ principal collaborators, which  reportedly occurred over the course of several months.

Fellow Republican Senators — including the previous and current Chairs of the Senate Intelligence Committee Sens. Richard Burr and Marco Rubio — have warned Senators Johnson and Chuck Grassley that their Ukraine investigations could aid the Kremlin. Johnson and Grassley appear committed to going further down that path regardless, taking some of their Republican colleagues down with him.

We provide a roadmap for understanding this disinformation operation currently in progress, using U.S. elected officials as a vehicle.

Key Players in the Russian Disinformation Campaign

1. Senator Ron Johnson, Republican of Wisconsin, Chair of Senate Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs Committee

2. Senator Chuck Grassley, Republican of Iowa, Chair of Senate Committee on Finance

3. Senator Richard Burr, Republican of North Carolina, Chair of Senate Intelligence Committee (Jan. 2015 – May 2020)

4. Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, Chair of Senate Intelligence Committee (May 2020-present)

5. Rudy Guiliani, Donald Trump’s personal attorney

6. Andrii Derkach, a pro-Russian Ukrainian lawmaker, identified by U.S. intelligence as running a disinformation campaign in conjunction with the Kremlin to damage Biden’s candidacy in support of Trump in the 2020 election

7. Andrii Telizhenko, former Ukrainian diplomatic aide; reportedly identified by the FBI as a conduit for Russian disinformation to damage Biden in the 2020 election

8. Oleksandr Onyshchenko, former pro-Russian lawmaker, spreading disinformation about Biden in 2020 election

9. Ken Vogel, journalist, previously at Politico, now at New York Times

10. John Solomon, journalist/commentator, previously at The Hill

Russia’s many paths to Sen. Johnson

There are three channels of Russian disinformation that have apparently affected Sen. Johnson’s Ukraine-related investigations.

Channel 1. Russian-linked Ukrainian operatives communicating directly with Sen. Johnson and his staff.

Channel 2. Russian-linked Ukrainian operatives spreading disinformation via media outlets, which have been picked up and expressly relied upon by Sen. Johnson.

Channel 3. Russian-linked Ukrainian operatives providing information via “Team [Rudy] Giuliani.”

In this piece, we will discuss the first two channels together because of how they relate to Johnson’s 11-page denial.

Before doing so, let’s fairly quickly dispatch with the two Ukraine-related conspiracy theories that Sen. Johnson is “investigating.” These are both conspiracies that have reportedly been advanced as part of the Kremlin’s disinformation campaign via Russia-linked Ukrainian operatives.

Debunked Conspiracy Theories Involving Ukraine

1. The Ukraine Election Interference Theory

Johnson’s investigations include a conspiracy theory that Ukraine was involved in election interference in 2016 to defeat Trump, an idea that emanates in large part from an article by Kenneth Vogel in Politico in January 2017. The main thrust of the somewhat circuitous article is that Ukrainian officials were working with the DNC to promote Hillary Clinton.* This bold claim appears to be almost entirely sourced by one person: Andrii Telizhenko. (More on him, below)

Since its publication over three years ago, Vogel’s account has been debunked by several outlets, including fact checks by the Associated Press, BBC, Washington Post (here, here, here), and the New York Times (where Vogel is now a reporter). Even Politico has backtracked on Vogel’s reporting, as others have observed. Nearly two years after his article appeared, Politico reported, “No evidence has emerged to support that idea.”**

In addition, during the impeachment hearings, current and former senior US officials debunked the conspiracy theory involving Ukraine and the 2016 election, under oath. That includes the State Department’s top Ukraine expert George Kent (“no factual basis”), Fiona Hill (“a fiction”), Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman (“I am, frankly, unaware of any authoritative basis for Ukrainian interference in 2016 elections”), Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch (“those elements that you’ve recited don’t seem to me to be the … kind of a plan or a plot of the Ukrainian government to work against President Trump”), and David Hale (in Senate hearings in Dec. 2019 saying he is not aware of any evidence that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election).

2. The Biden-Burisma Conspiracy

A second conspiracy theory under investigation by Johnson’s Committee involves allegations that Vice President Biden helped sack a Ukraine prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, to benefit Burisma, a firm associated with Biden’s son. Shokin was fired at the request of then-Vice President Biden, who did so with the knowledge and backing of President Obama, members of the U.S. Congress (including Sen. Ron Johnson), and the European Union, all of whom had deemed Shokin too corrupt to promote rule of law reforms that were a condition of U.S. aid. Indeed, the US team explicitly pressured the prosecutor’s office because it had blocked UK and Ukrainian investigations of Burisma.

