The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ron Johnson takes his anti-vaccine rhetoric to a weird new place

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) hurries through the tunnel leading to the Capitol last year. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)
6 min

Seeking reelection this November, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) is doing what politicians on the ballot often do: engaging in conversations with small audiences in an attempt to reach a broader range of constituents.

But a video obtained by the site Heartland Signal demonstrates some ways in which Johnson’s outreach differs from other candidates. For one, he participated in a video conference that included attorney Todd Callender, a fervent anti-vaccination commentator who is part of a lawsuit against the Defense Department. For another, Johnson expressed openness to Callender’s idea that maybe the coronavirus vaccines are a conduit for deliberately giving people AIDS.

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Before going any further, it’s important to note that this claim is not only false, it’s bizarre. AIDS is a disease caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and is not caused by vaccines. The idea that somehow any vaccine can induce AIDS has no basis in reality.

But this was not the only claim Callender made during the exchange. In their conversation, he suggested that the effort to increase vaccinations should be looked at “from a criminal point of view,” with advocates like the country’s top infectious-disease doctor, Anthony S. Fauci, being held “accountable.”

“You’ve got more than 100 doctors here, all of whom will tell you that these shots caused vaccine-induced AIDS. They purposefully gave people AIDS,” Callender claimed without any basis. He made reference to some other conspiracy theories that, frankly, are hard to parse without being immersed in the surreal universe from which they sprang. But his point was that the government was trying to hurt people intentionally.

“They knew all of this, and yet they licensed these shots anyway,” he said of the Food and Drug Administration. “ … This is criminal intent.”

Johnson interjected.

“So let me challenge you there,” he said. The challenge? Not on the idea that the vaccines caused AIDS or that the FDA was criminally irresponsible in its efforts to get people vaccinated. His challenge instead was that one couldn’t simply “leap to crimes against humanity. You can’t leap to another Nuremberg trial.” You have to take efforts to bring criminals to justice on the world stage slowly.

“You got to do one step at a time,” Johnson said. “Everything you say may be true, but right now the public views the vaccines as largely safe and effective, that vaccine injuries are rare and mild. That is the narrative. That’s what the vast majority of the public accepts. So until we get a larger percentage of the population with their eyes open, to: Whoa, these vaccine injuries are real. Why? You’ve got to do step by step.”

“Everything you say may be true,” a United States senator said to a lawyer who speculated that the coronavirus vaccines are being intentionally administered to give Americans AIDS.

Even beyond that, though, Johnson’s comment stands apart from other politicians. Most politicians and government officials would see it as a good thing that the public understands that the coronavirus vaccines are safe and effective. After all, they are. The Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that nearly a quarter-million deaths from covid-19 could have been prevented by vaccination. Statistics consistently show that those who are at greatest risk of hospitalization and death from the disease are those who haven’t been vaccinated or gotten booster doses.

But Johnson has long stoked skepticism about this reality. His mention of “vaccine injuries” is a reference to the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) database used by the government for medical professionals to track incidents in which vaccinations have been followed by possible side effects. The database is a tool for the government to ensure that vaccines remain safe even in wide deployment, but it also provides a database of anecdotes that can be culled to elevate fears about the vaccines.

Johnson has done so before. Last October, he went on Maria Bartiromo’s Fox Business show and alleged that more than 16,000 people had died after vaccination — a claim that assumes both that the VAERS reports are accurate (since anyone can submit a VAERS report) and that the vaccine actually led to the death. That’s the thing about these reports: If I get vaccinated today and struck by lightning tomorrow, it is reportable. And in fact, this actually happened as Moderna’s vaccine trials were in the field. Someone who’d participated was struck by lightning a month later and Moderna included that report in its assessment of the vaccine trial. VAERS works similarly, but no one assumes that the vaccine caused the lightning strike.

At least, no one should assume that. Johnson was raising the issue to Bartiromo, incidentally, in defense of ivermectin, a drug that has been shown to have no discernible effect in treating covid-19. At other times he’s publicly questioned why anyone would want people to be vaccinated if they themselves were (because we hope to limit the virus’s spread) and why immunity from contracting the virus isn’t as good as being vaccinated (because getting infected with the virus can kill you).

We reached out to Johnson’s office, which dismissed the snippet obtained by Heartland Signal as “an edited recording of a selective part of the call made to falsely portray and distort the senator’s words.” His office also argued that Johnson’s “let me challenge you there” was Johnson pushing back on the HIV-vaccine claim, which the full context of the exchange makes clear is not the case. (Johnson “has never stated nor does he have any reason to believe that the vaccine causes HIV,” his office said.) His office also argued that Johnson believes the “VAERS safety reporting system has been ignored by federal health officials and the Biden administration.”

“He believes vaccine injuries are real, some are severe and they need to be vigorously investigated — which to date they have not been,” Johnson’s office said. In fact, many have been.

Bear in mind how odd this is. Candidates do small interviews with niche audiences to pitch their candidacies to their voters. Johnson participated in a call that included a Colorado-based lawyer where he nodded along to weird and inexplicable conspiracy theories, and then expressed his wish that people had less confidence in a vaccine that has already saved countless numbers of lives.

It’s an odd reelection strategy, to be sure. In a recent poll, more Wisconsinites viewed Johnson unfavorably than favorably, a pattern that’s held consistent since last summer.