Ron Johnson
United States Senator
from Wisconsin
Assumed office
January 3, 2011
Serving with Tammy Baldwin
Preceded byRuss Feingold
Chair of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee
In office
January 3, 2015 – February 3, 2021
Preceded byTom Carper
Succeeded byGary Peters
Personal details
Born
Ronald Harold Johnson

(1955-04-08) April 8, 1955 (age 65)
Mankato, Minnesota, U.S.
Political partyRepublican
Spouse(s)
Jane Curler
(m. 1977)
Children3
EducationUniversity of Minnesota (BS)
Net worth$10.4 million (2018)[1]
WebsiteSenate website

Ronald Harold Johnson (born April 8, 1955) is an American businessman and politician serving as the senior United States Senator from Wisconsin. He is a member of the Republican Party. Johnson was elected to the Senate in 2010, defeating Democratic incumbent Russ Feingold, and reelected in 2016, again defeating Feingold. Before politics, Johnson was chief executive officer of a polyester and plastics manufacturer founded by his brother-in-law.[2]

During the debt-ceiling crisis of 2011, Johnson was known as a staunch fiscal hawk who called for federal spending cuts. In 2017, he voted for President Donald Trump's Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. A staunch ally of Trump, Johnson launched investigations of Trump's political opponents, spread conspiracy theories about the FBI and Trump–Ukraine scandal, promoted false claims of fraud in the 2020 election, suggested that Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi was at fault for the storming of the U.S. Capitol by a pro-Trump mob, and stated that the pro-Trump insurrectionists "love this country."

Johnson rejects the scientific consensus on climate change, claiming that scientists who attribute global warming to human activity are "crazy" and the theory is "lunacy". He opposes the Affordable Care Act and has voted multiple times to repeal it. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he argued against public health measures and used his chairmanship of the Senate Homeland Security Committee to invite witnesses to push fringe theories about COVID-19.

As of 2021, Johnson is the only statewide elected Republican in Wisconsin.

Early life and education

Johnson was born in Mankato, Minnesota, the son of Jeanette Elizabeth (née Thisius) and Dale Robert Johnson. His father was of Norwegian descent and his mother of German ancestry.[3] Growing up, Johnson delivered newspapers, worked as a caddy at a golf course, baled hay on his uncle's dairy farm, and worked as a dishwasher in a restaurant.[4] He graduated from Edina High School in 1973[5] and from the University of Minnesota in 1977 with a degree in business and accounting. He continued studying until 1979 but did not receive a graduate degree.[6]

Business career

In 1979, Johnson moved to Oshkosh, Wisconsin, with his wife, Jane.[7] He worked for his wife's family's plastics company,[8] PACUR, an abbreviation of "Pat Curler", Jane's brother. Curler created the company with funding from his and Jane's father, Howard Curler. Howard Curler had been named CEO of the plastics giant Bemis Company in 1978, and for the first several years of PACUR's existence, Bemis was the company's only customer.[9]

According to his campaign biography, Johnson worked as PACUR's accountant and a machine operator.[9] The company later expanded into specialty plastics used in medical device packaging, which involved hiring salespeople and exporting products to other countries.[9] In the mid-1980s, Pat Curler left PACUR and Johnson became its CEO. In 1987, the Curler family sold PACUR to Bowater Industries for $18 million; Johnson remained the company's CEO. In 1997, he purchased PACUR from Bowater; he remained CEO until he was elected to the Senate in 2010.[10]

U.S. Senate

Elections

2010

Main article: 2010 United States Senate election in Wisconsin

Freshman portrait of Johnson from the 112th Congress
Freshman portrait of Johnson from the 112th Congress

The 2010 U.S. Senate campaign was Johnson's first run for elected office. He was described as a "political blank slate" because he had no history of campaigning or holding office.[11] Johnson attracted the attention of the Tea Party movement when he gave two emotional speeches at Tea Party rallies. According to The New York Times, Johnson said he "did kind of spring out of the Tea Party" and is glad to be associated with it,[12] although he did not join the Senate Tea Party Caucus following his election.[13] In the September 14, 2010, Republican primary, Johnson, running a largely self-financed campaign,[14] defeated Watertown businessman Dave Westlake with 85% of the vote to Westlake's 10% and 5% for Stephen Finn.[15][16]

