Republican efforts to try to diminish the significance of the riots at the U.S. Capitol on January 6 continue.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) is at the center of another attempt by Republicans to equate the violent attempt to prevent the certification of the 2020 presidential election with the riots in several cities over police shootings involving African Americans.
In a letter to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland released Monday, Johnson and four of his Senate Republican colleagues questioned whether those being charged in the violence at the Capitol riots on January 6 are being given the same treatment as those arrested in destructive riots in other cities.
“Americans have the constitutional right to peaceably assemble and petition the government for a redress of grievances,” the senators wrote. “This constitutional right should be cherished and protected. Violence, property damage, and vandalism of any kind should not be tolerated and individuals that break the law should be prosecuted. However, the potential unequal administration of justice with respect to certain protestors is particularly concerning.”
The letter, also signed by senators Tommy Tuberville (R-AL), Mike Lee (R-UT), Rick Scott (R-FL), and Ted Cruz (R-TX) accuses the Department of Justice (DOJ) of being unfair to those who assaulted the Capitol on January 6 by posting online a public database of the cases and not offering defendants “deferred resolution agreements” which would allow them to have clean criminal records after completing community service sentence requirements.
This follows several instances of Johnson equating the violence at the Capitol, where rioters threatened to hang Vice President Mike Pence, assaulted the Capitol police, and endangered Johnson’s colleagues in an effort to overturn the 2020 presidential election, with rioters looting and burning businesses in cities like Kenosha ostensibly to protest police shootings.
On one occasion, when asked about the riots at the Capitol, Johnson said he would have been more concerned if the attackers had been members of Black Lives Matters and Antifa.
“Now, had the tables been turned, and Joe — this is going to get me in trouble — had the tables been turned and President Trump won the election and tens of thousands of Black Lives Matter and antifa, I might have been a little concerned,” Johnson said in a radio interview.
He repeated that comparison in an interview with WKOW-TV.
“I was comparing the level of destruction in 570 riots versus the one Capitol breach, which I also condemned,” Johnson said. “I condemn all rioters, all violence.”
On other occasions, Johnson has denied that what occurred at the Capitol was an armed insurrection aimed at preventing the peaceful of transfer of power occurring with the certification of the election.
“This didn’t seem like an armed insurrection to me,” Johnson told talk WISN radio show host Jay Weber, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “I mean ‘armed,’ when you hear ‘armed,’ don’t you think of firearms? … How many firearms were confiscated? How many shots were fired?”
As the Washington Post has reported, many of those at the Capitol were armed.
Johnson’s claim about the lack of armed participants rests on an exchange he has earlier this month with Jill Sanborn, assistant director of the FBI’s counterterrorism division. But as fact-checkers have noted, while Sanborn said the FBI hadn’t seized guns, other law enforcement who were involved — and much more plentiful on the scene — did. An NPR database shows that more than a dozen who have been arrested in the Capitol riot had dangerous or deadly weapons. Even after Johnson’s comments Monday, two suspects were arrested for allegedly spraying bear spray on a police officer, Brian D. Sicknick, who later died. And among the broader group of protesters, D.C. police officer Daniel Hodges told The Washington Post they “had been seizing guns all day.”
Johnson has even pushed a conspiracy theory that claims not all of the rioters at the Capitol were supporters of President Donald Trump. “The last five pages is titled ‘Provocateurs Turn Unsuspecting Marchers into an Invading Mob.’ ”Johnson said at a hearing on the violence at the Capitol. “So I’d really recommend everybody in the committee read this account. And I’ve asked that it be entered into the record.”
On another occasion, Johnson questioned whether the rioters were Trump supporters.
“The group of people that supported Trump, the hundreds of thousands of people who attended those Trump rallies, those are the people that love this country,” Johnson said. “They never would have done what happened on Jan. 6. That is a group of people that love freedom; that’s a group of people we need to unify and keep on our side.”
Now Johnson is back to trying to equate the Black Lives Matters protests across the country with the attempt to prevent the certification of a presidential election by a violent mob.
Even if we accepted the comparison, the violence is on a different scale. There were hundreds of protests across the country, many of them peaceful (including in the heart of Republican Wisconsin, the city of Waukesha). There was one violent riot at the Capitol and it left five people dead. Given the planting of pipe bombs, the number of weapons confiscated, the violent intent of the Trump supporters at the Capitol, it could have been a lot worse.
Ironically, Trump supporters may have proved that gun control does work in the nation’s capital. As Scott MacFarlane explained in an interview with Charlie Sykes on the Bulwark podcast, many of the insurrectionists stashed weapons just beyond the city limits because of Washington D.C.’s restrictive gun laws. The weapons were to be distributed when, the rioters believed, Trump gave the order to seize the government.
MacFarlane also explains why the process may be slower for defendants charged in the attack on the Capitol. One, the courts are overwhelmed in D.C. which doesn’t normally handle this many cases in a year. Two, it’s not like the defendants are being cooperative, apparently waiting for the Trump restoration promised by Mike Lindell and other Trump supporters.
But, of course, we can’t accept the comparison between what happened on January 6 and the Black Lives Matters protests. The riot at the Capitol was a direct attempt to subvert democracy and our Constitution in an effort to keep Trump in office. It was incited by the president of the United States himself, organized by groups determined to overturn the election, and was directed at the very heart of our federal government to prevent the certification of the election.
There is a reason why the Capitol insurrectionists are being treated differently. What they’re accused of attempting was violently overthrowing the government.
If Johnson had actually paid attention to the second impeachment trial of Trump or listened to the testimony of his colleagues instead of promoting a conspiracy theorist, then Johnson would understand the difference between what happened at the Capitol and what happened in Kenosha and Madison.
And, of course, Johnson himself contributed to the political atmosphere surrounding the attack on the Capitol with his repeated questioning of the legitimacy of the election, including his farcical Senate hearing on “election irregularities,” and his announced intention to object to the congressional certification of the presidential election on January 6. His announced intention to contest the will of millions of voters was only thwarted by the violent assault on the Capitol.
(Unfortunately, Wisconsin Congressmen Scott Fitzgerald and Tom Tiffany sided with the insurrection and objected to the election results.)
Johnson’s letter is just more evidence why we need a commission to investigate the causes of the January 6 attack on democracy. We need to make plain what happened so demagogues like Johnson can’t lie about the violent attempt to overturn the election.
But Johnson’s letter is also a sad reminder that he is not fit for public office.
Johnson has previously pledged not to run for re-election. He has since backtracked on that promise, saying he hasn’t decided if he will run in 2022.
It’s time for Johnson to announce he is not running for re-election so Republicans can nominate someone who is actually worthy of the office Johnson now holds. And if Johnson does run for re-election, we should pray that some prominent Republican will find the moral courage to challenge him. Johnson is an embarrassment to Wisconsin, a disgrace as a senator, and it is time for him to go.