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Ron Johnson Says He Still Has Many Unanswered Questions

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Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin has been on the forefront of elevating fringe theories about President Biden’s son Hunter, the coronavirus and the results of the 2020 election.

In recent weeks he has come under renewed scrutiny for claiming in a series of radio interviews in his home state that the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol was not an “armed insurrection” and for using his time during a Senate hearing to read a first-person account that posited “provocateurs” and “fake Trump supporters” were behind the attack.

Mr. Johnson has a reputation for being among the most accessible, high-profile Republicans in Washington, regularly defending his views to the mainstream news media — something many of his G.O.P. colleagues do not do.

He spoke with The New York Times on Thursday about his theories of who was responsible for the attack on the Capitol and what he would like to see included in the congressional investigation of it. The interview has been lightly edited and condensed.

You were on the radio recently talking about how it wasn’t an armed insurrection. I was curious what the origin of that perspective was for you.

When I think armed, I think firearms. And yeah, we don’t know. I have no idea. That’s one of the questions I’ve got is, how many firearms were seen, were confiscated? How many shots were fired? I believe the only ones that were fired were from law enforcement. And I’ve said I’ll defend law enforcement for taking action. I don’t understand what the uproar is. But apparently, there’s uproar somewhere. Somebody takes offense to it.

And I would say, if it’s properly termed an “armed insurrection,” it was a pretty ragtag one. And again, I don’t dispute the destruction, or destructive capability of things like flagpoles and bats and that type of thing, but again, words have meaning.

Well, what’s your feeling about who made up the group that stormed the Capitol?

I don’t know, and I’m asking the question. I’m making no assumptions.

There are just so many unanswered questions, which seems to be kind of the basic situation in so many things I’m trying to get to the bottom of. But here we are almost two months later, and there are just basic pieces of information that are missing here.

In the Senate hearing the other day, you read the piece from The Federalist that suggested there were sort of provocateurs and “fake Trump supporters” that had designs on generating trouble from the crowd. And I wondered, do you share that analysis?

I think it’s important, if we’re going to really get the whole truth, to understand exactly what happened, we need to look at different vantage points, different perspectives.

I read that article, I think, as soon as it was published, which was shortly after Jan. 6. And I was intrigued by it. Because here was an individual that, again, I didn’t know him at the time. I actually spoke to him yesterday for the first time. But I didn’t know who he was. It just looks like he had a pretty good background. This is an instructor, focusing on this type of psychological type of warfare and that type of thing. So he seemed to be a knowledgeable observer.

And I was just fascinated by the fact that he wrote down his thoughts, about 14, 15 pages, without looking at any news. So it’s kind of an unblemished accounting. And that’s really kind of the eyewitness accounts you want to examine. I’m not saying you accept everything. You don’t necessarily accept his conclusions. I think you kind of have to take at face value what he said he saw.

Do you believe that, as the Federalist author Michael Waller wrote, that there were fake Trump protesters in the crowd?

That’s what he said he thought he saw. I think later in the article, he didn’t see any who he would have thought were fake Trump protesters, he didn’t see them engage in any violence. I think he writes that in his article. Yeah. I’m letting his testimony stand on its own. I wasn’t there.

Again, I’m drawing no conclusions whatsoever. Again, a lot of press reports are assuming, imputing all kinds of conclusions. They’re saying I’m saying things that I’m not saying at all. All I’m saying at this point in time is we need to ask a lot of questions.

I wonder why you think there is merit to giving an audience to Mr. Waller’s assertions that there were either provocateurs or fake Trump supporters in the crowd, given the lack of evidence.

I’m not questioning his veracity. I believe he’s probably telling the truth. That’s what he saw. I’m not agreeing with any conclusions. I’m not sure he’s really making too many conclusions, other than he concluded he saw four individual types of groups that stood out from the crowd.

It might be a flawed part of the evidence, but why exclude it? Just because it doesn’t necessarily tie into whatever narrative somebody else wants to tell about the day? I’m not interested in the narratives, I’m interested in the truth.

