The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ron Johnson keeps digging

The Wisconsin senator tried Monday to explain his comments about being more scared had Black Lives Matter followers stormed the Capitol. But the revisionism didn’t stop there.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) at an August 2020 hearing. (Toni Sandys/The Washington Post)

Last week, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) yet again caused controversy by saying what he really thought about the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. Having previously downplayed the severity of it and raised a debunked conspiracy theory that it might not have been perpetrated by supporters of former president Donald Trump, Johnson said he never truly felt threatened. His reason: Because, in his words, “those are people that love this country, that truly respect law enforcement, would never do anything to break the law.” He said he would have felt more threatened if Black Lives Matter or antifa were behind the riot.

On Monday, Johnson kept digging.

In an appearance on a local Wisconsin radio show, Johnson fought back against allegations of racism for invoking BLM and saying he would have been more scared if that movement had been behind it.

But there are several problems with his defense.

One is that he proclaimed to be surprised by the backlash.

“I completely did not anticipate that anybody could interpret what I said as racist,” Johnson said. “It’s not. This is about rioters.”

Some Trump allies have speculated that antifa was responsible for inciting violence and storming the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. No evidence supports this claim. (Video: Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

Johnson also referred to the “innocuous statement that I made, never anticipated [my opponents] would turn it into what they always turn the debate into: racism.”

That doesn’t really fit with what Johnson said last week, though. In the course of making his controversial points to conservative radio host Joe Pagliarulo, Johnson acknowledged that his comments would “get me in trouble.”

“Now, had the tables been turned — now, Joe, this will get me in trouble — had the tables been turned and President Trump won the election and those were tens of thousands of Black Lives Matter and antifa protesters, I might have been a little concerned,” Johnson said.

To the momentary credit of Johnson’s interviewer Monday, conservative host Dan O’Donnell, O’Donnell mentioned that comment to Johnson while following up. But he didn’t press him on the apparent incongruity, and Johnson skated past it.

Johnson responded of BLM: “They have proven, repeatedly, pretty violent. Which is why I would have been — I said ‘a little concerned.’ ‘A little concerned.’ So no, this is being blown way out of proportion. Again, they’re just using the race card as they always do.”

Update: Johnson told reporters later Monday that his “get me in trouble" remark wasn’t anticipating being accused of racism. “I was just commenting on the fact that I’ve been attacked repeatedly trying to get to the truth," he said. "I’ve been challenging that narrative. And so when I said you know, ‘this will probably get me in trouble,’ I’m pushing back on that narrative.”

Elsewhere in the interview, Johnson made the case for why his comments weren’t actually racist, pointing to the White participants in BLM protests.

“Remember those leftist activists, those protesters, some of them turned violent and turned into riots — a lot of them are White,” Johnson said. “You see the pictures on [Fox News host] Tucker Carlson, and it looks like most of them are White. So there’s no racism involved in this at all.”

Whatever the composition of the Black Lives Matter protests, though, the images that have played on Fox shows like Carlson’s hardly project a majority-White movement. And the videos of violence are definitely not majority-White. Even if you set aside that most people would associate Black Lives Matter with Black people, it doesn’t really pass the smell test.

Johnson continued.

“I have to admit, obviously I knew how sensitive the left is, and they have a narrative,” he said. “And the narrative they’re pushing is that there were literally thousands of armed protesters. Well, I kind of busted that up a little bit by asking the FBI witness how many guns were confiscated. None.”

First, it’s not clear where Johnson is getting his idea that “the left” is saying there were “literally thousands of armed protesters.” Most estimates peg the number of those entering the Capitol in the hundreds, and none that we’ve found say thousands were there and actually armed. It’s a great straw man to knock down.

Johnson’s claim about the lack of armed participants rests on an exchange he has earlier this month with Jill Sanborn, assistant director of the FBI’s counterterrorism division. But as fact-checkers have noted, while Sanborn said the FBI hadn’t seized guns, other law enforcement who were involved — and much more plentiful on the scene — did. An NPR database shows that more than a dozen who have been arrested in the Capitol riot had dangerous or deadly weapons. Even after Johnson’s comments Monday, two suspects were arrested for allegedly spraying bear spray on a police officer, Brian D. Sicknick, who later died. And among the broader group of protesters, D.C. police officer Daniel Hodges told The Washington Post they “had been seizing guns all day.”

“Listen, I understand that some of the protesters used flagpoles as weapons, and I don’t discount the harm that can be created by a thrown flagpole or metal fence part or baseball bat,” Johnson said Monday. “And I condemn all of that. But the fact of the matter is the left wants to push this narrative that 74 million Americans are somehow potentially armed insurrectionists or domestic terrorists.”

Another straw man. Nobody of substance is saying this represents all Trump supporters. The allegation is that the Capitol riot was the result of Trump’s baseless questioning of the 2020 election results and claims that the election was stolen, and that a relatively small number were radicalized by it — enough to put lawmakers like Johnson in danger.

Johnson, though, insists he didn’t feel endangered like his colleagues did — despite a member of his own party, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), having to run away from danger.

The last and perhaps biggest problem with Johnson’s comments is the scale and the target. There is no question that racial-justice protests occasionally turned violent last summer. As The Post’s Philip Bump has written, though, there is no comparison when it comes to the number of people involved and the relative death toll.

Johnson referenced 25 deaths tied to Black Lives Matter protests, but those were spread out across the country, involved hundreds of thousands more protesters, and lasted for months. By contrast, Sicknick is among five people who died as a result of the Capitol riot, according to authorities. Given the limited number of people involved — by Johnson’s own account — it was exponentially more deadly. It also involved a literal assault on the seat of government of the United States. If you had to be in the middle of one of hundreds of racial justice protests or the Capitol riot, which would you choose?

What’s perhaps most telling about Johnson’s version of events is how few of his fellow Republicans have joined in it. These are generally allegations reserved for far-right elements like the ones Johnson cited in raising his allegation about who was behind the Capitol riot. Few of them are downplaying what happened that day or have made similar arguments suggesting it wasn’t actually Trump supporters. They’ve merely argued that Trump wasn’t culpable or that impeaching and convicting him wasn’t warranted.

The idea that the people who overran and injured police officers “truly respect law enforcement” and that they “would never do anything to break the law,” despite about 300 of them having been arrested, was already pretty remarkable. But on Monday, Johnson continued to cast doubt on what actually happened during an event in which the historical record is pretty clear.