As a candidate, Johnson opposed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. He launched his campaign by telling the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that the United States "would have been far better off not spending any of the money and [letting] the recovery happen as it was going to happen." The newspaper later reported that the education council Johnson led considered applying for stimulus money in 2009, but ultimately elected not to. The Johnson campaign stated that nonprofits consider "many possibilities," but that the council "made no application" for stimulus funds.[17]

Johnson's 2010 Senate campaign raised $15.2 million, $9 million of which was his own money.[18][19] In June 2011, his financial disclosures showed that PACUR had paid him $10 million in deferred compensation in early 2011. The compensation covered the period from 1997 to 2011, during which he took no salary from PACUR. Johnson said that, as CEO, he had personally determined the dollar amount and that it was unrelated to the contributions he had made to his campaign.[20][21]

In the November 2 election, Johnson defeated Democratic incumbent Russ Feingold with 52% of the vote.[22]

Johnson speaking in February 2011.
Johnson speaking in February 2011.

After being elected to the Senate, Johnson claimed that he sold his liquid assets to avoid a conflict of interest and also promised to place his assets in a blind trust.[23][24]

2016

Main article: 2016 United States Senate election in Wisconsin

In March 2013, Johnson announced that he would seek reelection in 2016. In November 2014, he was again endorsed by the fiscally conservative Club for Growth;[25] that month, he said he would not self-finance his reelection bid.[14] In December 2014, the Washington Post rated Johnson the most vulnerable incumbent U.S. senator in the 2016 election cycle.[26] In May 2015, Feingold announced that he would run to win the Senate seat back.[27]

In the November 8 general election, Johnson was reelected with 50.2% of the vote.[28]

Committee assignments

On January 26, 2021, Gary Peters replaced Johnson as chair of the Homeland Security committee after Democrats won control of the Senate in the November 2020 elections and "because the GOP imposes a six-year term limit on committee chairs... no matter which party [controls] the Senate". The committee's last act was to approve Alejandro Mayorkas as Secretary of Homeland Security.[29]

Political positions

In March 2021, The New York Times called Johnson "the Republican Party's foremost amplifier of conspiracy theories and disinformation now that Donald Trump himself is banned from social media and largely avoiding appearances on cable television".[8]

Donald Trump

Johnson is a staunch supporter of former President Donald Trump.[30][31][32] As chairman of the Senate homeland security committee, he launched several investigations into Trump's political opponents, including Joe Biden.[30] In September 2020, after having for months boasted that he was undertaking an investigation that would demonstrate Biden's "unfitness for office", Johnson released a report that found no evidence of wrongdoing by Biden in relation to Ukraine. Johnson's report reiterated allegations that have remained unproven, many of which had been part of Russian disinformation campaigns.[33]

In January 2018, Johnson said he had an informant with information that the FBI and Department of Justice had conspired against Trump in the 2016 presidential election; Johnson called it a "secret society" and said there was "corruption at the highest levels of the FBI".[34] The same day, he reversed course and said he did not know the meaning of the comments.[35] In February 2018, Johnson suggested that a text message between FBI agent Peter Strzok and Lisa Page raised questions about “the type and extent of President Obama's personal involvement” in the Clinton emails investigation.[36] But the message in question, which said, "Potus wants to know everything we're doing", referred to the FBI investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, not the Clinton emails investigation, which had concluded months earlier.[36] In April 2019, Johnson defended Trump's statement that some high-level FBI agents were "scum"[37] and said "I think there's a proven fact there was definitely corruption at the highest levels of the FBI."[37]