There’s been a lot of talk among some of your Republican colleagues in Congress about antifa or Black Lives Matter being involved in instigating what happened. Do you share that belief?

It doesn’t really seem like that was the issue. It appears, again, this is all early, I haven’t drawn any conclusions, but it appears if there was any preplanning by groups, it was white supremacist groups, like the Proud Boys or the Oath Keepers, that type of thing. That’s what it appears.

I’ve seen videos of other people claiming to be antifa in their hotel rooms. I don’t know if any of that’s been verified. But no, again, I am drawing no conclusions at all. But right now, it appears that there were provocateurs or agitators. It would appear it would probably be from the white supremacist groups that have already been named. But I haven’t talked to the F.B.I.

You were on with Maria Bartiromo and talked about being against violent extremists from the left or the right. And it sounds like you’ve sort of landed on the position that these were right-wing groups that were involved in organizing what happened on Jan. 6. Is that right?

It seems like those white supremacist groups seem to be responsible for this. I really condemn it. I mean, I’m not happy with it.

I’ve attended a lot of Trump rallies. You talk to a lot of people. You see the mood in those crowds. And it is festive. It is joyful. You’re loving America. And it’s definitely pro-law enforcement and anti-breaking the law. Which is, again, why I certainly do not suspect, even a large pro-Trump crowd, I did not expect any violence from them.

You said you want what you say to be accurate. And you read Mr. Waller’s piece, but without necessarily doing any due diligence to see whether what he was saying checked out.

What do you mean, checked out? It’s his eyewitness account. What else is there to check out about it? I read what his credentials were, where he was teaching, at Fort Bragg. I mean, you can see in the article what his credentials are. He seemed to be pretty solid.

A couple days later The Washington Post wrote an article that was very close to kind of describing things as Mr. Waller did, too. So that added further credence, from my standpoint, that what he saw, other people kind of saw and noticed and drew similar types of conclusions. Again, it’s just one piece of information that needs to be looked at, needs to be considered, needs to be tested, needs to be verified, compared against other things.

Again, I’m not afraid of information. I’m amazed at how many people are. And how quick people are to put the conspiracy theory label on something, or call it disinformation.

You’ve said tens of millions of Americans didn’t trust the election results. I wonder, how much do you think that’s because Republican leaders, from President Trump on down, told them not to trust the election results?

I think that there’s a range of reasons why. But I’d say the main reason is that they saw their TV screens, observers not being able to observe. They see in states where all these other counties can turn in millions of votes, but in a few large counties in swing states, they just can’t get the vote totals in by 10 o’clock at night, for some reason. It just raises a level of suspicion.

Well, in Wisconsin that’s because

It’s unfortunate the mainstream media’s revealed themselves to be so unbelievably biased that people on the other side of the aisle, the other side of the political spectrum, simply don’t trust them anymore. That’s part of the issue, too.

One last thing. Where are you on running for re-election next year?

Haven’t decided. Don’t need to decide for a while.

Do you have a timeline for that?

Yeah. But I’m not necessarily going to reveal it to you.

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In Washington, Policy Revolves Around Joe Manchin. He Likes It That Way.

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WASHINGTON — If Democrats eliminate the filibuster, there is one senator who would have an outsized impact in the 50-50 chamber on issues that could reshape the nation’s future: infrastructure, immigration, gun laws and voting rights. That senator is Joe Manchin III of West Virginia.

There is also a senator whose opposition to eliminating the filibuster is a significant reason it may never happen. That senator, too, is Mr. Manchin.

“He should want to get rid of the filibuster because he suddenly becomes the most powerful person in this place — he’s the 50th vote on everything,” said Senator Chris Coons, Democrat of Delaware, sketching out the argument.

Mr. Manchin, however, does not see it that way. To the exasperation of Democrats, delight of Republicans and bewilderment of politicians who can’t understand why he wouldn’t want to wield more power, Mr. Manchin, a former governor of the state, isn’t budging.

“Sixty votes,” he said in an interview last week in his office, referring to the threshold required to advance most legislation, adding that he would not consider suspending the filibuster for certain bills, as some of his colleagues have floated: “You’re either committed or not.”

