Sen. Ron Johnson wanted to hand-deliver fake electors' votes to Mike Pence on Jan. 6, texts reveal

Lawrence Andrea Molly Beck
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

WASHINGTON – Minutes before Congress was set to begin certification of Joe Biden's victory on Jan. 6, 2021, an aide for U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson told former Vice President Mike Pence's staff that Johnson wanted to hand-deliver to Pence votes from Republicans in Wisconsin and Michigan who posed as fake presidential electors for Donald Trump. 

"Johnson needs to hand something to VPOTUS please advise," Sean Riley, Johnson's chief of staff, said in a text message to Pence staffer Chris Hodgson at 12:37 p.m. that day, according to evidence presented Tuesday by the House select committee investigating the attack on the U.S. Capitol.

"What is it?" Hodgson, a former legislative affairs director for Pence, replied.

"Alternate slate of electors for MI and WI because archivist didn't receive them," Riley wrote back.

Hodgson then told Riley: "Do not give that to him."

More:Wisconsin's ties to Jan. 6 may become clearer as select committee focuses on effort to stop certification

The exchange offers a new glimpse into the Oshkosh Republican's involvement in Trump's effort to stop the certification of the 2020 election, a campaign to overturn the election results fueled by Trump's false claims of election fraud that triggered an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

The evidence presented Tuesday once again showed that Wisconsin — one of seven states Biden won where groups of Republicans gathered as false presidential electors — was at the center of efforts to overturn the election.

Johnson in a statement through a spokesperson said he did not try to contact Pence. "This is a complete NON story," he said.

In a separate interview with CNN, Johnson said he was "basically unaware" of his office's contact with Pence's team. "This was a staff-to-staff exchange... Somebody delivered this to our office and asked to deliver that to the vice president," Johnson said. "I had no involvement in an alternate slate of electors. I had no idea this was even going to be delivered to us."

"My chief of staff did the right thing — contacted the vice president's staff," he added. "They said (they) didn't want it, so we didn't deliver it." 

When asked why his office offered the envelope to Pence's team without first vetting it, Johnson again said his team offered it to the vice president and the vice president declined to take it.

"Somebody from the House, some staff intern, you know, said, 'The vice president needs this,' or whatever," Johnson told reporters outside the Capitol. "Again, I wasn't involved. I don't know what they said."

Alexa Henning, a spokeswoman for Johnson, contended Johnson had "no involvement in the creation of an alternate slate of electors and had no foreknowledge that it was going to be delivered to our office." 

"This was a staff to staff exchange," Henning wrote in a tweet. "His new Chief of Staff contacted the Vice President’s office. The Vice President’s office said not to give it to him and we did not. There was no further action taken. End of story." 

Still, Johnson planned to lead an effort to reject Wisconsin’s electors on Jan. 6 but changed course after a violent mob seeking the same goal attacked the U.S. Capitol.

Riley, who first started working for Johnson in 2015, began his new job as chief of staff for Johnson in January 2021 after a year-long stint working for Trump. He did not respond to an interview request from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat from Madison, said her Republican counterpart's actions amounted to "direct support for Trump's conspiracy to overturn the will of the people in Wisconsin."

Two days before the Jan. 6, 2021, attack, Johnson was reportedly among a group of GOP senators who attended a meeting with MyPillow chief executive Mike Lindell that featured claims of election fraud.

Ahead of the certification vote, Johnson planned to lodge an objection on the floor against Wisconsin’s electors. He instead signed onto the formal objection of Arizona, a vote that took place before the attack, and then voted in favor of accepting the Arizona slate after all following the insurrection.

Later in 2021, Johnson then met with Wisconsin state lawmakers in the state Capitol to discuss the Legislature taking over presidential and federal elections and dismantling the state elections commission.

Johnson met privately for an hour with GOP legislative leaders in the state Capitol in early November, weeks before he launched a reelection campaign and as the state’s Republican base called for more scrutiny of the 2020 election.

Testimony and evidence presented Tuesday also suggested state GOP officials were left in the dark on the motivations or details of the scheme to get Congress to accept a false slate of presidential electors.

Former Republican Party of Wisconsin chairman Andrew Hitt, who submitted elector paperwork claiming to be a Trump elector, told the Jan. 6 committee he only agreed to do so if it was used in the event Trump's legal challenges overturned the election result.

"I was told that these would only count if a court ruled in our favor. So that would have been using our electors. Well, would have been using our electors in ways that we weren't told about and we wouldn't have supported," Hitt said in testimony presented Tuesday in a committee hearing.

A text message from state GOP executive director Mark Jefferson also presented Tuesday indicated Trump's campaign team wanted the elector paperwork flown to Washington D.C.

"Freaking Trump idiots want someone to fly original elector papers to the senate President. They're going to call one of us to tell us just what the hell is going on," Jefferson wrote.

The revelations about Johnson's purported efforts to help deliver another term to Trump received immediate backlash from Democrats.

"Ron Johnson actively tried to undermine this democracy. He literally tried to hand Mike Pence a slate of fake electors," Mandela Barnes, Wisconsin's lieutenant governor and a leading Democratic candidate for Johnson's senate seat, tweeted.  

"I'm calling on him to resign," Barnes wrote in another tweet.

Alex Lasry, Tom Nelson and Sarah Godlewski, also Democratic candidates for Senate, similarly criticized Johnson.

"Trump and his MAGA allies planned, promoted, & paid for a seditious conspiracy to overturn an election they lost," Lasry wrote. "And Ron Johnson attempted to deliver it to DC on a silver platter."

"It is clear Ron Johnson is a threat to our democracy and is unfit to continue serving in the United States Senate," Godlewski said in a statement.

Nelson suggested the Department of Justice investigate Johnson's role further. "Johnson should not only resign and be placed under oath, but all signs point to evidence of a crime that the U.S. Department of Justice is obligated to investigate." he said.

Contact Lawrence Andrea and Molly Beck at landrea@jrn.com and molly.beck@jrn.com.