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Ron Johnson Ron Johnson

Ron Johnson

Haley BeMiller
By Haley BeMiller November 20, 2020

Ron Johnson silent on presidential transition, a reversal of past comments

If Your Time is short

  • Johnson has pushed legislation to streamline the presidential transition and called the process “one of the hallmarks of our democracy.”

  • Now, he’s silent as the Trump administration holds up the Biden transition.

  • He also won’t acknowledge Biden as the president-elect.

In a typical election year, the president-elect already would be meeting with White House officials to ensure a seamless transfer of power in January.

This year is far from normal. 

President Donald Trump has refused to concede the election to President-elect Joe Biden and has cried fraud despite assurances by election officials that the vote was secure. In Wisconsin, Trump’s campaign requested a recount after the official tally showed him down statewide by nearly 21,000 votes — but only requested ballots in heavily Democratic Milwaukee and Dane counties be examined. 

Against that backdrop, most Republican elected officials have been noticeably quiet and haven’t acknowledged Biden’s victory. U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson went a step further on Nov. 10, 2020 when asked if he had congratulated Biden.

"Nothing to congratulate him about," Johnson told a reporter from The Hill.

Johnson’s comment caught our attention because of his previous work on presidential transitions, specifically the need to have a structured process and a smooth transition once an election result is clear. 

So we decided to break out our Flip-O-Meter. 

Reminder: We’re not measuring whether any change in position is good policy or good politics. We’re just examining whether a public official has been consistent in his or her stated views.

Has Johnson shifted his views on the need to assure a smooth transition?

Johnson’s previous work

In the past, Johnson has backed multiple efforts to codify standards for the presidential transition process. We’ll start there.

In 2015, Johnson introduced legislation — later signed by President Barack Obama — that requires the president to create a White House transition council at least six months before the election. It also outlines duties for a federal transition coordinator, which include negotiating a memorandum of understanding on the transition staff’s access to employees, facilities and agency documents. 

"The peaceful transition of power from one administration to the next is one of the hallmarks of our democracy," Johnson said after the bill passed the Senate. "It is also an enormous undertaking, with complexities that require months of planning in order to be successful."

Fast forward to the 2016 election, when Trump won thanks to narrow victories in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Johnson was quick to acknowledge Trump’s victory after Hillary Clinton conceded — even though results had not been certified by then.

"I can’t wait to work with President Trump," he said one day after the election, according to the Wisconsin State Journal.

A few years later, Johnson introduced another measure, which requires transition teams to enter into a contract with the General Services Administration, among other provisions. The 2018 bill came after Johnson raised concerns about allegations that the GSA improperly provided transition documents to former special counsel Robert Mueller’s office in the probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election.

"Regardless of what party wins an election, we need to make sure that handing over the keys to the entire $4.45 trillion federal government is a smooth and secure process," Johnson tweeted on March 4, 2020, after Trump signed the bill into law.

So Johnson acknowledged Trump as the victor in 2016 before results had been finalized, but seemingly won’t accept unofficial results that point to a Biden win. He also has stressed repeatedly the need for transition planning to begin early and both sides to cooperate — and even sponsored legislation to help guarantee that.

The Trump-Biden transition

The Trump-Biden transition looks remarkably different than past transfers of power.

According to Politico, the Trump administration began transition activities in May per federal law, and the White House says it’s doing everything by the book. But more than two weeks after the election, there has been no communication between the Trump White House and the Biden campaign, and Biden’s team has yet to be briefed.

Meanwhile, the head of the GSA refuses to sign paperwork that would turn over federal resources for the transition, The Washington Post reported

Johnson has been quiet since Election Day, but did say this of Trump in a Nov. 7 tweet: "His unbelievably energetic reelection campaign efforts earned him 200,000 more votes in Wisconsin than in 2016 and once again made pollsters look ridiculous. Regardless of the outcome, in my book he will always be a winner and patriot that truly loves America."

Johnson said he has no problem with Biden’s team receiving high-level intelligence briefings but didn’t call on the GSA to certify Biden as president-elect, Politico reported on Nov. 12.

Less than a week later, on Nov. 17, he told the political news website The Recount that Biden is "starting his transition" — despite evidence to the contrary.

In addition to the recount in Wisconsin, of course, Trump’s campaign has been filing — and generally losing — lawsuits in critical states across the country. The campaign argues many states have not finalized vote totals and, due to various challenges, the outcome of the election is still in doubt.

But there was also uncertainty at this stage last time. Green Party candidate Jill Stein soon pursued recounts in three swing states including Wisconsin. Yet the Obama-to-Trump transition had begun and the back-end process was working the way Johnson’s bills intended.

A spokesman for Johnson said the senator is confident there will be an orderly transfer of power, but added it’s not his job to certify election results.

Of course, no one expects Johnson to certify election results. 

The issue in question is whether his approach now — when the results are clear, though not-yet-certified — is the same as it was in 2016, when it was clear Trump had won before results were final. And whether the position taken now is contrary to his past views — and legislation — aimed at ensuring there is a smooth transition.

Our ruling

Johnson pushed legislation in recent years to streamline the presidential transition and called the process "one of the hallmarks of our democracy."

But now, he’s silent as the Trump administration holds up the process and won’t acknowledge Biden as the president-elect. That hardly amounts to the smooth, peaceful transfer of power he worked to embed through bills he sponsored.

When it comes to his views on handling the transition, we give Johnson a Full Flop.

Our Sources

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Trump campaign moves to seek recount of ballots in Wisconsin in liberal Milwaukee and Dane counties, Nov. 18, 2020.

The Hill, Twitter, Nov. 10, 2020.

U.S. Sen. Tom Carper, Senate Passes Bipartisan Legislation to Improve Presidential Transitions, July 30, 2015.

Congress, S.1172: 114th Congress (2015-2016), accessed Nov. 18, 2020.

Congress, Report on the Committee of Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs United States Senate to accompany S. 3487, Nov. 26, 2018.

Wisconsin State Journal, Ron Johnson: 'I can't wait to work with President Trump,’ Nov. 10, 2016.

U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, Johnson Requests Information from GSA Regarding Trump For America Communications, Dec. 19, 2017.

Ron Johnson, Twitter, March 4, 2020.

Ron Johnson, Twitter, Nov. 7, 2020.

Politico, Trump blocks Biden’s incoming staff in unprecedented ways, Nov. 17, 2020.

The Washington Post, A little-known Trump appointee is in charge of handing transition resources to Biden — and she isn’t budging, Nov. 8, 2020.

The Recount, Twitter, Nov. 17, 2020.

Politico, Top Senate Republicans say Biden should get presidential intel briefings, Nov. 12, 2020.

Browse the Truth-O-Meter

More by Haley BeMiller

Ron Johnson silent on presidential transition, a reversal of past comments

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