But with 18 people dead after two mass shootings within a week, a worsening migrant challenge on the border and Republicans trying to restrict voting in almost every state where they hold power, liberals believe this moment cries out for a different sort of commitment. At a time when they have full control of Congress and are confronting overlapping crises, many Democrats feel a moral and political imperative to act, process be damned.

That puts Mr. Manchin, 73, at the center of the most important policy debates in Washington — and has set the stage for a collision between a party eager to use its majorities to pass sweeping legislation and a political throwback determined to restore bipartisanship to a chamber that’s as polarized as the country.

Mr. Manchin believes that ending the legislative filibuster would effectively destroy the Senate. He recalled his predecessor, Robert C. Byrd, telling him that the chamber had been designed to force consensus.

Mr. Manchin has expressed willingness to support a “talking filibuster,” in which lawmakers have to actually hold the floor, perhaps for many hours, to block a vote. But he has not yielded on getting rid of it altogether and on an array of issues, including voting rights and gun control, his admonition is less about any particular policy end and more about making sure the legislation has support from both parties.

More broadly, Mr. Manchin’s resistance to ending the filibuster has ripened fundamental questions about which version of Congress would be more dysfunctional: a body stymied by gridlock or one that can pass legislation only by scrapping longstanding guidelines so it can push through party-line votes?

“You can’t make the place work if nothing significant is getting passed,” said Representative Ro Khanna, a leading progressive from California.

Mr. Manchin worries that the short-term benefit of ditching the filibuster would backfire for Democrats over the long term.

“I’m concerned about the House pushing an agenda that would be hard for us to maintain the majority,” Mr. Manchin said about the progressive legislation that House Democrats are stacking up at the Senate door. As for pressure from the left, he said, tauntingly: “What are they going to do, they going to go into West Virginia and campaign against me? Please, that would help me more than anything.”

To a growing number of his Democratic colleagues — and not just liberals — it’s naïve to keep putting hope over history, and believe, as Mr. Manchin said about gun legislation, that Republicans may say, “Listen, it’s time for us to do the reasonable, sensible thing.”

Of course, few in a Senate that depends on Mr. Manchin for a 50th vote will say outright that their colleague is indulging in fantasy.

“Joe’s focus, I believe, is bipartisanship, and I agree with the starting point,” said Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, before lowering the boom: “They weren’t going to give us a single vote,” he said about the stimulus bill.

A former high school quarterback who friends say still relishes being at the center of the action, Mr. Manchin is something of a unicorn in today’s Congress. As a pro-coal and anti-abortion Democrat, he reflects a less-homogenized era when regionalism was as significant as partisanship and senators were more individual actors than predictable votes for their caucus.

Twice elected governor before claiming Mr. Byrd’s seat, he’s the only lawmaker standing in the way of an all-Republican congressional delegation in West Virginia, a state that former President Donald J. Trump carried by nearly 40 points last year. And he is an unlikely majority-maker of the Democratic Senate.

“We really are the big tent,” said Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, before knowingly adding: “Now it’s a lot of work when you have a big tent, right? But that’s the way we have a majority.”

While out of step with his national party on some issues, and written off by parts of the left as little better than a Republican, his politics are more complex, even confounding, than they appear at first glance.

He provided the deciding vote on two of the biggest liberal priorities of this era — blocking repeal of the Affordable Care Act in 2017 and on passage of the nearly $2 trillion stimulus bill this month — while also twice voting to convict an impeached president wildly popular in his home state.

And while he may admire Mr. Byrd’s dedication to Senate tradition, Mr. Manchin has not emulated his predecessor by leveraging his power to focus relentlessly on steering spending projects back to West Virginia.

When Mr. Manchin was holding out on a single amendment that was delaying passage of the stimulus bill, White House aides were perplexed because his price for supporting the measure was not additional money for his impoverished home state. His main request, West Wing officials said, was to pare back spending and consider Republican input that could have made the bill appear more moderate.

