Opinion | Sen. Ron Johnson's claim he knew nothing about a fake electors plot isn't believable

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Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., reacted angrily to the news that Wisconsin’s attorney general, Josh Kaul, had filed criminal charges against three associates of former President Donald Trump for their alleged roles in the fake elector scheme. “Now Democrats are weaponizing Wisconsin’s judiciary,” Johnson posted on X. “Apparently conservative lawyers advising clients is illegal under Democrat tyranny. Democrats are turning America into a banana republic.”

Johnson has reason to sweat this one, because the criminal case is likely to bring renewed attention to his role in the attempt to overturn the 2020 presidential election and his shifting and inconsistent explanations. On Jan. 6, 2021, Johnson and his staff tried to hand fake electoral certificates to Vice President Mike Pence, but they were rebuffed. Johnson initially claimed he didn’t know about the plot, but recent documents — including text messages — show that Johnson and his staff were told explicitly about the plot to deliver the fake electoral votes.

On Tuesday, Wisconsin’s Department of Justice brought felony forgery charges against one of the architects of the plan, Kenneth Chesebro. That attorney already pleaded guilty in Georgia to participating in the illegal attempt in that state to overturn the election. Wisconsin prosecutors also charged Trump aide Mike Roman and attorney Jim Troupis, who represented Trump in Wisconsin during the 2020 election. Wisconsin is the fifth state to bring criminal charges in connection with the conspiracy to overturn Trump’s defeat.

The evidence supporting the Wisconsin charges is especially robust, given the volume of communications — text messages, emails, photos, videos and social media posts — that were gathered as part of an earlier civil lawsuit that unearthed more than 1,400 pages of documents related to the conspiracy. (That case was settled after the fake electors admitted they had signed a document that was “used as part of an attempt to improperly overturn the 2020 presidential election results.”)

Wisconsin’s criminal case is also bolstered by the apparent cooperation of the former state GOP chairman, Andrew Hitt, who signed the forged electoral certificates as the “chairperson, Electoral College of Wisconsin.” In interviews with CBS’s “60 Minutes,” Hitt expressed regret and claimed he was intimidated and “tricked” into signing the false documents.

All of this creates an awkward situation for Wisconsin’s senior senator.

According to this week’s indictment, after a meeting at the Wisconsin Capitol on Dec. 14, 2020, where Trump electors signed the fake certificates, Chesebro and Troupis arranged for the documents to be flown to Washington by a young GOP volunteer. According to the charging document, the young aide sent a Jan. 5 text message saying “5 mins until I make the drop” and added, “I feel like a drug dealer.”

She later told 60 Minutes” that when she handed the certificates to Chesebro, the attorney took “a dramatic step back and looked at me and said, ‘You might have just made history.’”

This is where Johnson comes in.

According to the House Jan. 6 committee, Johnson connected Troupis with his chief of staff, Sean Riley, who texted Pence staff member Chris Hodgson at 12:37 p.m. on Jan. 6, saying, “Johnson needs to hand something to VPOTUS please advise.”

Hodgson responded: “What is it?”

Riley told Hodgson that they hoped to deliver an “alternate slate of electors for MI and WI because archivist didn’t receive them.”

Pence’s aide pushed back, texting Riley, “Do not give them to him.”

Johnson initially said he was “basically unaware” of what was going on, dismissing the attempted handoff of the fake certificates as a “staff-to-staff exchange.” Later, however, he admitted that his staff had been in touch with Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Pa., “about how Kelly’s office could get us the electors because they had it.”

Even so, he continued to insist that he “had no idea that there was an alternate slate of electors.” Referring to Troupis, Johnson said, “He was asking me to deliver some documents.” He said he didn’t know the document Troupis wanted him to hand off was a fake slate of Trump electors from his home state. What did he think the document could have been, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel asked. Responded Johnson: “I couldn’t have cared less. I’m asked by the attorney for the president of the United States to deliver something to the vice president on that day.”

But documents released as part of the civil lawsuit in March seemed to blow a hole in Johnson’s story. In a Dec. 8, 2020, email to Chesebro, Troupis wrote that he “spoke with Senator Johnson late last night about the Pence angle at the end.” Troupis wrote, “Just wanted to take his temperature.”

“The Pence angle” is an apparent reference to the “angle” at the center of the attempted coup, Trump’s plan to have the vice president refuse to count the legitimate votes.

The documents also show that Troupis texted Johnson personally on Jan. 6, explicitly mentioning the electors: “We need to get a document on the Wisconsin electors to you for the VP immediately.” He added, “Is there a staff person I can talk to immediately.”

That same day, Troupis texted Chesebro, confirming that he had been “on the phone with Mike Roman and Senator Johnson’s COS to get an original copy of Wi slate to VP.”

As attorney Jay Kuo notes, “It would be extremely unusual for a senator’s chief of staff to be arranging such a high level handoff of something as important as Wisconsin’s false electoral college certification without the senator himself being fully in the know and involved.”

Which is perhaps why Johnson protests so much. The new documents shred his tortured explanations, and the new criminal charges guarantee that he will face more questions — a lot more questions — about what he knew and when he knew it.

This article was originally published on MSNBC.com