Ron Johnson goes out on a limb to absolve Trump supporters for Capitol riot

Since the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, some of Donald Trump's supporters have suggested that it was not all it was cracked up to be.

Initially, the argument was that maybe this was the work of provocateurs like loosely organized left-wing group antifa trying to give Trump supporters a bad name. That died down as scores of Trump supporters were arrested in connection with the violence - with some bristling at the idea that their actions would be blamed on antifa - and as GOP leaders cautioned their colleagues against the theory. Then the argument was that the storming of the Capitol was not really that bad: that it was not the "insurrection" that some alleged. This also runs afoul of the evidence.

On Tuesday, as his colleagues were trying to get to the bottom of the problems with the response to the Capitol riot, one senator united both of these theories: Ron Johnson, R-Wis.

Johnson recently led the effort to argue that the event was not an armed insurrection. As he began his questioning Tuesday, he said what happened was a tragedy. Then he spent most of his time planting seeds of doubt that the violence was not the work of Trump supporters.

The seeds, though, rely upon speculative evidence and a very suspect gardener.

Johnson's argument revolved around the account of one man: J. Michael Waller, who wrote a piece last month that ran in The Federalist, in which he suggested that left-wing provocateurs were responsible for what happened.

Waller is a senior analyst at the Center for Security Policy, which is a hard-line immigration think tank founded by former Reagan administration official Frank Gaffney. Gaffney and the Center for Security Policy had been ostracized, even by mainstream Republicans, before finding new life with the rise of Trump. In 2009, Gaffney wrote a piece saying President Barack Obama "would have to be considered America's first Muslim president."

This is the source of the information Johnson thought worth raising - quoting Waller at length - in a Senate hearing.

Beyond the source, what Johnson cited was highly speculative. Among the things Waller mentioned in his theory:

- People "wearing Trump or MAGA hats backward and who did not fit in with the rest of the crowd in terms of their actions and demeanor, whom I presumed to be antifa or other leftist agitators."

- "The mood of the crowd was positive and festive."

- The Trump crowd was pro-police. "Many wore pro-police shirts or carried pro-police 'Back the Blue' flags."

- The families and physical characteristics of those gathered: ". . . Some were indignant and contemptuous of Congress, but not one appeared angry or incited to riot. Many of the marchers were families with small children; many were elderly, overweight, or just plain tired or frail - traits not typically attributed to the riot-prone."

Waller's piece is rife with leading conclusions, most notably:

"A very few didn't share the jovial, friendly, earnest demeanor of the great majority. Some obviously didn't fit in.

"Among them were younger twentysomethings wearing new Trump or MAGA hats, often with the visor in the back, showing no enthusiasm and either looking at the ground, glowering, or holding out their phones with outstretched arms to make videos of as many faces as possible in the crowd.

"Some appeared awkward, the way someone's body language inadvertently shows the world that he feel like he doesn't fit in. A few seemed to be nursing a deep, churning rage."

If these people were provocateurs, in other words, they did not appear to try that hard to fit into the crowd for some reason. Waller draws numerous conclusions for which there is no real evidence in the arrest records of those who stormed the Capitol.

Waller has also in recent weeks floated the baseless idea that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., purposely allowed Capitol Police to be overrun.

Waller's piece also relied upon the debunked idea that the planning of the attack points the finger elsewhere, saying it "bore the markings of an organized operation planned well in advance of the Jan. 6 joint session of Congress." Planning does not mean the riot was not incited. Democrats have said this incitement predated Trump's Jan. 6 speech to supporters who later stormed the Capitol because Trump had long predicted a stolen election and regularly cited the prospect of violence by his supporters.

None of this nuance made its way into Johnson's presentation.

"The last five pages is titled 'Provocateurs Turn Unsuspecting Marchers into an Invading Mob.' " Johnson said toward the end. "So I'd really recommend everybody in the committee read this account. And I've asked that it be entered into the record."

Johnson did not dwell on this point when questioning the law enforcement officials at the hearing. He did not ask them whether they had evidence of such provocateurs being involved - perhaps because no such evidence exists.

About the closest he came was asking one of them whether they might have underestimated the threat because most Trump supporters are pro-law enforcement - as if this did not involve a motivated subset of people who might have decided their devotion to police might temporarily take a back seat to their feelings about an allegedly stolen presidential election.

Former U.S. Capitol police chief Steven Sund, in response to Johnson's query, said his information was that his officers "were trying to prevent people from coming into the building, and people were showing up saying, 'Hey, we're police, let us through,' and still wanted to violate the law to get inside the building. So, you know . . ."

If this was truly the work of provocateurs, why not ask about that?

The fog of war is a real thing - even in something that's not technically war. Figuring out what happened is a valid pursuit. But it's also possible to inject doubt based upon flimsy evidence, relying upon extreme sources. Tuesday would seem to have been a good opportunity to try to put some meat on the bone of Johnson's theories, beyond a single account from one such source. But Johnson went in a far different direction even than many of his GOP colleagues. It might behoove his party to declare whether it thinks what he's floating is valid, given how it appears to be snowballing right now.