On Thursday morning, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) went on NPR and tried to defend a wild conspiracy theory he and other Trump-supporting Republican members of Congress have been talking about for several days. It did not go well.
Johnson tried to stand by his claim that a “secret society” within the FBI was trying to oust President Trump. When an NPR host pointed out to Johnson that it appears the text message he based his entire conspiracy theory on was just a joke, the senator became defensive, and then tried to change the topic to the Hillary Clinton email investigation.
“You [focused] on two words from one of the texts which was a ‘secret society’… you suggested this might mean a secret group within the FBI holding meetings offsite and you went on to say ‘this could be corruption at the highest levels of the FBI,” the NPR host said. “That reference may have been a joke. I’m just wondering if you feel you might have jumped to conclusions here?”
Johnson said that he was “just connecting the dots” based on information he had heard from “all kinds of people.” He went on to deny that he’s a part of a Republican effort to discredit the FBI.
“My involvement goes back three years and the sham investigation into what I believe was a crime by Secretary Clinton,” Johnson said. “By the way, another pretty important piece of information to come from the last batch of texts is that we now know that President Obama received a text or an email from Clinton–”
The host cut him off, saying “we don’t have the time to go back in history.”
For days, Johnson and House Republicans like Matt Gaetz (R-FL) have been pushing the “secret society” conspiracy theory based on a set of text messages sent between two FBI officials, Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, that were reviewed by members of Congress but not released publicly.
Notably, Johnson and company repeatedly declined opportunities to provide any evidence substantiating their claims. And since some of these same Republicans have already shown themselves willing to go to any length to help President Trump by trying to discredit the FBI’s investigation into him, many were skeptical.
It turns out skepticism was warranted. On Tuesday night, ABC News published the lone text message from Page to Strzok that Republicans have used as the basis for an entire conspiracy. Suffice it to say it is not incriminating.
ABC News has obtained the "secret society" text…
It's a stand alone message from Lisa Page:
"Are you even going to give out your calendars? Seems kind of depressing. Maybe it should just be the first meeting of the secret society" https://t.co/qxlXSgYAme
— Michael Del Moro (@MikeDelMoro) January 25, 2018
Yet more than an hour after ABC’s report was published, Gaetz was on CNN still insisting that Strzok and Page are at the center of a “conspiracy, meeting with their secret society, building out their ‘insurance policy'” against Trump. And on Fox News, hosts Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity continued pushing the conspiracy as if it hadn’t already been debunked.
Hours after it was debunked, Fox's Ingraham says "thank God" for Devin Nunes, Matt Gaetz and Trey Gowdy for exposing "incredible things" like "maybe even secret societies in the FBI" pic.twitter.com/YcwBDtl9Ej
— Andrew Lawrence (@ndrew_lawrence) January 25, 2018
ABC’s report debunking the “secret society” conspiracy theory was published on the same day that two other anti-Mueller conspiracy theories pushed by Republicans fell apart. New reporting strongly indicated there was nothing suspicious about some Strzok-Page text messages not being retained, and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-CA) decided not to make public a memo prepared by his office that purportedly details misconduct related to the FBI’s investigation into Trump.
All of these specious claims seem designed to muddy the waters of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Trump campaign. And when all else fails, Republicans who want to do Trump’s bidding start talking about Hillary Clinton.
For instance, during a Fox News interview on Tuesday, Johnson was asked if he thinks Trump should allow Mueller to interview him. He replied that he has no opinion on the matter because “I’m really more on the Hillary Clinton email scandal.”
UPDATE (1/25, 1:30 p.m.): During a brief conversation with a CNN’s Manu Raju on Thursday, Johnson acknowledged that the “secret society” text he based an entire conspiracy theory on may have been meant in jest after all.
Here’s my exchange with Ron Johnson: https://t.co/QK3kCJFD92
— Manu Raju (@mkraju) January 25, 2018
“It’s a real possibility,” Johnson said, asked if the text may have been a joke.