The claim that the policy stance taken by Biden against Shokin was to benefit Biden’s son is without merit. This claim has been widely debunked by independent fact checkers including PolitiFact, FactCheck, Axios, and several others. During the impeachment hearings, current and former senior U.S. officials also directly debunked the conspiracy theory, including Kent and the Republicans’ witness Ambassador Kurt Volker.

Channels 1 and 2: Russian Disinformation and Johnson’s 11-Page Defense

But let’s focus on Vogel’s Jan. 17 report as a primary example of the first two channels of Russian disinformation. Specifically, let’s focus on Vogel’s primary source for his reporting, Andrii Telizhenko. Who is he?

Telizhenko is a Ukrainian national and former political officer in the Ukrainian Embassy in DC. He has since founded a political consulting firm based in Canada.

In March 2020, the FBI specifically alerted Sen. Johnson and his committee about the counterintelligence threat posed by Telizhenko. According to the New York Times and Politico, the FBI “warned lawmakers in a briefing that it had concerns that Mr. Telizhenko was a conduit for Russian disinformation about the Bidens and claims that Ukraine conspired to help Democrats in the 2016 election,” the Times wrote.

This means that the main “evidence” upon which Johnson relies in making his case — Vogel’s 2017 article — is itself a potential product of disinformation. One would think these warnings would have deterred Johnson, who had to be “pressured” by Republican and Democratic Senators to drop a scheduled vote to subpoena Telizhenko. This was not Johnson’s first warning, as we note in the postscript to this article.

What’s remarkable about Johnson’s Aug. 10 letter is, instead, its explicit reliance — twice in the document– on Vogel’s January 2017 Politico article followed by Johnson’s statement: “What I have provided above is an accurate history … None of it is Russian disinformation.” Casual followers of Johnson may wonder whether he is oblivious or disingenuous as to how he is amplifying Russian disinformation by continuing to champion Vogel’s article.

But there’s reason to believe the senator is not unwitting. In fact, it appears that Telizhenko himself is now one of Johnson’s sources.

After first taking interest in the Politico article which quotes Telizhenko at length, Sen. Johnson personally met with Telizhenko as captured in a photograph that Telizhenko posted on social media in July 2019. Johnson’s staff then met with the Ukrainian for over five hours, according to Telizhenko. An individual close to Johnson confirmed the meeting with committee staff. Telizhenko told Politico that he continued to remain in contact with the committee’s investigators and sent them documents well into 2020. The New York Times also reported that “staff members for the committee have been working with Mr. Telizhenko for months, interviewing him and collecting documents to bolster two separate investigations into subjects that could help President Trump as he heads into a re-election campaign in which Mr. Biden has emerged as his leading Democratic challenger.”

In other letters signed by Johnson, he has not only referred to Vogel’s report but also referred to Telizhenko by name while recounting, at great length, specific allegations the Ukrainian operative made in Vogel’s report. In Sept. 2019, Johnson sent a letter to Attorney General Barr referring to Telizhenko by name three times. In Nov. 2019, Johnson sent a letter to the National Archives which referred to Telizhenko by name four times. In the 11-page letter in defense of his actions, Johnson refers only to Vogel’s report, but Telizhenko’s name is conspicuously absent.

In sum, both Channel 1 and 2 have been in operation, and Johnson must surely be aware of that now. If he isn’t, he may be even more of a threat to his Republican colleagues and to the national security interests of the United States.

In addition to his series of letters relying on Telizhenko and the near miss of the proposed subpoena of the Telizhenko, Johnson has repeated Kremlin talking points in his television appearances. During the impeachment hearings, the senator said President Trump’s concerns were valid. “There’s all kinds of smoke about Hillary Clinton’s campaign, the DNC being involved in the 2016 election,” he told Fox News’ host Mark Levin on Oct. 21, 2019. On Meet the Press that same month, Johnson said Trump had “very legitimate concerns” about Ukraine interference in the 2016 election and went on to describe “pretty good investigative reporting” by Ken Vogel and The Hill’s John Solomon.

(Sens. Johnsons and Grassley have referred to Solomon’s articles alongside Vogel’s Politico report in their letters to Attorney General Barr and to the National Archive, including one with Solomon’s interview of Telizhenko and other Russian-linked Ukrainian operatives. Solomon’s reporting has been widely discredited, and has resulted in editors’ notes retroactively affixed to several of his articles in The Hill.)

In his letter this week, Sen. Johnson wrote that Vogel’s “article was largely ignored by the mainstream media.” That’s also false. The media focused intensely on Vogel’s allegations, fact checked them, and found them false. Sen. Johnson knows this too. In his Meet the Press interview, he came to Vogel’s defense saying the journalist has been “pilloried” for the article.