Mr. Manchin said President Biden warned him in a phone call that the progressive left in the House might balk if the bill were significantly trimmed. “I said, ‘Mr. President, all we’re trying to do is put some guard rails on this,’” he recalled.

He was less happy about Vice President Kamala Harris’s effort to nudge him on the legislation by making an appearance on a television affiliate in West Virginia to promote the bill without forewarning him. The clip went viral and, Mr. Manchin said, prompted cleanup conversations with Mr. Biden and the White House chief of staff, Ron Klain.

As for any pressure that he may feel on the filibuster, Mr. Manchin said he had reminded Senator Chuck Schumer, the majority leader, of how essential he was to providing Democrats a majority.

He said he had told Mr. Schumer, “I know one thing, Chuck, you wouldn’t have this problem at all if I wasn’t here.”

He is not the only impediment to the sort of expansive liberal agenda preferred by many congressional Democrats or even the only one still defending the filibuster. Other Senate Democrats, including Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, also share his reluctance.

Yet none are as eager as Mr. Manchin to restore a bygone day of collegiality. And perhaps, more to the point, none are as happy as him to talk about the need to do so as he navigates representing a once-heavily Democratic state that had been shifting to the G.O.P. even before Mr. Trump arrived on the scene.

He crossed the aisle last year to endorse his closest Republican ally, Senator Susan Collins of Maine, and is already co-hosting bipartisan lunches with her. He is plotting the post-pandemic restoration of his pizza-and-beer parties on the boat he calls home while in Washington. (It’s called “Almost Heaven,” the opening lyric to John Denver’s ode to West Virginia.)

Although some of his colleagues relish the ideologically-charged prime-time cable news programs, Mr. Manchin prefers another Washington institution that also flourished in less-polarized times: the Sunday morning show.

In the fashion of many former governors who grow exasperated with Washington’s glacial pace, at times he can barely contain his impatience. He’s repeatedly mused about leaving the Senate and trying to reclaim his old job in Charleston.

But those who know Mr. Manchin well believe he likes the attention that he receives in the capital, the same as he did as a signal-caller in Farmington, W.V., where he grew up near Nick Saban, the legendary football coach at the University of Alabama and a lifelong friend of Mr. Manchin.

“You’re in the hot seat when you’re a quarterback, but it’s pretty satisfying when you make progress,” said Nick Casey, a Manchin ally and former chairman of the West Virginia Democratic Party. Mr. Casey said the senator, who sustained an injury that cut short his playing days, was “the greatest QB who never got to start at West Virginia University — just ask him.”

Steve Williams, the mayor of Huntington, W.V., who served with Mr. Manchin in the state legislature, said: “This is the closest he has been to how he could be as governor, actually driving the agenda, pulling people together.’’

It’s the last part that most animates the senator. Happily bantering with reporters as he positions himself as a lonely, if well-covered, voice for comity, he shifts questions from policy to process.

“Why don’t you ask people when was the last time they took time to talk to some of the people on this side?” Mr. Manchin told a CNN reporter this week. “Try to convince them, or work with them. Have you had dinner with them? Have you had a lunch with them? Have you had a cup of coffee with them? Try something.”

A number of anti-filibuster Senate Democrats, though, are more focused on what Mr. Manchin’s support of the “talking filibuster” could portend.

“I think that gives us a lot of room for discussion,” said Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, adopting a glass-is-half-full perspective.

What does seem clear is that Mr. Manchin is not going to switch parties.

“I don’t think that’s going to happen, although we’d welcome him with open arms,” said Ms. Collins, who has tried in the past to persuade her friend to join Republicans.

It’s not difficult to see why Mr. Manchin remains in his forefathers’ party. A Catholic of Italian descent, he sought John F. Kennedy’s desk when he arrived in the Senate, displays a picture of the slain president in his office lobby and can recall hearing that Massachusetts accent in his kitchen when Kennedy’s brothers came to his parents’ house during the West Virginia primary in 1960.

“Joe reminds me a lot of the old conservative Democrats in Texas,” said Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas. “They were born Democrats. They’re going to die Democrats.”

