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After amplifying Donald Trump’s lie that the 2020 election was stolen from his supporters, a prominent GOP senator has aired a baseless conspiracy theory that “plainclothes militants, agents provocateurs” and “fake Trump supporters” were responsible for a deadly pro-Trump riot at the US Capitol on 6 January that sought to overturn election results.
Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin was among several senators – including Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz – who objected to election results on 6 January and appeared at a Homeland Security Committee hearing on Tuesday about the assault, inspired by a months-long campaign by the former president and his supporters to undermine the votes of millions of Americans.
The senator read from an article from far-right outlet The Federalist that suggested an “organised operation” composed of potential “antifa” or “leftist agitators” as well as a “disciplined, uniformed column of attackers” used the crowd as “cover” to “stage its attack”.
“He said that the mood of the crowd was ‘positive’ and ‘festive,’” Mr Johnson said, reading J Michael Waller’s account of the riot into the congressional record.
In the days and weeks that followed the riot, several Republican officials have dismissed threats from the attack, suggested “antifa” was responsible, and undermined the experiences shared by Democratic lawmakers and their staff, despite the assault unfolding for millions of viewers in real-time across social media.
Others have sought to distance themselves from their potential complicity, instead pointing blame at Democratic officials over security failures as lawmakers begin a probe of the attack.
After Trump’s loss, courts roundly dismissed his legal team’s attempts to toss out votes, and the Justice Department and elections officials nationwide rejected claims that the election was “stolen” by Democrats.
One month after Joe Biden was declared the president-elect, Senator Johnson – a staunch Trump ally who emerged from the right-wing “tea party” movement a decade ago – chaired a Homeland Security committee hearing to examine “irregularities” from the election, insisting that “a large percentage of the American public does not believe the November election results are legitimate”.
He was among a group of Republican senators who announced they would vote against certifying Electoral College results in several states. Several senators, including Senator Johnson, reversed their position after the assault.
A few months earlier, the senator led the Homeland Security committee’s partisan inquiry into Hunter Biden, ultimately finding no evidence to support allegations of improper influence or wrongdoing by his father, then-candidate Joe Biden.
Democrats panned what they considered a politically motivated investigation used to launder Russian disinformation campaigns to discredit Mr Trump’s opponent.
Following a 2018 trip to Moscow, the senator claimed Russian-backed efforts to undermine US election integrity in 2016 were “blown ... way out of proportion.” In 2020, he issued a subpoena to the FBI for records related to the agency’s probe of Russian-supported election interference.
“I want to take my hat off to Ron Johnson,” Mr Trump said in May. “The job he’s doing is incredible. … I see a lot of subpoenas out. So it’s a much different thing. We caught them in a very corrupt – you could call it treasonous, because it is, it’s treasonous. We caught them in a very corrupt act.”
But the committee report concluded that it was “unclear” whether Barack Obama’s administration was impacted by Hunter Biden’s position on the board of a Ukrainian gas company, and found no evidence for Mr Trump’s allegation that the former vice president had pressured Ukraine to fire its top prosecutor to protect his son.
Republican Senator Mitt Romney called the investigation a “political exercise” and said that “it is not the legitimate role of government for Congress, or for taxpayer expense, to be used in an effort to damage political opponents.”
Mr Biden’s campaign accused the senator of subsidising “a foreign attack against the sovereignty of our elections with taxpayer dollars” by amplifying “a long-disproven, hard-core right wing conspiracy theory” about the former vice president.
In the wake of Mr Trump’s loss in the 2020 election, Senator Johnson insisted that millions of Americans do not believe the results of the election were legitimate
On NBC’s Meet the Press, three days before a joint session of Congress convened to certify Electoral College results on 6 January, the senator said that there is an “unsustainable state of affairs in this country where we have tens of millions of people that do not view this election result as legitimate.”
On 13 January, the former president was impeached by the House of Representatives for inciting the riot at the Capitol.
House impeachment managers acting as prosecutors in his impeachment trial in the Senate detailed the history of Mr Trump’s “big lie” of election fraud that compelled his supporters to break into the Capitol, along with his months-long attempts to undermine election integrity and court political violence, leading up to his command to “fight like hell” at a rally that preceded the assault.
Democrats also presented audio and video evidence to senators, along with lengthy indictments from federal prosecutors alleging explicit links between Mr Trump’s rhetoric to rioters’ actions.
On 13 February, 57 senators found him guilty, falling short of a two-thirds majority to support his conviction.
“This didn’t seem like an armed insurrection to me,” he said during an interview with WISN-AM radio following the trial. “When you hear ‘armed,’ don’t you think of firearms? Here’s the questions I would have liked to ask. ‘How many firearms were confiscated? How many shots were fired?’ I’m only aware of one and I’ll defend that law enforcement officer for taking that shot. It was a tragedy, OK? But I think there was only one.”
At least 235 people were arrested and more than 400 others are under investigation following the riot, including an Alabama man accused of bringing to Washington DC several firearms, 11 Molotov cocktails, a crossbow, smoke bombs and a stun gun, were reportedly found in his car.
FBI officials said pipe bombs were placed outside the Democratic and Republican party headquarters the night before the attack.
In an indictment charging nine people for conspiring to attack the Capitol, US Attorneys said that members of the far-right anti-government militia Oath Keepers created a weapons cache outside the capital containing “goodies in case things go bad and we need to get heavy,” one person allegedly told the group.
The senator has said he is mulling a run for Wisconsin governor in 2022, should he choose not to seek a third term in the Senate.