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The Strange Case of Ron Johnson

From champion of the IGs to crocodile tears.
May 20, 2020
The Strange Case of Ron Johnson
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 05: Chairman Ron Johnson (R-WI) speaks at the start of a Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing on the government's response to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak on March 5, 2020 in Washington, DC. COVID-19 has taken hold in the United States and national and local governments are rushing to contain the virus and to find a cure. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Getty Images)

I go way back with Ron Johnson.

A mutual friend introduced us in early 2010, when I was still a radio host in Wisconsin. Democratic senator Russ Feingold was cruising to re-election, in large measure because the GOP simply had no strong candidates to run against the three-term incumbent.

But, my friend said, there was this guy from Oshkosh I should meet. More out of politeness than anything else, I met Johnson. As way of introduction, he pulled out a typescript of a speech that he had been giving at Republican events. I thought it was pretty good.

I’ll let Peggy Noonan tell the rest of the story:

A conservative radio host named Charlie Sykes got hold of a speech Mr. Johnson gave at a Lincoln Day dinner in Oshkosh. He liked it and read it aloud on his show for 20 minutes. A speech! The audience listened and loved it. A man called in and said, “Yes, yes, yes!” Another said, “I have to agree with everything that guy said.” Mr. Johnson decided to run because of that reaction, and in November he won. This week he said, “The reason I’m a U.S. senator is because Charlie Sykes did that.”

As progressives on social media will be sure to note, we were a thing. And not everyone was thrilled. In a detailed account of Johnson’s improbable upset victory, Christian Schneider (now a Bulwark contributor) told this funny story:

On this campaign swing, Johnson’s favorite trick was quoting verbatim entire glowing passages of what Milwaukee radio talk show host Charlie Sykes had said about him, despite nobody in Western Wisconsin knowing who Charlie Sykes was. Staff noticed peoples’ eyes glazing over when he began his typical Sykes spiel.

So Johnson and I both have a lot of baggage.

What I liked about Johnson was his crusty, no-BS independence; and I imagined that he could be a senator in the mold of Wisconsin’s legendary Bill Proxmire, whose seat he now held. (I’m biased here because my father was Proxmire’s biographer.)

The Ron Johnson I knew was unawed by the Senate and unimpressed by its establishment. He was certainly no fan of Mitch McConnell. And vice versa. In 2016, Johnson ran for reelection and he faced off for a rematch against Feingold. He trailed in the polls for much of the race and McConnell (and other institutional Republicans) left him for dead.

Instead, Johnson defied Wisconsin political history and DC Republican naysayers and won. And he didn’t just win: He got more votes than anyone on the Wisconsin ballot, including the Republican presidential candidate. He was poised to be very much his own man.

Instead, he became Trump’s.

Over the last three years, Johnson has emerged as one of the president’s most ardent supporters, not just on policy grounds but in his zeal to push many of Trump’s pet obsessions and conspiracy theories. Just this week, Johnson demanded the declassification of a memo from former national security advisor Susan Rice that Trump World imagined was at the center of “Obamagate.” (It turned out to be a dud.)

This was not the first time. Last October, Johnson inadvertently told the Wall Street Journal that had been concerned about Trump’s Ukraine dealings. This slip mortified him so that he made a memorable appearance on Meet the Press to walk it back. Asked over and over why he had been concerned about Trump and Ukraine, Johnson bobbed and weaved until Chuck Todd was reduced to existential despair. “Answer the question that I asked you instead of trying to make Donald Trump feel better here that you’re not criticizing him,” Todd finally begged.

Johnson refused and instead brought up yet another Trump-centric conspiracy theory about the FBI.

In his spare time Johnson has also continued to push the Burisma-Biden investigation angle. This week, in the midst of a pandemic, Johnson’s committee will vote to issue subpoenas in the investigation of the Ukrainian natural gas company Burisma Holdings when Hunter Biden was on its board.

But his most recent (and puzzling) about-face has come on the question of inspectors general. Once upon a time, Johnson was one of the most passionate champions of the inspectors general and their role in the federal government.