After Biden won the 2020 presidential election and Trump refused to concede, Johnson promoted false claims of widespread electoral fraud that courts around the country had repeatedly rejected.[38] While ballots were counted during the 2020 election, he said that half the country would not accept a Biden win, and made erroneous, unsubstantiated claims of "voter fraud that the mainstream media and, unfortunately, many officials just simply ignore."[31] Johnson made baseless claims that Democrats had "gamed the system" in Wisconsin.[31] As chairman of the Homeland Security committee, he used it to broadcast Trump's allegations of fraud.[30][39] Johnson refused to acknowledge Biden's victory in the November 3 election until December 16, when he acknowledged that the election was legitimate and said he would not raise an objection to the counting of the electoral votes.[40][41][42] However, in January 2021, Johnson announced his initial intention to object to the certification of the Electoral College results but ultimately voted not to object to both of the objections raised during the 2021 Electoral College vote count.[43] Nevertheless, the day after the count was interrupted by the 2021 storming of the United States Capitol, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel called for Johnson—as well as other members of the "Sedition Caucus", such as Wisconsin congressmen Scott Fitzgerald and Tom Tiffany—to resign or be expelled from Congress.[44]

In February 2021, Johnson pushed conspiracy theories about the January 6 storming of the Capitol, claiming that Nancy Pelosi might have been involved.[45] He floated the conspiracy theory that she sought a second impeachment of Trump to "deflect" from "what [she] knew and when [she] knew it".[46] Johnson voted for a measure declaring that Trump's impeachment over his role in inciting the storming of the Capitol was unconstitutional.[46] He later voted to acquit Trump.[47] After Trump's acquittal, Johnson downplayed the storming of the Capitol on a conservative talk show, saying the attack "didn’t seem like an armed insurrection to me".[48][49] Politifact rated Johnson's statement as a "Pants on Fire" falsehood.[50]

In March 2021, Johnson said that he wasn't worried when rioters stormed the Capitol on January 6 because they "loved their country" but would have been if the rioters had been from Black Lives Matter and Antifa.[51]

Environment and energy

Johnson rejects the scientific consensus on climate change.[8] In a 2010 interview, he called scientists who attribute global warming to manmade causes "crazy," saying the theory is "lunacy," and attributed climate change to causes other than human activity.[52] Johnson also suggested carbon dioxide was good for the environment, as it "helps the trees grow."[8] In dismissing the effects of climate change, Johnson falsely claimed that Greenland was green when it was discovered and had become white and snow-clad over time as a result of cooling temperatures.[8] In August 2015, Johnson baselessly claimed that "the climate hasn't warmed in quite a few years. That is proven scientifically," although record world temperatures were reached that year and in 2014.[53] In February 2016, Johnson said, "I've never denied climate change. The climate has always changed, and it always will".[54] Johnson co-sponsored the Energy Tax Prevention Act, which would block the EPA from imposing new rules on carbon emissions.[55]

When asked about allowing additional drilling for oil in the continental US, including the Great Lakes if oil were found there, Johnson responded, "We have to get the oil where it is, but we need to do it responsibly. We need to utilize American ingenuity and American technology to make sure we do it environmentally sensitively and safely." After criticism from the Feingold campaign, Johnson said in July 2010 that his answer did not mean he supported drilling in the Great Lakes.[56]

Fiscal issues

Obama presidency

During Obama's presidency, Johnson was a fiscal hawk who called for federal spending cuts. He was involved in the deals to raise the debt ceiling in July 2011 and January 2013.[13] Johnson said that the 2011 debate over whether to increase the US debt ceiling presented an opportunity to establish hard caps on federal spending.[57] He argued that Congress could not keep raising the debt limit, and needed to prioritize spending.[58] Johnson called for open negotiations over the debt ceiling, saying that the closed-door talks were "outrageous" and "disgusting." He said that default should not have been a concern, because the government had plenty of funding to pay interest on debt, Social Security benefits, and salary for soldiers.[59] In January 2013, Johnson voted for the fiscal cliff agreement that reduced pending tax increases and delayed spending cuts precipitated by the 2011 debt ceiling deal.[13] When asked whether he would get rid of home mortgage interest deductions (claiming mortgage interest as a tax-deductible expense), he said he "wouldn't rule it out" as part of an effort to lower taxes and simplify the tax code.[60]

