Ron Johnson gambles his political future on Trump
Ron Johnson is linking himself to President Donald Trump’s election challenge as tightly as possible as he decides whether to run for reelection to a must-win Senate seat for Republicans.
Johnson, a steadfast Trump ally who has endeared himself to the president with his various investigative pursuits, is defending his approach, even as he faces a possible reelection campaign in a state that President-elect Joe Biden won in November. And Democrats are taking notice.
The Wisconsin Republican, who says he has not yet decided whether to seek a third term in 2022, has used his perch as the chairman of the Senate’s chief oversight body to investigate Trump’s political foes — from Hunter Biden to Hillary Clinton and the slew of Obama administration officials who launched the Russia probe — and is set to hold a hearing Wednesday on alleged “irregularities” in the election even as he recognizes Biden as the president-elect.
“I don’t feel bad about what I’ve done. I think I’m being vindicated right now,” Johnson said in an interview this week, referring to his myriad investigations. “It’s a record I’m proud of. … Time will prove me right. It will vindicate what I’ve tried to do here.”
It’s a risky political gamble for Johnson, who is betting that his embrace of Trump through his prior probes and his upcoming election hearing will energize the president’s base, which remains strong in Wisconsin despite Democratic wins statewide in 2018 and 2020. Still, Johnson’s decision to hold Wednesday’s hearing is drawing bipartisan ire as Trump’s allegations of voter fraud continue to crumble in federal court. It also comes two days after the Electoral College sealed Biden’s victory.
But Johnson is used to going it alone. In 2016, the national GOP apparatus all-but abandoned him, believing that he would lose his bid for a second term against Democrat Russ Feingold, largely leaving him to fight an uphill reelection battle on his own.
Johnson’s shock win that year made him more confident in his own instincts — and he’s unapologetic about his investigative pursuits that have drawn angry rebukes from Democrats, who have accused him of aiding a foreign influence campaign, and even some Republicans who have sought to distance themselves from him.
Johnson, like all GOP committee chairs, is term-limited on the panel and is slated to give up his Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee gavel in January. His likely successor, Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), is less inclined to continue the Johnson-era probes; but Johnson is expected to chair the panel’s permanent subcommittee on investigations — a position he is certain to use to go after the Biden administration on a range of subjects.
“I’m just doing everything I can because I think it’s important, when people go into an election and say, ‘I’m going to vote for that guy,’ they ought to know he has all kinds of foreign financial entanglements, and he’s lied to you bold-faced about them,” Johnson said about the Biden family.
Indeed, Johnson pointed to the recent revelation of a federal investigation targeting Biden’s son Hunter — though that probe centers on his taxes and business dealings. Johnson’s investigation was largely focused on efforts to leverage Hunter Biden’s position on the board of a Ukrainian energy company to influence the Obama-era State Department. Hunter Biden has maintained that he acted within the bounds of the law, both in defending himself against the tax investigation and his position on Burisma, the Ukrainian energy firm. There is scant evidence to back up Johnson’s Burisma claims.
Democrats believe Johnson’s strategy, if he intends to run for reelection, is clear: He’s trying to hold onto Trump’s base to power him to a third term. Trump has led his supporters to believe that the 2020 election was rigged against him, and Johnson is feeding that narrative with his recent statements as well as his intention to hold a hearing on the subject.
Meanwhile, Democrats are itching to throw Johnson out of power — perhaps more so than any other Senate Republican who is on the ballot in 2022. Even before the 2020 election was over, a Democratic opponent stepped forward to challenge Johnson, and the party is betting that Johnson’s full-on embrace of Trumpism will fare poorly in Wisconsin.
“Of all the Trump apologists, he stands out as number one,” Tom Nelson, the first prominent Democrat to jump into the race against Johnson, said in an interview. “People were upset at Johnson before the election, but it has — I mean, I would use the word contempt. Because he’s not doing his job.”
Nelson, a county executive and the former majority leader in the state Assembly, said that despite Wisconsin’s electoral trends, he fully expects the race to be a competitive one, noting that Democrats’ margins of victory in 2018 and 2020 — and Trump’s margin there in 2016 — were all razor thin.
Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), incoming chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, agrees. Scott joked he has been “bugging” Johnson about his forthcoming decision.
“2022 should be a good year for us. We’ve got to talk about the issues that are important to people. We’ve got to talk to everybody,” Scott said, noting that he himself won three times in a perennial swing state. “We can win Wisconsin.”
Johnson’s posture is especially perplexing to Charlie Sykes, a conservative former radio host in Wisconsin who helped launch Johnson’s first Senate campaign in 2010. Sykes, who has since denounced Trump and the GOP, noted that Johnson outperformed Trump in the state in 2016, receiving 70,000 more votes.
“To watch him become drawn so dramatically into Trumpworld was just something that I think was unexpected for a lot of people who watched his early career,” Sykes said. “If you walked into a coffee shop in Oshkosh, you’re not going to find people wanting their senior United States senator to spend his time focusing on Hunter Biden’s laptop.”
Mark Becker, a former GOP official in Wisconsin who opposes Trump, recently detailed a November conversation he had with Johnson in which, according to Becker, Johnson acknowledged that Biden won the election legitimately but said it would be “political suicide” to go against Trump, who has been stoking the conspiracy theories that have animated his political base for the past month.
“[Johnson] said that ‘Yes, Donald Trump is an ass—-,’ but the votes that Trump received, especially in Wisconsin, cannot be overlooked,” Becker wrote.
“The senator understands Joe Biden’s victory. The problem is he refuses to live in that reality publicly, because of political considerations.”
Johnson’s office did not respond to questions about Becker’s post.
Johnson has routinely dismissed these and other criticisms that seek to paint him as aloof, out of touch and worse.
“My efforts, I think, have been very upfront and honest and forthright. I mean, people are tweeting all kinds of nasty names at me. I don’t engage in that stuff. I’m just very straightforward,” Johnson maintained. “I don’t engage in this invective and personal attacks.”
Johnson defended his decision to hold Wednesday’s hearing on the election, noting that a large swath of the tens of millions of Americans who voted for Trump do not trust the election result — a dynamic he called “unsustainable.” He did not, though, say that Trump himself is stoking the unsubstantiated fraud claims.
“So now you’ve got President Trump’s supporters seeing some real problems. There are some irregularities here that need to be explained,” said Johnson, who previously challenged Attorney General William Barr’s assertion that there was no evidence of widespread fraud in the 2020 election. “These issues have to be highlighted and hopefully corrected so that, in the next election, people have, just going into it, greater assurances.”
The hearing, which Democrats have derided as a dangerous waste of time, will feature former independent counsel and Trump ally Kenneth Starr. Democrats invited Christopher Krebs, the former top cybersecurity official whom Trump fired after Krebs publicly debunked the president’s fraud claims in the aftermath of the Nov. 3 election.
“I am appalled by many of my colleagues’ choice to help spread the president’s lies and false narratives about the outcome of the 2020 election,” said Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan, the top Democrat on Johnson’s committee, who has often found himself in the awkward position of sparring with Johnson atop what historically has been a bipartisan committee.
It’s not just Democrats who have condemned Johnson’s investigative pushes. Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who chaired the Intelligence Committee, privately warned Johnson that his Biden probe could aid Russian disinformation campaigns, POLITICO previously reported.
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) has said he will not attend Wednesday’s hearing because it’s not “productive,” and he previously dismissed Johnson’s efforts to probe the Biden family as political in nature. Romney said in a brief interview that he hopes Wednesday’s hearing focuses on the security of future elections, rather than on the 2020 campaign.
Burgess Everett contributed to this report.