Conservative Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who faces a tough re-election race this year, finds himself embroiled in new controversy after the House Jan. 6 Select Committee revealed Tuesday that his staff attempted to hand a list of fake electors to then-Vice President Mike Pence.
Johnson is facing tough questions about how much he knew of his staff’s effort to get Pence to recognize an alternate set of electors for Michigan and Wisconsin, two critical states that helped Joe Biden win the 2020 election.
Johnson on Wednesday declined to say whether he authorized his aide Sean Riley to hand the list electors to Pence on Jan. 6, 2021, or whether he knew beforehand what his aide planned to do. He also declined to say whether he knew the contents of the envelope that was to be given to Pence’s staff.
“This happened so fast, this is 18 months ago. This just happened, we took care of it. End of story. There’s nothing else to say about this,” he said when asked what he knew of the transaction.
“There’s nothing else to say about this,” he said, accusing reporters who asked him for more details of “carrying water for the Democrat Party.”
Alexa Henning, a spokeswoman for Johnson, issued a statement Tuesday claiming that Johnson “had no foreknowledge” that the fake slate of electors was going to be delivered to his office and generally minimized his involvement in the attempted transaction.
“The senator had no involvement in the creation of an alternate slate of electors and had no foreknowledge that it was going to be delivered to our office. This was a staff-to-staff exchange. His new Chief of Staff contacted the Vice President’s office,” Henning tweeted.
But Johnson told reporters Tuesday afternoon “I was basically unaware of it.”
“My chief of staff contacted the vice president’s staff and said, ‘Do you want this?’ They said ‘no’ and we didn’t deliver it and that’s the end of story,” he said.
Johnson said “somebody delivered” the envelope to his office, and that asked that his staff deliver it to the vice president. The senator declined to say who reached out to his office.
Asked Tuesday afternoon whether he supported the effort to get the slate of electors to Pence, Johnson said “I had no knowledge of this.”
“I had no idea this was even going to be delivered to us. It got delivered staff to staff. My chief of staff did the right thing, contacted the vice president’s staff. They said they didn’t want it so we didn’t deliver it,” he said.
But even fellow Republicans find it hard to believe that Johnson’s aide would be bold enough to give a fake slate of electors to Pence in attempt to stop the certification of Biden’s victory without alerting his boss in advance.
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) on Wednesday said he wants to know more about who was involved to the effort to get Pence to throw out the duly elected electors for Michigan and Wisconsin.
“My initial reaction was one of shock. Then Sen. Johnson said he was unaware of it. I and others like myself would like to dig into that, find out just who knew what and when. Obviously an attempt a false slate of electors would strike at the heart of our democracy,” he said.
The House panel investigating last year’s attack on the Capitol on Tuesday made public a chain of texts showing Riley’s attempts to set up a hand-off between the senator and vice president.
“Johnson needs to hand something to VPOTUS please advise,” Johnson’s aide texted Pence aide, Chris Hodgson, shortly before Congress convened in a joint session to certify the election results.
When Hodgson asked what it was, Riley texted: “Alternate slate of electors for MI and WI because archivist didn’t receive them.”
“Do not give that to him,” Hodgson replied tersely.
The revelation outraged Johnson’s Democratic colleagues, who say that his staff may have broken the law by attempting to submit a false set of electors to Pence.
“Absolutely appalling if that took place,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.). “I hope the details are fully explored by the press in a way that people get their hands around and understand how significant that is when you start trying to substitute electors from what a state has certified and submitted.”
Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), whose state’s duly elected electors might have been thrown out if Pence accepted and deployed the contents of the envelope, said trying to overturn the results of a legitimate election would be a violation of law.
“First of all, it’s horrifying that they actually had a separate group of electors and thought that was okay. I don’t know what happened with Sen. Johnson but he certainly has promoted the ‘Big Lie,’” Stabenow said.
Asked whether an Ethics Committee investigation is warranted, Stabenow said, “It is very serious. We’ll leave it to the Ethics Committee.”
But she added “it’s serious if he in anyway was acknowledging any of this as legitimate.”
“Fake electors literally would be an effort to overturn the government,” she added.
Johnson said Democrats are already attacking him over the attempted hand-off.
Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, who is running in the Senate Democratic primary to challenge Johnson in November, accused the Republican senator of trying to undermine 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. I’m calling for him to resign immediately,” Barnes said.
Philip Schulman, a spokesperson for the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, said instead of focusing on what’s best for Wisconsinites, “Johnson’s focus in Washington is working to undermine democracy.”
A Marquette Law School Poll of 803 registered Wisconsin voters released on Wednesday showed Barnes leading Johnson 46 percent to 44 percent in a hypothetic matchup.
The same poll showed Johnson trailing Democratic candidate Sarah Godlewski by two points and narrowly beating Democratic candidate Alex Lasry by three points.
Brandon Scholz, a Wisconsin-based Republican strategist, however, predicted the impact of the Jan. 6 committee’s revelation will have little impact on the outcome of the Senate race.
“Not many people care,” he said of the news coming out of the Jan. 6 committee’s hearings. “It really is kind of a D.C. show. Whether or not this has any traction amongst voters here, today I would tell you no.”
Scholz said there’s “so much content” in the Jan. 6 committee’s investigation that “it bounces off people.”
He acknowledged that Democratic voters are going to be fired up over the revelation “but they’re not going to vote for Ron Johnson anyway.”
And, he said, “I don’t think Republicans are going to take this as something that’s going to cause them to vote against Johnson.”