Ron Johnson is not the only con artist in the U.S. Senate. But he stands out as the senator whose grifting costs taxpayers — in Wisconsin and nationwide — the most.
Just last week, The Washington Post reported, “Sen. Rand Paul revealed Wednesday that his wife bought stock in Gilead Sciences — which makes an antiviral drug used to treat Covid-19 — on Feb. 26, 2020, before the threat from the coronavirus was fully understood by the public and before it was classified as a pandemic by the World Health Organization.”
“The disclosure, in a filing with the Senate, came 16 months after the 45-day reporting deadline set forth in the Stock Act, which is designed to combat insider trading,” explained the Post. “Experts in corporate and securities law said the investment, and especially the delayed reporting of it, undermined trust in government and raised questions about whether the Kentucky Republican’s family had sought to profit from nonpublic information about the looming health emergency and plans by the U.S. government to combat it. Several senators sold large amounts of stocks in January or February of last year, prompting a handful of insider-trading probes.”
One of those senators, Georgia Republican Kelly Loeffler, was booted from office earlier this year by the voters of her state after she dodged questions about multi-million dollar stock trades that were initiated shortly after she received a briefing in January, 2020, on the severity of the burgeoning coronavirus pandemic.
But the schemes and scams of Paul, Loeffler and their self-dealing colleagues seem petty when compared with the latest revelations about Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson’s abuses of his position.
Last week, investigators with ProPublica released an exhaustive study of the senator’s machinations during the fall 2017 battle over tax “reforms” that had been proposed by the Trump administration and its congressional allies. Trump wanted Congress to approve a $1.5 trillion giveaway to the rich — precisely the sort of plan that Johnson had backed since his election to the Senate as the most slow-witted member of the “Republican wave” class of 2010.
But Johnson initially resisted Trump’s plan.
Despite having positioned himself as Trump’s most enthusiastic backer in the Senate, Johnson announced at a critical stage in the debate about the tax bill that he planned to vote against it.
“Making the rounds on cable TV, the Wisconsin Republican became the first GOP senator to declare his opposition, spooking Senate leaders who were pushing to quickly pass the tax bill with their thin majority. ‘If they can pass it without me, let them,’ Johnson declared,” recalls the ProPublica report.
The Wisconsinite had not suddenly developed a conscience, and he certainly was not aligning with the Democrats who decried the Republican plan for what it was: a scheme to make rich people like himself much richer. The Wisconsinite was playing politics. And despite his bumbling image as a legislator so inept that one Wisconsin website labeled him “our dumb senator,” Johnson was maneuvering rather skillfully.
According to the new study, “Johnson’s demand was simple: In exchange for his vote, the bill must sweeten the tax break for a class of companies that are known as pass-throughs, since profits pass through to their owners. Johnson praised such companies as ‘engines of innovation.’ Behind the scenes, the senator pressed top Treasury Department officials on the issue, emails and the officials’ calendars show. Within two weeks, Johnson’s ultimatum produced results. Trump personally called the senator to beg for his support, and the bill’s authors fattened the tax cut for these businesses. Johnson flipped to a ‘yes’ and claimed credit for the change. The bill passed.”
Why did Johnson fight so hard against a president for whom he has generally been willing to debase himself as the most willing lapdog in the Senate Republican Caucus? At the time, Wisconsin media speculated that “Johnson Wants a Bigger Tax Cut for Himself.” That was part of the explanation. But in this particular instance, Johnson was not merely thinking of himself.
Confidential tax records, obtained by ProPublica, “reveal that Johnson’s last-minute maneuver benefited two families more than almost any others in the country — both are worth billions and both are among the senator’s biggest donors. Dick and Liz Uihlein of packaging giant Uline, along with roofing magnate Diane Hendricks, together had contributed around $20 million to groups backing Johnson’s 2016 reelection campaign. The expanded tax break that Johnson muscled through netted them $215 million in deductions in 2018 alone, drastically reducing the income they owed taxes on. At that rate, the cut could deliver more than half a billion in tax savings for Hendricks and the Uihleins over its eight-year life.”
Even for the billionaire class, that’s an epic windfall.
Johnson, who was worth around $40 million before the pandemic, has a long record of voting for legislation that benefits the owners of so-called “limited-liability” corporations, like the one he owns with his wife. But as the political outsider became a political careerist, he has expanded his grifting to serve the interests of those who have kept him in office up to this point.
Johnson has not announced his bid for reelection in 2022, but there are growing signals that — despite a promise to limit himself to two terms — he will run again. It will be a tough race for him, so he’ll need all the billionaire backing he can get to explain away his reputation as a conspiracy theorist who embraces Trump’s Big Lie about the 2020 election and rejects science when it comes to the coronavirus pandemic.
Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson, one of the Democrats seeking Johnson’s seat, summed the sordid circumstance up best when he observed, “Johnson took $20 million from Wisconsin’s wealthiest right-wing billionaires, then fought to get them gigantic tax breaks. He’s not a fiscal conservative, he’s a corrupt errand boy for the ultra-rich.”
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