As for the filibuster, Mr. Coons, who was sworn in alongside Mr. Manchin in 2010, said liberals shouldn’t get their hopes up.

Recalling a conversation with somebody who knows Mr. Manchin well, Mr. Coons said this person told him: “If the ghost of Robert Byrd came back to life and said the future of West Virginia itself is on the line he might … think about it.”

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C.D.C. Funding Gun Violence Research For First Time in Decades

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That was the argument he used to help persuade Congress to appropriate money for gun violence research in 2019. The research itself was never banned outright, and in 2013, weeks after the massacre that killed 26 people at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, President Barack Obama directed the C.D.C. to reconsider funding studies on gun violence.

The agency commissioned a report from the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council outlining priorities, but little changed. By 2019, after Democrats reclaimed the House, liberal organizations like MoveOn.org were petitioning Congress to repeal the Dickey Amendment. Nearly every House Democrat signed on.

But Dr. Rosenberg argued it should remain intact, to “provide cover for Republicans and gun-loving Democrats who can put money into the science and tell their constituents, ‘This is not money for gun control.’ ”

Representative Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat who chaired the House subcommittee that oversees the C.D.C.’s budget at the time, said she put $50 million into the appropriations bill that year, but the Senate, controlled by Republicans, eliminated it. The two chambers agreed on $25 million as a compromise, but she said she hoped to double the funding this year.

Dr. Naik-Mathuria, the Houston trauma surgeon, said she would like to see Washington address the problem of gun violence as a matter of injury prevention, not politics. She began researching methods to reduce gun violence about six years ago, she said, after seeing “kids come in dead because they shot themselves in the head when they found a gun at home.”

Her current study is aimed at determining risk factors for gun violence for children and adults, and her past work has led to some changes in medical practice, she said.

Pediatricians in Texas, she said, are hesitant to talk about gun safety out of concern that “it would anger parents or become political.” So she and her group made a broader safety video that tucked in messages about gun safety — like keeping guns locked and stored — with tips like how to keep children away from poison.

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Who Are Gavin Newsom’s Enemies?

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There’s still time for a lot to change: If the organizers of the recall effort reach the signature threshold, the vote to recall Mr. Newsom and to choose his successor — both would be done on a single ballot — probably wouldn’t occur until near the end of the year.

That recall effort is being led by Orrin Heatlie, a conservative and a former sergeant in the Yolo County Sheriff’s Department, who as recently as last year shared anti-vaccination and anti-L.G.B.T.Q. views online. But the endeavor has the backing of a number of deep-pocketed political action committees, most of them right-leaning.

Randy Economy, a political consultant and talk-radio host, serves as the lead adviser to Recall Gavin Newsom, the group organizing the effort. He said the governor’s behavior and demeanor had made the recall necessary. “It’s because of Gavin Newsom himself, and the way he conducts himself every day since he’s become governor,” Mr. Economy said in an interview. “It’s all been more about his image and self-aggrandizing, as opposed to fixing the problems.”

Mr. Newsom’s approval rating isn’t nearly as low as Gov. Gray Davis’s was in 2003, when voters ousted him in a recall. Arnold Schwarzenegger, running as a moderate Republican, was the beneficiary of that effort, winning the recall election and going on to serve as governor for more than seven years.

California politics are different — and decidedly more Democratic — than they were 18 years ago. Democrats now have a 2-to-1 advantage in terms of voter registration across the state. Just because there is a Republican-led effort does not mean that a Republican will be the one to ultimately benefit. Mr. Economy, who volunteered in 2016 for Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign but has also worked for Democrats in the past, insisted that his team’s goal was not partisan in nature.

“Our job is not to pick the next governor; our job is to make sure that this governor’s recalled and removed from office,” he said.

The state is light on prominent (let alone popular) G.O.P. politicians, and some ambitious Democrats already appear ready to run through the open door. All of which points to a possible irony: Even if it were to become only the second successful recall effort in California history, the push — led by conservative interests — could ultimately lift up another Democrat, possibly one to the left of Mr. Newsom.

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