Ron Johnson’s Jan. 6 mess leads to serious questions (and mockery)

As a rule, if late-night hosts are talking about a sitting U.S. senator, that lawmaker has a problem. With this in mind, Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin couldn’t have been pleased if he happened to be watching television last night.

The trouble began, of course, when Johnson was unexpectedly implicated in Donald Trump’s fake elector scandal during a Jan. 6 committee hearing this week. But the story took a comedic turn when, hours later, reporters caught up with the GOP lawmaker on Capitol Hill and he pretended to be on the phone.

Johnson initially ignored reporters’ questions, saying, “I’m on the phone right now.” It prompted NBC News’ Frank Thorp to respond, “No you’re not. I can see your phone. I can see your screen.” A few seconds later, the Republican gradually abandoned the charade, and tried to talk his way out of the burgeoning mess.

Late-night hosts wasted little time having fun with this one, with Stephen Colbert labeling Johnson “the dumbest person ever to sit in the United States Senate.”

To be sure, it’s a problem when a beleaguered lawmaker, facing re-election in a few months, becomes a national laughingstock. But let’s not brush past the significance of the underlying story.

What we learned during Tuesday’s committee hearing is that on Jan. 6, just minutes before the beginning of Congress’ joint session to certify election results, Johnson’s chief of staff reached out to an aide for then-Vice President Mike Pence. The senator’s top staffer said Johnson wanted to hand-deliver forged election materials from fake electors in Michigan and Wisconsin to Pence.

The then-vice president’s aide responded, “Do not give that to him.”

At that point, the senator’s role in the gambit apparently came to an end, but as we discussed yesterday, the fact that Johnson was prepared to play such a role raises some serious questions about the senator’s intentions. Why was the Wisconsin Republican eager to advance an illegal scheme to subvert an American election?

And why does Johnson’s official explanation — the powerful senator was merely a clueless delivery guy — make so little sense?

Complicating matters is the Republican’s record and the degree to which this context makes him look much worse. The Washington Post reported overnight:

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.”

Ultimately, Johnson was not one of the eight GOP senators who objected to the certification of the election results, but that doesn’t change the relevant details: He was on board with a radical plot in the runup to Jan. 6, and just minutes before the election results were to be certified, Johnson’s office sent a text to Team Pence saying the senator “needs” to deliver illegitimate election materials.

The disclosure, the Post added, “underscores the extent of Johnson’s role as one of Congress’s most prominent election deniers and Jan. 6 apologists.” The article quoted Kenneth R. Mayer, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, adding, “It’s one thing to articulate off-the-wall political positions, it’s another thing to possibly have assisted in a coup attempt.”

Making matters a bit worse, in the staff-to-staff text messages, Johnson’s top aide specifically wrote, “Johnson needs to hand something to VPOTUS please advise…. Alternate slates of electors for [Michigan] and [Wisconsin] because archivist didn’t receive them.”

But this wasn’t a situation in which the National Archives “didn’t receive” the illegitimate documents. In fact, as Rachel explained on last night’s show, we already know for certain that the Archives did receive the materials. Indeed, as Politico noted, the claim from Johnson’s office was absurd: This wasn’t a situation in which an envelope was lost in the mail. The Archives didn’t provide Pence with the illegitimate documents because they were illegitimate.

Johnson, at least for now, doesn’t appear to have anything to fall back on, since his official story is so plainly implausible. Are we really to believe that it’s standard practice for Johnson to serve as a mindless, uncritical conduit between Republican operatives and the office of the vice president? If any random person had dropped off an envelope filled with documents, asking that the senator hand-deliver them to the vice president on the same day as a violent attack on the Capitol, would Johnson have complied? Without reading the materials or assessing their value?

These need not be seen as rhetorical questions.

The House Jan. 6 committee is holding its fifth public hearing on Thursday, June 23 at 3 p.m. ET. Get expert analysis in real-time on our liveblog at msnbc.com/jan6hearings.

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