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Sen. Ron Johnson downplays Jan. 6: ‘Not what an armed insurrection would look like’

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) at a committee hearing last month. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

Sen. Ron Johnson on Tuesday again downplayed the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection, in which a pro-Trump mob stormed the U.S. Capitol seeking to stop the certification of Joe Biden’s electoral win.

In remarks to the Milwaukee Rotary Club on Tuesday morning, the Wisconsin Republican argued that it was inaccurate to call the attack an “armed insurrection,” because there were no firearms seized from the Capitol that day, despite plenty of evidence of firearms in the crowd.

“The ‘armed insurrectionists’ stayed within the rope lines in the Rotunda,” Johnson added, making air-quote gestures with his fingers. “I’m sorry — that’s not what an armed insurrection would look like. I don’t think they’d be able to reopen Congress about six hours later and complete the counting of electoral votes if there literally had been an ‘armed insurrection.’ So again, I realize that term has been used to inflame the situation.”

Johnson did not mention that many rioters went beyond the rope lines, ransacking congressional offices, damaging sculptures and art, and causing about $1.5 million worth of damage. At the insistence of top lawmakers, Congress reconvened about six hours after the attack, despite there still being shattered glass, broken furniture and what a spokesperson for the Committee on House Administration called “corrosive gas agent residue.” Rep. Andy Kim (D-N.J.) said there was “garbage and debris everywhere.”

The attack on the Capitol also left five people dead, including a police officer and a woman shot by police. Two other officers who were on duty that day later died by suicide.

Johnson’s comments Tuesday were swiftly condemned by several Democratic lawmakers and at least one member of the Biden administration.

“Ron Johnson continues to downplay the violence of Jan 6, glossing over how the mob seriously wounded police officers,” tweeted Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.). “January 6 was a deadly attempt to overturn the election. To call it anything else is a disservice to the brave men & women who protected our democracy that day.”

“It WAS an armed insurrection,” tweeted former Republican congressman Joe Walsh, who has since left the GOP. “@RonJohnsonWI is wrong. And in November, the people of Wisconsin should tell him he’s wrong.”

Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes (D), who is running for Senate against Johnson, tweeted that his opponent is “still covering for the Jan. 6 insurrectionists.”

“This is NOT who we are or what we stand for in Wisconsin,” Barnes tweeted. “It’s time to vote him out.”

Johnson also said Tuesday that “protesters did teach us all how you can use flagpoles, that kind of stuff, as weapons.” In video of the Jan. 6 attack, law enforcement officers outside the Capitol were shown being harassed, beaten and sprayed with gas substances by members of the mob. One of the Capitol Police officers who responded that day, Caroline Edwards, said she was struck in the head with a bike rack. She later described the scene as “carnage,” recalling how officers were on the ground, bleeding and throwing up. In one video from the attack, a rioter can be seen bashing a fallen police officer with a pole flying the American flag.

On the morning of Jan. 6, there were signs of the violence to come even before thousands of former president Donald Trump loyalists besieged the U.S. Capitol. (Video: Joy Yi, Kate Woodsome/The Washington Post, Photo: John Minchillo/AP/The Washington Post)

“You mean the January 6th attackers ‘did teach us how you can use a flag pole’ to brutally beat police officers, @SenRonJohnson?” deputy White House press secretary Andrew Bates tweeted Tuesday in response to Johnson’s remarks.

In a statement, Johnson’s office claimed that the senator had said “summer protesters,” not “some of the protesters,” and that he had been referring to people protesting the killing of George Floyd in the summer of 2020.

“This clip is completely and deceptively taken out of context to push a political narrative,” Johnson spokeswoman Alexa Henning said in an email. “He acknowledges the left-wing rioters know how to use flagpoles and other metal objects and water bottles as weapons. But there is a distinction between that and an armed insurrection.”

Johnson was “in no way condoning this action,” Henning added.

This is not the first time Johnson has downplayed the severity of the Jan. 6 attack. Several Democrats last year called on Johnson to step down after he said on a conservative radio show that the Capitol rioters hadn’t scared him — but that they might have had they been Black Lives Matter protesters. On Tuesday, Johnson reiterated part of those sentiments.

“I did say I was never afraid on Jan. 6 because it’s true,” Johnson said. “I was in the Senate chamber. They closed the doors. My assumption was that a couple of crazy people got by security. … About five, 10 minutes later they opened up the door and said go back to your office. And I went back to my office and then I saw the violence.”

During the Oath Keepers' sedition trial on Oct. 3, a U.S. prosecutor told the jury the extremist members planned “to shatter a bedrock of American democracy.” (Video: Reuters)

Johnson’s comments came as a trial began this week for several members of the extremist Oath Keepers group who allegedly traveled to Washington and staged firearms near the Capitol before forcing entry through the Capitol Rotunda doors in combat and tactical gear in the Jan. 6 attack. Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes and four co-defendants face seditious conspiracy and other charges; they have pleaded not guilty to felony charges alleging that they conspired for weeks after the 2020 presidential election to unleash political violence to oppose the lawful transfer of power to Biden.

Spencer S. Hsu, Tom Jackman and Rachel Weiner contributed to this report.

The Jan. 6 insurrection

The report: The Jan. 6 committee released its final report, marking the culmination of an 18-month investigation into the violent insurrection. Read The Post’s analysis about the committee’s new findings and conclusions.

The final hearing: The House committee investigating the attack on the U.S. Capitol held its final public meeting where members referred four criminal charges against former president Donald Trump and others to the Justice Department. Here’s what the criminal referrals mean.

The riot: On Jan. 6, 2021, a pro-Trump mob stormed the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to stop the certification of the 2020 election results. Five people died on that day or in the immediate aftermath, and 140 police officers were assaulted.

Inside the siege: During the rampage, rioters came perilously close to penetrating the inner sanctums of the building while lawmakers were still there, including former vice president Mike Pence. The Washington Post examined text messages, photos and videos to create a video timeline of what happened on Jan. 6. Here’s what we know about what Trump did on Jan. 6.

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