Trump presidency

During the Trump administration, Johnson defended deficit-increasing tax cuts, falsely claiming that they reduced the deficit.[61] Johnson voted in favor of the Tax Cut and Jobs Act of 2017.[62] During the economic recession that coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic, Johnson voted for the CARES Act in March 2020, but he was a staunch opponent of further stimulus.[63] In December 2020, Johnson sought to block a bipartisan proposal to provide $1,200 in COVID-19-related stimulus checks, citing the national debt.[64][65]

Biden presidency

In March 2021, Johnson sought to obstruct and delay passage of the American Rescue Plan Act.[66][67][68] Breaking from Senate norms, Johnson forced a 10-hour reading of the bill on the grounds that the Senate hadn't had time to read the bill. (In 2017, Johnson made no objection when the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act was speedily finalized and still contained handwritten amendments when it came up for a vote.)[69]

Gun policy

Johnson is a strong supporter of gun rights. He is cosponsor of S.570, a bill that would prohibit the Department of Justice from tracking and cataloging the purchases of multiple rifles and shotguns.[70] In April 2013, Johnson was one of 12 Republican senators to sign a letter threatening to filibuster any newly introduced gun control legislation.[71] That month, Johnson joined 45 other senators in defeating the Manchin-Toomey Amendment, which would have required background checks on all sales of guns, including between individuals.[72]

Health care

Johnson opposes the Affordable Care Act (ACA or "Obamacare") and has voted to repeal it.[73] In 2013, Johnson declined to support efforts to tie funding the federal government to defunding ACA, noting that such efforts were highly unlikely to succeed given Obama's opposition.[74] In 2014, he criticized Congress's ability to continue using pretax employer contributions to help pay for their medical care and filed a federal lawsuit seeking to block ACA exemptions to members of Congress and their staff.[75] The suit was dismissed for lack of standing, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit upheld the dismissal on appeal.[76][77]

In an August 2017 interview, Johnson said of Senator John McCain's "thumbs-down" vote that killed the Republican bill to repeal the ACA, "He has a brain tumor right now. The vote occurred at 1:30 in the morning. So some of that might have factored in."[78] A McCain spokesman called the statements "bizarre and deeply unfortunate." Johnson later said he was "disappointed I didn't more eloquently express my sympathy for what Sen. McCain is going through."[79]

COVID-19 pandemic

Main article: COVID-19 pandemic in the United States

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Johnson voted against the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which passed the Senate on March 18, 2020, by a vote of 90–8.[80] In an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Johnson said he was aware "what a nasty disease COVID-19 can be, and how it's obviously devastating to somewhere between 1 and 3.4 percent of the population... [b]ut we don't shut down our economy because tens of thousands of people die on the highways. It's a risk we accept so we can move about. We don't shut down our economies because tens of thousands of people die from the common flu". His comments were met with criticism that he was "playing down" the threat of COVID-19. Johnson responded that he was "just trying to look at this very realistically".[81]

Johnson used his position as chair of the Senate Homeland Security Committee to invite witnesses to hearings to promote fringe theories about COVID-19.[38] The witnesses promoted unproven drugs, made dubious claims about COVID-19 spread and pushed skepticism about vaccines.[82] Johnson called pulmonologist Pierre Kory[83] to testify about his experiences with Ivermectin, as well as a medical doctor who "has cast doubts on coronavirus vaccines and has pushed for the use of hydroxychloroquine", and a cardiologist who disagrees with "settled science".[84]

Asked about COVID-19 vaccines, Johnson refused to say whether they were safe (as medical experts had determined) or to encourage people to get vaccinated.[8]

COVID-19 exposure

On October 3, 2020, Johnson announced that he had tested positive for COVID-19.[85] After exposure on September 14, he quarantined until September 28. He tested negative twice during the quarantine, and was asymptomatic, but tested positive again later and returned to isolation.[86] While awaiting a COVID-19 test result, Johnson attended a fundraising event.[85]

Immigration

Johnson supported Trump's decision to end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which he said was unconstitutional and "created incentives for children from Central America to take great risks to enter America illegally." Trump's decision made eligible for deportation, after a six-month waiting period, the approximately 800,000 unauthorized immigrants who entered the country as minors and had temporary permission to stay in the country.[87]

