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Ron Johnson takes Hunter Biden-laptop-whataboutism to new heights

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) can be relied upon for impassioned commentary on whatever fever is gripping the American right at any given moment — commentary that frequently spurs quick corrections in objective news coverage. Johnson has been on the excited-but-wrong side of identifying those responsible for the Capitol riot, coronavirus vaccines and voter fraud, among other things.

On Sunday, Johnson repeated this pattern. Speaking to radio host (and sometimes political candidate) John Catsimatidis, the senator declared that one particular response to the October 2020 stories about a purported laptop belonging to Joe Biden’s son Hunter was more electorally influential than any foreign interference.

This assertion is ridiculous. It is also revealing.

At issue is a letter signed by several dozen past and current members of the intelligence community. It asserted that the release of the laptop — in practice, a collection of files held on an external hard drive — bore the fingerprints of a Russian intelligence operation.

Johnson, citing an interview of former acting CIA director Mike Morell conducted by Republican-controlled House committees, asserted that Morell had instigated the letter at the behest of Biden’s presidential campaign.

“The Biden campaign contacted Michael Morell, former CIA official, to have him engineer the letter written by 51 former intelligence officials without any evidence whatsoever,” Johnson said, before going on to assert that the intelligence community knew the laptop was real.

“They wrote a letter to interfere in our election to a far greater extent than anything China or Russia ever could hope to do, claiming that laptop had all the earmarks of Russian disinformation or a Russian information campaign,” Johnson said. “That letter was an information campaign and, again, had far greater impact on our election than anything any foreign adversary could ever undertake.”

This assertion about Morell emerged last week after Ohio Reps. Jim Jordan (R) and Michael R. Turner (R) published a letter detailing the interview. But, as The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake explained Friday, Johnson’s presentation is wrong. There’s no evidence that the campaign asked Morell to write any such letter; in fact, he denied during his interview that he had been asked to do so.

But again, Johnson goes further. His assertion isn’t simply that Morell was asked to develop a response that aided the campaign. It’s not only that such an action would be nefarious had it occurred, despite being fairly standard operating procedure for a campaign. (Peruse any campaign website after some bad news emerges and you’ll see a slew of allies rebutting parts of the argument.) It’s that this act, this letter, was a level of interference surpassing what foreign actors might do to influence voting — the most notable of which was Russia’s effort in 2016.

At its heart, this implies that the letter was influential, which is not a fair implication.

You’ll remember that the original laptop story itself centered on an email recovered from the cache of documents alleging that Biden might have met with a foreign business partner of Hunter Biden’s. Social media companies, including Twitter, limited the sharing of the article precisely because they worried that it might be a foreign interference effort. That limitation might have boosted awareness of the story. But at the end of the day, an unproven allegation about Biden’s activity while out of office was almost certainly not going to undercut the central reason Trump lost: Trump was deeply polarizing and millions of people turned out to vote him out of office.

But Johnson’s not even alleging that the story itself was influential. He’s arguing that this letter was. And that’s even less defensible. After all, concerns about the provenance of the data from the laptop emerged almost immediately, as the Twitter muting demonstrates. The country had been through this in 2016 with the theft of thousands of emails from a top Hillary Clinton aide that were released by WikiLeaks in tranches in the weeks before the election. Here was some derogatory digital information appearing out of the blue, transmitted to the New York Post by none other than Rudy Giuliani, the guy who had been known to be conspiring with a guy Trump’s own Treasury Department sanctioned as a Russian agent.

The New York Post story published on Oct. 14. The letter from the intelligence officials didn’t come out until Oct. 19, even after Twitter had restored the ability for users to share the original Post story. In other words, while the letter Morell helped craft did serve as a point of validation for some people (including Biden), the argument it presented was already established and the story it hoped to neuter was already in the conversation.

What’s more, the letter didn’t obviously dampen discussion of the story. While Fox News was in heavy rotation on the laptop story — and when it came out, disparagement of the letter — neither CNN nor MSNBC paid a lot of attention to either. Both had dedicated much more of their coverage to the WikiLeaks releases in 2016 than to the laptop story in 2020.

Those things are probably related. That so much attention was paid to the WikiLeaks releases — disproportionate attention — and that this was in service to a foreign effort to boost Trump made all parties wary even before the laptop story came out: media, the government and social media companies. Then here comes Giuliani with his files, files he wouldn’t provide to outlets like The Washington Post to validate.

Clinton’s 2016 loss was narrow enough that lots of things might be identified as proximate causes, the WikiLeaks releases among them. In other words, one can credibly argue that the Russian interference effort worked — something you can’t credibly argue about the laptop letter and Trump’s 7-million-ballot popular-vote loss four years later.

The reason Johnson draws this line, though, is to blur that distinction. Trump wants the world to believe that he won both elections on the merits, so he has worked hard to downplay Russia’s 2016 efforts and to overplay the importance of the reaction to the laptop stories. Since Trump is making these arguments, the base expects to hear them from other Republicans, and so complicated tiers of rhetoric are created to accommodate that demand.

Johnson’s just adding another tier.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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