What’s astonishing is that Johnson is not ashamed to rely on the Vogel article at this point in time. “The Politico article was published nearly two years ago, and it’s revealing that Johnson still is quoting from it,” the Washington Post’s highly-respected fact checker Glenn Kessler observed at one point in this saga. Telizhenko “has never released any documents or other proof of his allegations,” NBC News observed in Dec. 2019. It’s now over three years since Vogel’s article, and the FBI has warned the senator had his staff that a major source of the article is a conduit for Russian disinformation. Yet, Sen. Johnson saw fit to rely on the article in his letter this week.

Channel 3: Giuliani and the Senators

According to in-depth reports Telizhenko, along with two Russian-linked operatives, Oleksandr Onyshchenko and Andrii Derkach — have been working as “collaborators” in conjunction with Rudy Giuliani. Collectively, they comprise, “Team Giuliani,” Onyshchenko said in an interview. Onyshchenko and Derkach each said in interviews that they provided information to Sen. Johnson’s committee, but Johnson denies it. But this specific denial is something of a ruse.

In a world of cutouts and intermediaries, it is beside the point whether Derkach and Onyshchenko provided the information directly to Johnson, or one of the other principals in their group—Telizhenko, who has reportedly been working with Johnson’s staff for months—did so.

This is especially damning given that Derkach has been identified by William R. Evanina the Director of the United States National Counterintelligence and Security Center, as part of the Kremlin’s interference campaign in the 2020 election. “Pro-Russia Ukrainian parliamentarian Andriy Derkach is spreading claims about corruption – including through publicizing leaked phone calls – to undermine former Vice President Biden’s candidacy and the Democratic Party,” the director said in a statement issued on Friday describing Russia’s operations.

Team Giuliani has been active for months. Most incriminating, Giuliani has said that Derkach has been “very helpful” and the president’s attorney admitted they have talked many times about Ukraine. A main topic for their meeting in Kyiv in Dec. 5, 2019 was the creation of an “interparliamentary” group against corruption, Derkach said on Facebook. What exactly does that mean? The U.S. counterpart to the interparliamentary group includes Republican Senators Johnson and Grassley according to Derkach, who told Politico he sent anti-Biden materials to them and other lawmakers as part of the initiative he discussed with Giuliani.

Upon returning from his December trip to Kyiv, Giuliani told the Wall Street Journal that “Trump instructed him to brief the attorney general and Republican lawmakers” and that “he has been in contact with several Republican lawmakers.” The Journal added, “Moments later, Mr. Trump told reporters at the White House that his lawyer would deliver a report to the Justice Department and Congress.”

“Rudy Giuliani is acting as a conduit for a group of Ukrainians with ties to Russia who appear to be trying to feed questionable information to Johnson,” the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent and Paul Waldman recently wrote.

The Wall Street Journal also reported that Giuliani had “dispatched” Telizhenko in advance of his December trip “to gather information from politicians there and ask them to participate in [a] documentary series” about the Ukraine conspiracies. Telizhenko told NBC News that he traveled with Giuliani in Kyiv to help produce the documentary. Derkach participated in the documentary in an interview with Giuliani, which was produced by One American News Network.

At this point, the question of what to believe from the senator about taking information from the Ukrainian operatives is itself open for discussion. The Monday letter is part of ever-shifting, false denials, elusive and contradictory statements by Johnson and his staff that deserves its own analysis.

Post Script: Prior Warnings about Russian disinformation on Ukraine 

Finally, we want to end by saying a bit more about Sen. Johnson’s having been warned before and not heeding those warnings.

It did not require specific warnings in March 2020 about Telizhenko to have waived Johnson and other senators away from the conspiracies involving Ukraine.

In late October or November 2019, the FBI reportedly warned senators that the conspiracy alleging Ukraine interference in the 2016 election was part of a years-long campaign by the Kremlin. As for the Russian channels of spreading disinformation, the FBI reportedly explained that “Russian intelligence officers conveyed the information to prominent Russians and Ukrainians who then used a range of intermediaries, like oligarchs, businessmen and their associates, to pass the material to American political figures and even some journalists,” the New York Times reported.

On Nov. 21, 2019, in a powerful moment during the impeachment hearings, former senior White House official Fiona Hill directly explained how members of Congress’ perpetuating these narratives in defense of Trump enabled the Kremlin’s disinformation operations. On the conspiracy that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election, Hill said, “This is a fictional narrative that is being perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves.” “I would ask that you please not promote politically derivative falsehoods that so clearly advance Russian interests … we need to be very careful as we discuss all of these issues not to give them more fodder that they can use against us in 2020,” she stated in her prepared remarks.