Regulations

In July 2011, Johnson introduced a bill that would have imposed a moratorium on significant new federal regulations until the national unemployment level fell to 7.7%, just below where it was when Obama took office.[88]

Senate rules

Johnson is one of the Senate Republicans who favor the "nuclear option" of ending the filibuster "to speed up consideration of President Trump's nominees" because changing the Senate's rules to a simple majority vote would "ensure a quicker pace on Trump's court picks".[89]

Social issues

Johnson opposes abortion except in cases of incest, rape, or when the mother's life is in danger.[90][91] He opposes the funding of research that uses embryonic stem cells. Johnson has said he disagrees with it morally and that eliminating funding for the research would help balance the federal budget.[92]

In March 2015, Johnson voted for an amendment to establish a deficit-neutral reserve fund to allow all employees in the country to earn paid sick time.[93]

Statute of limitations for sex abuse lawsuits

In January 2010, before holding elective office, Johnson opposed a Wisconsin bill that would have eliminated the time limit for future child sexual abuse victims to bring lawsuits while allowing an additional three years for past victims to sue.[94] He testified before the Wisconsin Senate that "punishment for the actual perpetrators should be severe", but questioned whether it would be just for employers of perpetrators to be financially affected by lawsuits.[95] He added that the bill, if enacted, might reduce the reporting of child sexual abuse.[11][94] At the time of his testimony, Johnson was on the Finance Council of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Green Bay.[11][94] In June 2010 he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: "I can't think of a penalty that would be too harsh for these guys",[11] and in late September 2010 said that the legislation would have financially crippled organizations such as the Boys & Girls Clubs and that the punishment for child sexual abuse should be "severe and swift."[94] He also addressed reports about his testimony, saying, "I sought to warn legislators of those consequences in order to correct legislative language so that any bills that passed would punish the perpetrators and those that protect them, not honorable organizations that do so much good for our communities. We must rid our society of people who prey on children."[96]

Trade

In November 2018, Johnson was one of 12 Republican senators to sign a letter to Trump requesting the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement be submitted to Congress by the end of the month to allow a vote on it before the end of the year, as they were concerned that "passage of the USMCA as negotiated will become significantly more difficult" if it had to be approved by the incoming 116th Congress.[97]

Trump-Ukraine scandal

Further information: Trump–Ukraine scandal

Further information: Impeachment inquiry against Donald Trump

Volodymyr Zelensky 2019 presidential inauguration with U.S. delegation; Sen. Johnson (far right)
Volodymyr Zelensky 2019 presidential inauguration with U.S. delegation; Sen. Johnson (far right)

Johnson became an important figure in the 2019 controversy surrounding U.S. aid to Ukraine. He joined the U.S. delegation at the inauguration of the new president of Ukraine in May with National Security Council official Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman and the "Three Amigos" (U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, and then-special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker).[98] In August 2019, Sondland told Johnson that military aid for Ukraine was linked to Trump's push for Ukraine to investigate the origins of special counsel Robert Mueller's probe.[99] In October 2019, amid the impeachment inquiry into Trump, Johnson asserted that Trump had told him in August that he might withhold aid to Ukraine "because of alleged corruption involving the 2016 U.S. election. Johnson stood by the president, saying he was sympathetic to his concerns and didn't see any bad motives on his part".[100] Johnson has said that he asked Trump whether the aid to Ukraine was linked to the launch of the Biden investigation, and that Trump replied that it was not and asked him who had said that. Johnson replied that it was Sondland, and Trump asserted that "he barely knew him."[101] In November 2019, at the request of House Intelligence Committee ranking member Devin Nunes and temporary member Jim Jordan, Johnson provided a detailed timeline of his involvement with the Ukraine situation.[101] In February 2016, he had been one of eight senators who signed a letter to then-Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko urging reforms in the office of the Ukrainian prosecutor Viktor Shokin.[102] On October 3, 2019, Johnson told reporters he did not recall signing the letter, which contradicts Trump's allegations that Biden had improperly pushed for Shokin's removal.[103] The same day, Johnson also said that there was nothing wrong with Trump asking China, in October 2019, to start an investigation into Joe and Hunter Biden,[104] although there is no evidence of any wrongdoing by the Bidens in China.[104] Johnson has been one of the few Republican Senators to defend Trump's efforts to get Ukraine and China to investigate Biden (then a potential 2020 Democratic presidential candidate) and his son.[105] Sondland told the House Intelligence Committee, "I shared concerns of the potential quid pro quo regarding the security aid with Senator Ron Johnson."[106] Johnson went to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky's inauguration. Meeting later with Trump, he discussed Zelensky and the aid to Ukraine Trump had withheld, urging him to release it. He approached Trump after a U.S. diplomat informed him that its release was contingent on Ukraine's willingness to conduct investigations Trump sought regarding the 2016 elections. He said he was disturbed by any linkage of the actions or the existence of a "quid pro quo" but became satisfied after Trump had personally denied to him that the release was tied to political investigations. On November 26, however, the New York Times reported that Trump had been briefed about a whistleblower complaint involving a quid pro quo before releasing the withheld military aid to Ukraine.[107]

