MILWAUKEE — Sen. Ron Johnson’s public explanations about whether he played a role in a plan to reverse the 2020 election results have led the lawyer suing Wisconsin’s slate of “fake electors” to say he’ll soon demand they turn over any communications they may have had with him or his staff.
The attorney, Jeff Mandell, told NBC News he’s also attempting to probe communications between the Republican senator and the Wisconsin-based lawyer Jim Troupis, who served as an attorney for then-President Donald Trump’s campaign. Troupis, who headed Trump’s unsuccessful recount efforts in the state, was not one of the 10 people who falsely attested that Trump was Wisconsin’s rightful winner, but the lawsuit alleges he was a key player in the broader scheme to undermine Joe Biden’s victory.
Mandell, whose case is pending in federal court, described Johnson’s public explanations as evolving and said he plans to ask the judge overseeing the case for communications between the defendants and Johnson and his aides, including texts or emails.
“It piques our curiosity that at first it was, ‘there’s nothing to see here.’ Then it was, ‘OK, but my involvement was just [a few] seconds.’ And now, it’s ‘my involvement was one hour and, by the way, let’s not call this an insurrection,’” Mandell said, referring to Johnson’s recent comments in response to questions from NBC News. “We definitely want to probe this. We certainly think there could be more to the story and we want to make sure we have the whole story.”
It is the latest pressure on Johnson to explain his words or actions surrounding the events of Jan. 6, 2021, as the Republican enters the homestretch of an intense battle to win his third term in the U.S. Senate against Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes. In addition to the potential for new civil legal entanglements, a former Democratic U.S. senator had called for federal investigators to probe Johnson’s ties to the scheme, while Johnson’s home state newspaper declared that his public remarks “don’t add up.” And last week, Johnson suffered a social media backlash over his remarks that the attack on the U.S. Capitol wasn’t an armed insurrection.
At issue is the extent of Johnson’s involvement in trying to pass a slate of phony electors to then-Vice President Mike Pence on Jan. 6, 2021, to subvert the presidential election results.
Casey Lucier, investigative counsel with the Jan. 6 Select Committee, has said that the idea behind the fake electors scheme was that the Trump campaign would organize its own, unofficial electors in the swing states that Trump had lost. Then, when Congress met to certify the election results Jan. 6, Trump allies could offer their own elector slates as an alternative to the state-certified Biden electors, in an attempt to pressure Pence to refuse to validate Biden’s victory.
The House committee investigating the Capitol attack revealed text messages in June showing that a Johnson aide had contacted a Pence aide about getting “an alternative slate of electors” from Michigan and Wisconsin to the vice president; Pence’s aide declined.
Johnson has since said that he knew nothing of a fake elector scheme, which is now part of a sprawling federal investigation. Johnson said he was contacted by Troupis about getting something to the vice president, but that he didn’t know the substance of what Troupis wanted to pass along — and his involvement was limited to “a couple texts” connecting Troupis with a member of his staff.
The Wisconsin lawsuit alleges that Troupis was a link between the Trump campaign and the fake electors, and allegedly relayed the strategy behind the scheme to Trump allies in Wisconsin. The New York Times has published a Nov. 18, 2020, memo from the Trump campaign addressed to Troupis laying out the strategy, which is cited in the lawsuit. Earlier this year, Troupis was among the attorneys named in government subpoenas that the FBI served to some of the fake electors in June, according to a source with direct knowledge of the subpoena, as well as reporting from The Washington Post. The subpoena asked electors to turn over communications with various Trump attorneys, including Troupis.
Reached for comment this week, a spokesman for Johnson’s campaign said, “We see no reason to participate in any way in another smear.”
Troupis could not be reached for comment. His attorney did not respond to requests for comment over phone and email.
Trump’s campaign also declined to comment. The former president has dismissed multiple investigations into Jan. 6 and attempts to overturn the 2020 election as politically motivated “witch hunts” and has continued to suggest that the election was stolen from him.
Al Franken, a former Democratic senator from Minnesota who was here recently participating in Wisconsin Democrats’ get-out-the-vote efforts, called on the Department of Justice to investigate Johnson, citing in part Johnson’s timeline of events.
“He’s changed his story a couple of times on handing off fake electors to the vice president or trying to,” Franken said in an interview with NBC News.
The Wisconsin Senate race remains one of the most closely watched in the nation. A new Marquette Law School poll suggests Johnson leads by 6 points (with a margin of error of +/- 4.3 %), while a CBS News poll last week had Johnson and Barnes in a statistical deadlock.
Mandell’s firm filed their lawsuit in May describing the electors in Wisconsin as critical agents in the broader scheme to steal the 2020 election, which culminated in a violent riot in the nation’s Capitol. The complaint is awaiting a ruling by a federal judge to determine whether it remains in federal court or is remanded to circuit court.
Earlier this month, Johnson again acknowledged texting with Troupis before and after a member of Johnson’s staff texted the Pence aide about handing off slates of electors from Wisconsin and Michigan that had been delivered to his office. Johnson said his and his office’s interactions involving Troupis and Pence’s staff lasted “about an hour,” and that he didn’t know the contents of the package at the time it was delivered.
“You can’t even call it participation. I wrote a couple texts,” Johnson said, responding to questions from NBC News about his communications with Troupis.
But Johnson also said in June that Troupis texted him about “Wisconsin electors.”
Reading his text messages with Troupis on the “Vicki McKenna” radio show in June, Johnson said Troupis wrote, “Need to get a document on Wisconsin electors to you and the VP immediately.”
But Johnson said he wasn’t aware Troupis was referring to an alternate slate of electors; that was something he said his staff later learned.
After Pence’s staff told Johnson’s aide not to give them the slate of electors Jan. 6, Johnson said he informed Troupis. In his radio show retelling, he said the two talked a bit more and Troupis told Johnson he was contacted by “the campaign.”
“He was kind of like me, just an innocent bystander — we were asked to do a delivery job,” Johnson said of Troupis on the McKenna show. In all, he said, his office’s involvement was limited to about 70 minutes but his own was seconds.
Mandell called Johnson’s communications with Troupis a red flag. “That certainly suggests to me that he was aware of this effort and quite possibly supportive of this effort,” he said.
At a recent event at the Milwaukee Rotary Club, Johnson was asked about his actions around Jan. 6. He noted that he voted to certify election results backing Biden after the riot was over.
Days before that vote, however, Johnson publicly stated he planned to join 10 other Republicans in refusing to certify the Electoral College results, telling the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in a piece published Jan. 2, 2021: “I’m not going to do what Democrats and many in the media want us to do, which is just shut up, sweep all of this under the rug and move on.”