It was in a Dec. 5, 2019 meeting that then-Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr privately told Johnson and Grassley that their investigation targeting Biden could aid Russian efforts.

Other experts on the Kremlin’s disinformation agree. “It’s in Russia’s interest to amplify this issue because it wants Ukraine to be undermined,” Nina Jankowicz, a disinformation expert at the nonpartisan Wilson Center, told the Associated Press earlier this year.

Part of the Kremlin’s effort is to drive a wedge between Ukraine and the United States, part is to sow political discord inside the United States, and another part is, as now confirmed publicly by the US intelligence community, to support Trump’s re-election bid. Johnson has enabled all three.

– – – – – – – – – – – – –

* Added on Sept. 8, 2020: This point deserves unpacking. In 2019, PolitiFact assessed, “The [Vogel] story does not say the DNC authorized Chalupa’s research or worked directly with either Ukraine’s government or the Clinton campaign. Our reporting has come to a similar conclusion.” And Politico’s Melissa Cooke defended the story telling PolitiFact, “The article did not state that the Ukrainian government conspired with the Clinton campaign or the DNC.” (For other statements by Politico’s staff in defense of the story, see here.) However, as we explain in Part 2, the story includes Telizhenko’s explosive statement that Ukrainian embassy officials “were coordinating an investigation with the Hillary team on Paul Manafort with Alexandra Chalupa.” On Jan.11, 2017, the day the story broke, Vogel tweeted, with a link to the story, “There’s NO PROOF Russia worked w Trump to hurt Clinton. There IS PROOF Ukraine worked w Clinton team to hurt Trump,” and also tweeted, “SCOOP: Ukrainian officials worked w/ DNC aide (below w/ Ukraine ambassador+Hillary confidant Verveer) on Trump oppo,” referring to an attached photograph. The story also reported, among other things, that Chalupa “with the DNC’s encouragement” asked Ukraine embassy staff to arrange an interview with President Poroshenko to discuss Manafort. The story included that claim to contrast with a former DNC staffer’s claiming, “We were not directing or driving her work on this.” See also the Washington Post’s analysis (“As a staff writer at Politico in early 2017, [Vogel] co-authored another piece that suggested that the Democratic National Committee had cooperated with Ukrainian efforts to thwart Republican candidate Donald Trump in the 2016 campaign.”).

All that said, as we note in part 2, Vogel also has a body of some of the most important journalism including breaking valuable stories on Russia-linked Ukrainian operatives and their work in the United States.

** Some of these fact checks are complicated because they not only address Vogel’s original story in Politico but also address right-wing commentators and some Republican politicians who have invoked the story to support wider claims not actually found in Vogel’s piece. That said, with respect to the Politico story, the fact checks dispute whether Ukraine officials interfered in the elections or may have tried to “sabotage” the Trump campaign by targeting Manafort with derogatory information (such as through a potentially fake ledger of undisclosed payments to Manafort from a pro-Russia party) [Associated Press; BBC; Washington Post, Oct. 8. 2019]; dispute the description of the involvement of the Ukrainian embassy or concerted Ukrainian actions (while acknowledging public commentaries such as Ukraine’s ambassador’s writing an op-ed) [BBC; Washington Post, Nov. 16, 2019; Washington Post, Dec. 3, 2019]; dispute relationships including exchanges of information between the Clinton campaign and Chalupa [Washington Post, Oct. 8. 2019; see also CNN]; dispute the framing of the story with respect to the DNC or other connections to the DNC [Washington Post, Oct. 8. 2019; Washington Post, Nov. 16, 2019].

Images: Rudy Giuliani and Andrii Derkach, in Kyiv, Ukraine Dec. 5, 2019 posted on Facebook (left); Andrii Telizhenko and Sen. Ron Johnson posted on Facebook, July 11, 2019 (center); Rudy Guiliani and Andrii Telizhenko posted on Facebook, July 18, 2020 (right)

 

About the Author(s)

Ryan Goodman

Co-Editor-in-Chief of Just Security, Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Professor of Law at New York University School of Law, former Special Counsel to the General Counsel of the Department of Defense (2015-2016). Follow him on Twitter (@rgoodlaw).

Asha Rangappa

Senior Lecturer at Yale’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. She served as an FBI counterintelligence agent from 2002 to 2005. Member of the editorial board of Just Security. Follow her on Twitter @AshaRangappa_.