Johnson also met in 2019 with Ukraine diplomat Andrii Telizhenko regarding Ukraine's alleged interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.[108] The State Department revoked Telizhenko's visa in October 2020, and CNN reported the U.S. government was considering sanctioning him as a Russian agent.[109] Johnson has promoted conspiracy theories that the FBI and CIA have sabotaged Trump.[110][111][112] In November 2019, he suggested that Vindman, who testified about Trump's phone call to Zelensky, might have participated in efforts to oppose Trump's policies and remove him from office, saying it was "entirely possible."[113] Michael Volkov, Vindman's lawyer, called Johnson's attack "such a baseless accusation, so ridiculous on its face, that it doesn’t even warrant a response."[114] Vindman was brought to the U.S. with his identical twin brother by their widowed father when they were three years old. He is a decorated veteran from the Iraq war, having received a Purple Heart after being wounded in an IED blast. He is fluent in Russian and Ukrainian.[115][116][117][118] He was previously posted to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.[119] The Washington Post wrote, "Johnson's letter intensified a campaign of attacks on Vindman from Trump and his allies, which has included speculation about the decorated war veteran's patriotism from conservative commentators and a White House statement on Friday criticizing his job performance."[120]

Johnson criticized Trump for firing Sondland, calling Sondland "a patriot".[121] After Trump fired State Department Inspector General Steve Linick and replaced him with an ally, Johnson said, "I'm not crying big crocodile tears over this termination."[122]

Electoral history

Wisconsin U.S. Senate Republican primary 2010[16]
Party Candidate Votes %
Republican Ron Johnson 500,925 84.7%
Republican Dave Westlake 61,303 10.4%
Republican Stephen Finn 29,005 4.9%
Wisconsin U.S. Senate election 2010
Party Candidate Votes %
Republican Ron Johnson 1,125,999 51.86%
Democratic Russ Feingold (incumbent) 1,020,958 47.02%
Republican gain from Democratic
Wisconsin U.S. Senate election 2016[28]
Party Candidate Votes %
Republican Ron Johnson 1,479,262 50.2%
Democratic Russ Feingold 1,380,496 46.8%
Libertarian Phil Anderson 87,531 3.0%
Republican hold

Personal life

Johnson and his wife Jane reside in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.[7] They have three children, all graduates of the University of Wisconsin,[123] and four grandchildren. He is a member of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod.[124]

References

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Party political offices
Preceded by
Tim Michels
Republican nominee for U.S. Senator from Wisconsin
(Class 3)

2010, 2016
Most recent
U.S. Senate
Preceded by
Russ Feingold
U.S. senator (Class 3) from Wisconsin
2011–present
Served alongside: Herb Kohl, Tammy Baldwin
Incumbent
Preceded by
Tom Carper
Chair of the Senate Homeland Security Committee
2015–2021
Succeeded by
Gary Peters
U.S. order of precedence (ceremonial)
Preceded by
Marco Rubio
United States senators by seniority
47th
Succeeded by
Rand Paul