In 2015, as chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee he pushed for legislation that would strengthen and protect the IGs as they rooted out incompetence and malfeasance.

But this week, as Trump continued to dismantle the infrastructure of the IGs, Johnson has been an outspoken presidential ally. During a Sunday appearance on CNN, he was asked about the purge, including Trump’s decision to fire the State Department’s inspector general at the urging of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The IG, Steve A. Linick, had reportedly been investigating allegations of misconduct by Pompeo before he was sacked.

“I’m not crying big crocodile tears over this termination,” Johnson told Jake Tapper. “Let’s put it that way,”

But hadn’t he argued in the past that in the inspectors general should be independent, he was asked? Johnson replied:

I take a slightly different view in terms of what [inspectors general] should be independent from. They need to retain their independence within the agencies, so they can do inspections and investigations and provide that to their leadership, but primarily to the president. And so they serve at the president’s will.” [Emphasis added.]

In other words, the inspectors general should be independent of some parts of the federal government. Just so long as they’re not independent of Trump.

The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake has highlighted what looked like hypocrisy on Johnson’s part. Back in 2015, when Barack Obama was president, Blake notes, Johnson had “hailed the importance of independent inspectors general not being stifled by the Obama administration.”

“It’s just incredibly important to have permanent inspectors general that are completely independent that will provide Congress and the American public transparency and that watchdog assignment—that responsibility for departments and agencies—so that we have awareness of what’s happening,” Johnson said at a hearing on inspectors general that he chaired in 2015. “It’s the only way we’re going to be able to improve the efficiency, the effectiveness, the accountability of government is to have that type of transparency.”

At another point in the hearing, Johnson decried the act of “retaliating against people that were issuing reports” that their superiors didn’t like.

Indeed, back then, Johnson was singularly focused on the question of protecting the IGs from political interference. Unless the IGs were permanent appointees, he warned, “they are at greater risk of compromising their work to appease the agency or the president.”

His committee’s report on the issue, which was written at Johnson’ request, declared that the president’s power to fire an inspector general “threatens the IG’s independence at a very basic level.” It noted that the original IG Act had “attempted to temper this power by adding procedural safeguards meant to protect IGs from being removed for political or other nefarious reasons.” [Emphasis added, again.]

The Inspector General Empowerment Act, which had been backed by Johnson, was specifically aimed to address that problem. Notably though, it kept presidential power to fire IG’s intact.

Which brings us to Trump’s rolling Friday massacres.

There has been some modest pushback from GOP senators, including Senators Charles Grassley, Mitt Romney, Susan Collins and John Thune, who asked the administration to obey the law by offering an explanation for the recent IG terminations. Last month after earlier firings, Senator Rob Portman and James Lankford wrote a letter to Trump asking him ‘to work with IGs, not against them.”

But, as Politico notes, “so far, the handful of Republicans who have expressed unease with President Donald Trump’s firing of a federal watchdog have shown no signs that they’re willing to deploy hard-line tactics to hold him accountable.”

If critics were serious, “they could draw up legislation to protect IGs, hold up nominees until they get adequate answers or launch hearings and probes to get to the bottom of it.”

Spoiler alert: They won’t.

But at least those senators registered protest.

Not Johnson. The man who was so worried about politicization of the IGs under Obama has not even offered pro-forma objections to the defenestration of the watchdogs that he used to champion.

Even as Trump makes a joke of the independence of the inspectors general, Johnson remains one of Trump’s most eager lieutenants. And this week he signaled just how far he is prepared to go to accommodate himself to the president’s agenda.

What happened to Ron Johnson? On one level, his story is not all that much different from the rest of the GOP, which has transformed itself into Trumpist camp followers.

But I thought Ronjon would be different.

Charlie Sykes

Charlie Sykes is a founder and editor-at-large of The Bulwark and the author of How the Right Lost Its Mind. He is also the host of The Bulwark Podcast and an MSNBC contributor.