Now the Republican from Wisconsin is using his last days as chairman of the powerful Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee to investigate what he calls “election irregularities” related to the 2020 campaign. The hearing, to be held Wednesday, comes after an array of federal and state courts rejected Trump’s claims of widespread voter fraud and in the wake of Monday’s electoral college vote confirming Joe Biden’s victory.
Johnson’s evolution from ideologically driven standard-bearer of the tea party to one of Trump’s most stalwart defenders mirrors the arc of his party over the past decade. With Johnson’s term expiring in 2022, Wednesday’s hearing could be both the last stand of Trump’s most fervent Senate follower and the first act of a post-Trump Republican Party.
Johnson said Tuesday in an interview with The Washington Post that he accepts the electoral college vote. He said he does not plan to challenge the electoral college results when the matter comes to Congress on Jan. 6.
“To do it without some earth-shattering, totally documented case where you really would see the election being overturned, all it is is a delaying tactic,” Johnson said.
Still, Johnson is moving forward with the hearing, saying, “A large percentage of the American population don’t view this election as legitimate.”
Johnson has invited several witnesses who have promoted claims of voter fraud that have been rejected by the courts. Democrats have invited Christopher Krebs, the former federal cybersecurity official who was fired by Trump after he said the election had been secure.
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) had urged that the hearing not take place. “I don’t think we have the resources to do investigations, nor do we have the constitutional mandate to make judicial decisions,” Romney said. “So, I don’t see the purpose of a hearing other than to stir up controversy.”
Johnson had never served in public office when he used $9 million of his personal fortune to help fund his campaign in 2010 for the U.S. Senate. The owner and CEO of a plastics company in Oshkosh, Wis., Johnson came to public notice when he delivered a speech railing against then-President Barack Obama’s health-care plan.
The speech caught the attention of a popular conservative radio host, Charlie Sykes, who touted it on air and pushed for the election of Johnson on grounds that he would be an independent-minded outsider who would focus on cutting federal spending.
Now Sykes says the man he once hailed as independent has become the opposite, decrying the way he says the senator has become one of the ultimate Trump sycophants and conspiracy boosters.
“Watching Ron Johnson is something that actually makes me sick to my stomach,” Sykes said in an interview. While there are many other Republicans who put out tweets and statements in support of the president’s agenda, “in terms of willingness to actually use his position in the Senate to advance Trump’s obsessions, [Johnson] really has distinguished himself. He’s willing to treat these obsessions seriously and to pursue them aggressively, using his chairmanship.”
Johnson, 65, first gained traction among grass-roots activists and in conservative media by emerging during his 2010 campaign as an early and vociferous critic of the Affordable Care Act, the threat of a growing national debt and what he claimed was the looming danger of Obama’s agenda.
That, and using part of his personal fortune to help fund his campaign and support from people such as Sykes, helped propel him to the GOP Senate nomination to oppose three-term Democratic incumbent Russ Feingold. Johnson ultimately won by five points over Feingold, who declined to comment on Johnson.
Johnson spent much of his first term following through on his campaign agenda — firmly opposing increased government spending, railing against the Obama administration’s agenda and otherwise counseling that government be run more like the business he oversaw for decades before entering politics.
But in 2014, another GOP midterm surge handed Republicans the Senate majority and led to Johnson assuming a new perch of power — the chairmanship of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, a panel with a broad purview of oversight encompassing virtually the entire federal government.
As chairman, Johnson highlighted the threat from the Islamic State militant group, the rising tide of undocumented immigration and cybersecurity risks from abroad. He used the gavel to firm up his record before an expected bruising rematch with Feingold.
But that 2016 campaign was complicated by a wild card: the rise of Trump, who ran as the sort of tell-it-like-it-is businessman Johnson considered himself to be. While most swing-state Republicans kept their distance from a controversial presidential nominee, Johnson was much more willing to support Trump, though he stopped short of a formal endorsement.
“He’s got the personality and the approach of a negotiator, of a businessperson, and that’s not all bad for a president of the United States, okay?” he told a Post reporter in September 2016, as polls showed both Johnson and Trump trailing badly in Wisconsin.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee pulled hundreds of thousands of dollars of planned advertising from Wisconsin in early October, believing Johnson’s reelection was a lost cause. A week later, Johnson stood by Trump even as many Republicans renounced their party nominee after The Post published a secret tape of Trump making lewd comments in 2005 on the set of the “Access Hollywood” TV show.
Johnson called Trump’s comments “completely indefensible” but continued urging voters to back him over Hillary Clinton.
Weeks after being written off by his party, Johnson notched a three-point win — winning 74,000 more votes than Trump, who narrowly won the state.
Johnson has devoted much of this year to overseeing hearings and investigations aligned with Trump’s interests, as well as seeking to undercut the impeachment of the president. House Democrats based impeachment on their conclusion that Trump sought to get Ukrainian officials to investigate Joe Biden’s son Hunter, who served on the board of Ukraine-based gas company Burisma while his father was overseeing U.S. policy in the country.
