On the last day of Donald Trump's impeachment trial, Michael van der Veen made an obvious point in passing. "The question before us is not whether there was a violent insurrection of the Capitol," the Republican's lawyer told senators. "On that point, everyone agrees."
Well, perhaps not everyone. As the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), the former chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, "toured the state's airwaves on Monday," questioning the seriousness of the deadly attack.
"This didn't seem like an armed insurrection to me," the Oshkosh Republican said in an interview on WISN-AM with conservative talk radio show host Jay Weber, after condemning the events at the U.S. Capitol that day. "I mean 'armed,' when you hear 'armed,' don't you think of firearms?"
The Wisconsin Republican went to say yesterday, "If that was a planned armed insurrection, man, you had really a bunch of idiots." In a separate interview, Johnson added that he considers it "absurd" that the rioters were prepared to capture elected officials and he was "literally never afraid" during the violence.
"An armed insurrection? No," Johnson told WTAQ in Wisconsin.
Let's take a minute to unpack this, because while I tend not to expect much from Ron Johnson, this is extraordinary, even for him.
Right off the bat, the point of the GOP senator's comments is bizarre: Johnson's apparent goal was to downplay the significance of a deadly attack on the heart of the United States' government. Violent insurrectionists killed a police officer, left others badly maimed and injured, and hunted elected officials inside the Capitol, with some literally chanting their intention to "hang" the vice president.
It's against this backdrop that Johnson's instincts apparently told him it'd be a good idea to publicly downplay the importance of the most serious attack on his own country's Capitol since 1814.
Just as importantly, while the Wisconsin senator seems uncertain about whether the rioters were, in fact, "armed," the Washington Post reported that the pro-Trump mob "battered police with a multitude of weapons: metal flagpoles, baseball bats, wrenches and clubs." The article added, "In court filings, officials have said that guns, bombs, stun guns and other weapons were seized from rioters, the Associated Press reported. Fourteen people face charges related to bringing weapons to the riots, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, including an Alabama man who allegedly had an arsenal in his truck and a Maryland man who police say stormed the Capitol with a gun, multiple magazines and a bulletproof vest."
If Johnson wants to parse the meaning of the word "armed," it's a linguistic dispute he's going to lose.
Indeed, let's not forget the fact that when lawmakers agreed to honor Officer Eugene Goodman with a Congressional Gold Medal, the measure literally referenced the fact that on Jan. 6, "the United States Capitol Building was attacked by armed insurrectionists."
No one objected to the language, though Ron Johnson now seems to be hedging on whether the rioters fully satisfied his definition of "armed."
Finally, the Wisconsin State Journal reported that the Republican senator also said publicly that the entire, bipartisan impeachment process may have been "a 'diversionary operation' by Democrats to distract from security lapses at the U.S. Capitol."
Yes, the GOP senator apparently wasn't altogether impressed by the Jan. 6 attack, but he is interested in anti-Pelosi conspiracy theories related to the pro-Trump mob.
By any fair measure, 2020 was a difficult year for Ron Johnson, and the damage he did to his reputation and credibility is irreparable. But as 2021 gets underway in earnest, he seems eager to make matters just a little worse.