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Johnson in various forums has blamed “leftists posing as Trump supporters” for starting the riot, though based on Justice Department charges there has been no sign that was the case.
He has also routinely minimized what happened, claiming it was not an armed insurrection – something we have rated Pants on Fire.
- But the ad ignores past statements where Johnson has been more explicit in specifically condemning those who broke the law.
Public testimony about what happened at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, might be over for the year, but the matter is far from closed, as a special House select committee has subpoenaed former President Donald Trump.
In the meantime, Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., who is locked in a tough re-election battle, is being targeted for statements he has made about those who showed up in Washington that day.
An ad launched Oct. 19 and posted on YouTube by the Senate Majority PAC, which works to elect Democrats to the Senate, made this claim: "Ron Johnson is making excuses for rioters who tried to overthrow our government, even calling them ‘peaceful protests.’"
Is the ad right? Let’s take a look.
When asked to provide backup for the ad’s claim, Tina Olechowski, communications director for End Citizens United, directed PolitiFact Wisconsin to several news articles.
One of the cited articles, a Feb. 23, 2021, piece from the New York Daily News, included this:
"Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.) claimed Tuesday (Feb. 23, 2021) that leftists posing as Trump supporters played a role in storming the Capitol. The pro-Trump lawmaker, who has said the attack ‘didn’t seem like an insurrection,’ read from an uncorroborated account of the riot that included claims that ‘fake Trump supporters’ and provocateurs help stir the violence."
Another article, posted March 13, 2021, by Politico, noted a radio interview by Johnson on the conservative Joe Pags Show. Here is part of what Johnson said, based on a clip posted on YouTube that day by NBC’s "Today Show":
"‘Even though those thousands of people that were marching to the Capitol were trying to pressure people like me to vote the way they wanted me to vote, I knew those were people that love this country, that truly respect law enforcement, would never do anything to break the law, and so I wasn’t concerned," Johnson told Pags.
"Now, had the tables been turned — Joe, this could get me in trouble — had the tables been turned, and President Trump won the election and those were tens of thousands of Black Lives Matter and antifa protesters, I might have been a little concerned."
Veronica Yae-in Yoo, Senate Majority PAC communications director, in an email to PolitiFact Wisconsin, directed us to other broadcast accounts, including a May 21, 2021, CNN report headlined, "Sen. Ron Johnson calls Capitol insurrection a ‘peaceful protest’ "
Alexa Henning, a spokesperson for Johnson, said that by "peaceful protests," Johnson was referring to, for instance, "an example on MSNBC, a clip of protesters walking within rope lines in statuary hall."
But that single clip flies in the face of dozens upon dozens upon dozens of other videos, stories, eyewitness accounts and evidence gathered by the House committee into what was actually happening.
When Johnson has claimed — repeatedly — that the day’s events were not an armed insurrection, we have rated that claim Pants on Fire.
One 11-minute video compilation released by the House committee is composed of security footage from inside and outside the Capitol building, police bodycam video and rooftop footage. It includes plenty of scenes of violence and chaos.
For instance, protesters erected a noose and chanted, "Hang Mike Pence." There were chants of "Nancy, Nancy," as protesters sought out House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. Objects were used to break windows, allowing protesters to climb inside the building. Overwhelmed police could be heard on radios shouting, "We can’t hold the line!" and "Officer down." Another is heard shouting, "Fall back! Fall back!" as his position is overrun.
As we have noted in a past item:
Criminal charges brought against more than 900 protesters by the U.S. Justice Department have made clear that the events of that day were part of a coordinated effort to prevent the lawful transfer of power to newly elected President Joe Biden.
The House committee hearings included video footage and photos of the attack, showing participants erecting gallows, deploying pepper spray, hurling a fire extinguisher, using baseball bats to smash windows and throwing flags like spears at police officers. The government estimated damage to the U.S. Capitol building and grounds at $1.5 million.
So, Johnson has had a clear history of minimizing what took place, misdirection on who is to blame for it, and generally downplaying reports that have shown the true nature of the insurrection that happened that day.
That said, the ad ignores the distinction Henning, the Johnson spokesperson, says the senator has tried to make. She argues that Johnson has condemned those who rioted, even as he has used much more favorable terms to describe others there that day.
She cited a May 19, 2021, Johnson appearance on Fox News’ "Ingraham Angle," and posted online by Rumble, in which the senator said, "I condemned the breach. I condemned the violence. But to say there were thousands of armed insurrectionists, breaching the capitol, intent on overthrowing the government is simply a false narrative. … By and large it was all peaceful protests, except for there were a number of people, basically agitators that whipped the crowd and breached the Capitol."
Henning claimed as many as 120,000 showed up at the mall to protest and about 2,000 entered the Capitol. News reports about the day said it was difficult to accurately estimate the crowd size because there were no aerial images. But then-U.S. Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said law enforcement estimated the crowd size ahead of the protest up to 80,000.
"The senator is attempting to draw contrast to those vastly different figures," Henning said. "Given those numbers, the majority was peaceful … He has always said those who broke the law that day, should be prosecuted."
An ad from Senate Majority PAC and End Citizens United claimed "Ron Johnson is making excuses for rioters who tried to overthrow our government, even calling them ‘peaceful protests.’"
Johnson has clearly minimized and downplayed what happened that day, and sought to direct blame elsewhere. So, there is much to what the ad claims. That said, it blows past statements where Johnson has been more explicit in condemning those who broke the law.
We rate this claim Mostly True.
YouTube WI Officer ad
New York Times "Jan. 6 Panel Wraps Up Final Hearing," Oct. 13, 2022
New York Daily News "Sen. Ron Johnson airs conspiracy theory about ‘fake Trump supporters’ in Senate hearing on Capitol riot," Feb. 23, 2021
PolitiFact Wisconsin "To call what happened on January 6 an armed insurrection, I just think is not accurate." Oct. 10, 2022.
Rumble "Fox News’ Ingraham Angle," May 19, 2021
Email, Alexa Henning, Ron Johnson campaign, Nov. 1, 2022
Email Tina Olechowski, End Citizens United, Oct. 31, 2022
Email Veronica Yae-in Yoo, Nov. 2, 2022
NBC News "Democrats hit Sen. Ron Johnson on Jan. 6 remarks in new Wisconsin Senate ad," Oct. 19, 2022
NBC News "Today" show, "Sen. Ron Johnson calls Capitol mob ‘patriots.’" March 13, 2021
Politico "Ron Johnson says he didn't feel threatened Jan. 6. If BLM or Antifa stormed Capitol, he 'might have.'" March 13, 2021
ABC News "GOP Sen. Ron Johnson denies comments about Black Lives Matter protesters racist," March 15, 2021.
CBS58 News "'It is beyond racist': Wisconsin leaders respond to Ron Johnson's comments on Capitol Riot," March 14, 2021
YouTube "Rioters Walk Through Capitol Building, Statuary Hall Outside of House Chamber." Jan. 6, 2021.
Los Angeles Times "Key facts to know about the Jan. 6 insurrection," Jan. 5, 2022 YouTube "New footage of Capitol riot released by Jan 6 committee," June 9, 2022.
U.S. Department of Justice United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia "One Year Since the Jan. 6 Attack on the Capitol,"
NPR "The Capitol siege: The cases behind the biggest criminal investigation in U.S. history," Feb. 9, 2021, updated Oct. 28, 2022
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