Johnson’s committee investigated Hunter Biden’s business dealings. Johnson met with Andrii Telizhenko, a former Ukrainian diplomat peddling information that U.S. federal law enforcement officials had essentially identified as Kremlin-sourced disinformation. Johnson initially sought to subpoena him as a witness, an effort he abandoned only after Democrats and some Republicans, including Romney, raised concerns.
Democrats excoriated Johnson for months, accusing him of trying to launder Russian disinformation through his committee not just from Telizhenko, but also from Andriy Derkach, who publicly claimed to have been feeding information and “tapes” of Biden in Ukraine to the panel. Those accusations reached a fever pitch in early September, after the Treasury Department imposed sanctions on Derkach as a “Russian agent,” though panel Democrats and Republicans have both said that they were never in touch with Derkach or received materials from him.
In the end, Johnson’s investigation uncovered no evidence of the vice president or his team exhibiting favoritism toward Ukrainian interests or wielding influence to benefit Joe Biden’s son.
The report from Johnson’s committee said “the extent to which Hunter Biden’s role on Burisma’s board affected U.S. policy toward Ukraine is not clear.”
While the report highlighted questionable transactions between Hunter Biden and a jailed Chinese oil tycoon, it failed to connect that conduct to the elder Biden.
Speaking on Fox Business on Tuesday, Johnson repeated his claim that the mainstream media did not report enough on his investigation into Hunter Biden. “The level of interference in this election by the media and the social media was far greater than Russia could have possibly hoped to gain in 2016; that’s where the real interference really occurs, in the media and social media and their bias,” Johnson said.
Johnson told The Post, “I think I’ve been vindicated on Hunter Biden.” He noted that the taxes of the president-elect’s son reportedly are under investigation by the U.S. attorney in Delaware. The scope of that probe is not public. Hunter Biden has said his taxes were filed appropriately.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who collaborated with Johnson on his investigation, said the report on Hunter Biden was “was well-founded, ahead of the curve and right on the money — in more ways than one.”
One of Johnson’s most unlikely crusades has been his effort to promote unproven therapies for the coronavirus. Johnson said in October he contracted the coronavirus but had no symptoms, declaring that it “is not a death sentence.” More than 300,000 Americans have died of covid-19.
In a hearing earlier this month, Johnson called witnesses who touted what they called the success of drugs such as ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine for early treatment of the coronavirus.
Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan, the committee’s ranking Democrat, said in his opening statement that the witnesses called by Johnson were “selected for their political, not their medical views. . . . The composition of the panel creates a false and terribly harmful impression of the scientific and medical consensus.”
Johnson, asked in The Post interview why he is promoting two drugs despite the FDA statements cautioning against their use in covid-19 patients, responded that he doesn’t trust people at the agency.
“You have to take a look at the motivation, some of those people in these agencies, and that’s why I say I think a lot of people in these agencies have failed the American public,” he said. “I’m not happy with them.”
Johnson said he hasn’t decided whether to take a coronavirus vaccine. He said he already has contracted the virus and believes he is protected from it.
“I’m talking to a lot of doctors and, you know, so I don’t believe if you have the covid, you should be taking the vaccine, that there could be some issues there,” Johnson said.
Two weeks before the election, Johnson told business leaders in his state that Joe Biden’s election represented “the greatest threat to our freedom in my lifetime” and described himself as “panicked” about the possibility of a Trump loss, according to the Associated Press.
After the election, he held a hearing that focused on media coverage of the federal investigation into Trump’s 2016 campaign. Featured as witnesses were two reporters from conservative media outlets who alleged that U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials had conspired with mainstream media outlets to undermine Trump.
Johnson then scheduled Wednesday’s hearing on alleged 2020 election irregularities, which will feature several Republican lawyers, including former independent counsel Kenneth Starr, and is expected to look at claims of voter fraud that have been rejected by the courts.
Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.), who preceded Johnson as chairman, said in a statement that the American people deserve better than “misinformation and false allegations about a free and fair election that was called over five weeks ago.”
Because of GOP Senate term limits, Johnson is set to relinquish his chairmanship next year, even if Republicans keep the majority, but he could be in line to helm the panel’s powerful permanent subcommittee on investigations.
Johnson had promised to limit himself to two Senate terms, meaning he would leave in two years. But Johnson said in the interview that he was leaving open the possibility of seeking a third term. Asked why voters should trust him if he breaks his two-term promise, Johnson responded, “I realize that would be something I’d have to overcome if I decide to do it.”
Mark Becker, who was a Wisconsin Republican Party official when Johnson first ran for office and later left the party, said he recently talked on the phone with the senator. Becker said he asked Johnson why he seemed so beholden to Trump.
Becker said that Johnson responded that “I know Trump is an a--hole” but that he needs to appease Trump’s supporters to win their support for whatever he does in the future. Becker said he concluded from the conversation that for all of Johnson’s effort to ally himself with the president, his focus now is on “his own political future.”
Johnson declined to address Becker’s comments, saying his conversation was supposed to be confidential and adding, “I wouldn’t believe a word he says.”
Alice Crites contributed to this report.