It was four months ago when the public first learned about Sen. Ron Johnson’s role in trying to deliver fake elector materials to then-Vice President Mike Pence on Jan. 6. The Wisconsin Republican stumbled badly when trying to explain what happened — many of us won’t soon forget how embarrassing it was to see him pretend to be on the phone when pressed for answers — and the mess raised questions anew about the merits of his congressional service.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s editorial board told readers in June, “Johnson has proven by his past actions that he isn’t fit to be a U.S. senator. This latest episode only makes that more clear.”
In the weeks and months that followed, the GOP incumbent has struggled to get his facts straight. In August, for example, Johnson told WISN in Milwaukee that he would not cooperate with the Jan. 6 investigation. “I had, like, virtually no involvement,” he said. “Literally, my involvement lasted seconds.”
Yesterday, as NBC News reported, the senator’s story changed a little more, acknowledging that he exchanged text messages with one of Donald Trump’s attorneys before and after Johnson’s staff tried to deliver a package Pence on Jan. 6.
“[T]he entire episode lasted about an hour,” Johnson added.
And while none of those comments did the Republican any favors, the senator went on to add some fresh thoughts about the Jan. 6 attack itself. From the NBC News report:
“To call what happened on Jan. 6 an ‘armed insurrection,’ I just think it’s inaccurate,” he said. “I’m sorry — that’s not what an armed insurrection would look like.” Johnson argued that few weapons were confiscated but that protesters “did teach us how you can use a flag pole.”
Second, the idea that the rioters taught Americans how to “use a flag pole” is utterly bizarre, given the violent ways insurrectionists used flag poles and related materials to attack law enforcement officials.
But stepping back, there’s also a big picture to consider. As part of Johnson’s re-election campaign in Wisconsin, the Republican incumbent is heavily invested in attacking his Democratic challenger, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, as being “soft on crime.”
It’s against that backdrop that Johnson himself, at least when it comes to Jan. 6 violence, is proving himself to be surprisingly soft on crime.
Circling back to our earlier coverage, it was in May 2021 when the Wisconsinite argued that the violent riot was a largely “peaceful protest,” which was obviously absurd. Two months earlier, he insisted there “was no violence” on the north side of the Capitol during the Jan. 6 attack — a claim that was quickly discredited.
Two weeks earlier, the senator praised the rioters’ patriotism and boasted that he was never concerned for his safety on Jan. 6 — though he added he would’ve felt differently if the mob was made up of Black Lives Matter protesters.
That came on the heels of Johnson appearing at a Senate hearing, reading an item from a right-wing blog, and peddling the ridiculous idea that the pro-Trump forces that launched the attack on the Capitol secretly included “fake Trump protesters.” He pushed related conspiracy theories about the FBI and Jan. 6.
Johnson, who has an incentive to appear mainstream ahead of his re-election bid, is now nevertheless downplaying the seriousness of the attack on the Capitol.
The more the Wisconsin race comes down to which candidate takes crime more seriously, the more the Republican incumbent should explain his apparent indifference to one of the biggest violent crimes in modern American history.