Weeks before the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection, Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., held a hearing on election fraud in an attempt to legitimize former president Donald Trump’s false allegations of voting irregularities. Four days before the attack on the Capitol, Johnson signed a statement with nine other Republican senators that they intended to object to certifying Joe Biden’s electors and demand “an emergency 10-day audit of the election.”
This week, the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 Capitol riot revealed that Johnson's chief of staff tried to deliver to Vice President Mike Pence a slate of fake electors backing Trump, raising questions about the Wisconsin Republican's role in a deliberate and coordinated plan to block Biden's win and give Trump the presidency.
The disclosure also underscores the extent of Johnson's role as one of Congress's most prominent election deniers and Jan. 6 apologists -- spreading conspiracy theories about rigged votes and playing down the severity of the violent assault on the Capitol as mostly "peaceful," while floating the idea that it might have been an inside job by the FBI.
Johnson, who is up for reelection this year, has been dogged by scandals and controversial statements since aligning himself with Trump. He has spread false information about the coronavirus, was accused of racism for saying he would have been concerned had Black Lives Matter protesters flooded the Capitol on Jan. 6 instead of mostly White Trump supporters, and is under fire for using taxpayer funds for airfare between Washington and his Florida home. Some Democrats and political experts say this latest revelation of direct communication in the form of text messages between Johnson and Pence staff members on Jan. 6 could sway voters in a battleground state where elections are won by a slim margin.
"What happened in the last 24 hours is different. It's one thing to articulate off-the-wall political positions; it's another thing to possibly have assisted in a coup attempt," said Kenneth R. Mayer, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
Johnson's possible Democratic opponents -- the Wisconsin primary is in August -- immediately attacked him, arguing that the texts provide tangible evidence to voters that Johnson was part of an attempt to nullify the votes of thousands of Wisconsinites. A poll released Wednesday by Marquette Law School but conducted before the latest revelations found Johnson trailing three of his four potential opponents by single digits.
Senate Democratic candidate Tom Nelson, who previously had pushed for the Jan. 6 committee to subpoena Johnson, on Wednesday called on the senator to resign. "Today's revelations go beyond anything I could have imagined for how far Ron Johnson would go to overturn our Wisconsin election result. Johnson should not only resign and be placed under oath, but all signs point to evidence of a crime that the U.S. Department of Justice is obligated to investigate."
Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, who is also running in the Democratic Senate primary, called on Johnson to "resign immediately."
"Ron Johnson actively tried to undermine this democracy. He literally tried to hand Mike Pence fake ballots. Once again, Ron Johnson has proven he's a danger to our country and our fundamental rights," Barnes said in a statement.
"Ron Johnson is a seditious traitor and a danger to democracy," tweeted Alex Lasry, another Senate candidate.
Sarah Godlewski, Wisconsin state treasurer and another Democrat vying to challenge Johnson, called him "a threat to our democracy and a disgrace to our state."
Johnson spokeswoman Alexa Henning dismissed the criticism. "The senator's Democrat opponents are always trying new ways to avoid talking about their disastrous Democrat policies," she said. "The senator has never considered resigning as a result of dozens of false attacks already made against him. Why would this absurd attack be any different?"
Henning did not respond to specific questions about the text messages or Johnson's knowledge of the fake electoral documents.
Johnson has denied his involvement in the plan to deliver to Pence fake Trump electors. A text message shown at the hearing, from Johnson chief of staff Sean Riley to Pence aide Chris Hodgson and sent minutes before the joint session of Congress to certify the Biden win, said "Johnson needs to hand something to VPOTUS please advise."
"What is it?" Hodgson replies. "Alternate slate of electors for MI and WI because archivist didn't receive them," Riley writes. "Do not give that to him," Hodgson responds.
Johnson told reporters on Tuesday that someone from the House side, "some staff intern," brought the envelope to his office and said it needed to be delivered to the vice president. Johnson claims that his office attempted to make the handoff, but the vice president's staff rejected it and that was his staff's total involvement. "I had no hand in it," Johnson said. "This is a total non-story."
Johnson acknowledged that "he was aware that we got something delivered that wanted to be delivered to the vice president," but said he did not know who delivered it or what it was. He said his chief of staff "did the right thing" in offering the documents to the vice president.
Later, Johnson left the Capitol trailed by reporters asking him about the text messages. Johnson held his phone to his ear and said he was on a call, but a reporter challenged the senator, saying that he could see the screen and knew Johnson wasn’t talking to anyone.
"The bottom line is that Johnson is not stupid -- he had to know what the context of the moment was, what was happening on Jan. 6, what was going on back home; he was far down the rabbit hole of 'Stop the Steal' efforts," said Charlie Sykes, a prominent former Republican who has long opposed Trump. Sykes, who lives in Wisconsin, said "the very specific, easily understandable" image of the text messages from Johnson's staff to the vice president's office referencing alternate electors takes the effort to overturn the election from an abstract notion to something tangible.
The Jan. 6 committee unpacked a few other details about how the Wisconsin plan came together. Andrew Hitt, a former Wisconsin GOP chairman, signed on to be a fake elector for Trump. In testimony to the committee, Hitt said he thought the Trump slate of alternate electors would only be used if the Trump campaign won its legal challenges.
"I was told that these would only count if a court ruled in our favor," he said. Otherwise, "It would have been using our electors in ways that we weren't told about and we wouldn't have supported," Hitt said in a clip shown during the hearing.
A package tracker shows that the packet of certificates was mailed in Wisconsin on Dec. 16 but was not accepted by an employee at the National Archives in Washington until the morning of Jan. 4. Later that day, Mark Jefferson, the executive director of the Wisconsin Republicans, texted someone: "Freaking trump idiots want someone to fly original elector papers to the senate President. They're gonna call one of us to tell us just what the hell is going on."
Hitt and Jefferson did not respond to requests for comment.
Jeffrey Mandell, a Wisconsin attorney on a lawsuit filed in May against the fake Trump electors in the state, said there remain many holes in the timeline, including who from the Trump campaign was in contact with Hitt and Jefferson and who gave the fraudulent documents to Johnson's office. Mandell pointed out that the cover page included with the alternate slate of electors sent to Washington was on official Republican Party of Wisconsin letterhead.
Mandell said that while many questions remain, the committee's implication of Johnson is confirmation of the senator's role in trying to overturn the 2020 election.
"We've known for a long time that he was an adherent of the 'big lie' and was willing to say and do anything to advance that 'big lie,'" Mandell said. "He has continued to waffle and for the most part has continued to entertain the 'big lie' and support those conspiracy theorists. It wasn't a terrible surprise, but there is something pretty visceral about the image of Senator Johnson physically trying to get these papers to Pence in the light of day, on the Senate floor, at the key moment right before Congress started to count the votes."
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The Washington Post’s Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.