Questions about Sen. Ron Johnson’s role in the coup attempt have suddenly put the Wisconsin Republican at the center of the national story. Texts unearthed by the Jan. 6 select committee show a Johnson staffer trying to submit fake presidential electors during the congressional electoral count, in keeping with Donald Trump’s effort to cling to power illegitimately.
Johnson denies involvement, but in the back-and-forth over the electors, something big is getting lost. Johnson did, in fact, lend support to key elements of Trump’s broader scheme to subvert his election loss as they were unfolding.
Amid our national reckoning with Jan. 6, doling out gradations of culpability short of the most flagrant or criminal violations will be critical. Many Republicans didn’t quite match the corruption of Trump and his coup-plotters, but they contributed to political conditions that helped enable the whole scheme, in ways that involved extraordinarily degenerate bad acting.
That’s the big story behind the Johnson saga. The select committee revealed texts going back and forth between Johnson aide Sean Riley and Chris Hodgson, a staffer to Vice President Mike Pence, just after midday during the electoral count on Jan. 6, 2021:
“Johnson needs to hand something to VPOTUS please advise,” Riley texted Hodgson.“What is it?” Hodgson replied.“Alternate slate of electors for MI and WI because archivist didn’t receive them,” Riley wrote back.Hodgson responded: “Do not give that to him.”
The extraordinary suggestion here is that Johnson aimed to pass a slate of fraudulent Trump electors to Pence to further the scheme hatched by Trump and coup-architect John Eastman. Uncertainty about which electors were “real” would give Pence cover to delay the electoral count, allowing states to revisit their voting and certify Trump’s electors, tipping the election.
Johnson denies any such intent. His spokesperson put out a tortured statement claiming he was not involved in the “creation” of fake Trump electors — even though what’s at issue is Johnson’s possible role in their transmission to Pence, not their creation.
Pressed by reporters, Johnson himself claimed an unnamed House intern passed the packet of fake electors to his chief of staff, who sought to deliver it to the vice president — without Johnson’s involvement.
It’s hard to square this story with Riley’s explicit claim that Johnson himself “needs” to pass something to the vice president. Would a top aide to a U.S. senator really undertake something of this import — without his knowledge or approval — at such a critical moment involving the transfer of power?
“It is highly dubious that this staffer would have freelanced something of such constitutional significance,” Bradley Moss, a lawyer who has represented federal officials for over 15 years, told me.
“It’s highly unethical,” Moss continued. “The committee should at a minimum request he come and explain what transpired.” A committee spokesperson declined to tell me if this is in the works.
Beyond all this, however, another major storyline is getting lost. It involves what Johnson did as the coup plot was unfolding.
Back in early January 2021, Johnson signed on to a statement with 10 other GOP senators, led by Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, declaring their intent to object to the certification of electoral votes. They cited “unprecedented allegations of voter fraud” and said this:
Congress should immediately appoint an Electoral Commission, with full investigatory and fact-finding authority, to conduct an emergency 10-day audit of the election returns in the disputed states. Once completed, individual states would evaluate the Commission’s findings and could convene a special legislative session to certify a change in their vote, if needed.
Let’s be clear: A delay like this one is exactly what Trump and Eastman also sought, in furtherance of the coup plot.
Note that Johnson and these senators also raised the possibility that in that interim, individual states might change certification. This, too, is in keeping with the Trump and Eastman plot: The delay would allow states time to “find” fraud, enabling certification of Trump electors.
In other words, Johnson called for the same scheme to be launched — a delay in certification, followed by an “investigation” into the validity of the voting — that the fake electors were designed to achieve.
“Johnson endorsed the scheme that worked hand in glove with the Trump-Eastman effort,” New York University law professor Ryan Goodman told me. Goodman said the fake electors were the “predicate” for achieving the same “suspension of certification” sought by Johnson.
In fairness, Johnson and the other senators did not explicitly say they hoped for certification of Trump electors in defiance of the popular vote. And Johnson claimed at the time he was merely seeking this investigation to calm voter fears that Trump’s loss was tainted.
But at a certain point, this excuse simply cannot wash. By then, the election results had been extensively vetted in the courts and by state-level audits. Continuing to demand a probe of the voting, based on the pretext that many voters believed Trump won, constituted an active feeding of those beliefs.
That no doubt persuaded countless Americans that a reversed outcome was still a legitimate possibility. Which in turn helped incite the Jan. 6 violence.
Since then, Johnson has described that violence as “largely peaceful” and has hinted that it might have been a false flag operation. Johnson has helped obscure the truth about that day and has fed the Trump right’s ongoing pathologies around it.
We may never learn the full story of Johnson’s possible involvement in trying to pass fake electors to Pence on Jan. 6. But when it comes to Johnson’s culpability for helping feed the monster that broke loose on that day and continues to menace democracy, well, that’s already been powerfully established.