Milwaukee Journal Sentinel “Fact Check”

Johnson issues full responses, inquires on what he has said that is not true?

WASHINGTON – Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) answered questions from Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter John Fauber over the last few months, at length and in detail. His answers were largely disregarded, as the newspaper insinuated Senator Johnson is “at odds with science.” The article notes many pronouncements, but doesn’t bother rebutting the facts of what Senator Johnson says. The following will offer some insight into how much of the story the reporter had already written before he ever contacted Senator Johnson back in mid-April – showing how much his mind was made up before he heard any answers from the senator. The senator’s interest is in transparency. He has released the entirety of the newspaper’s questions and his answers below.  

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Was there a point in your past, before you came to the Senate, where you became seriously interested in science related matters?

Senator Johnson: Like many, if not most, people, I marvel at creation, and that sense of wonder spawns a great deal of curiosity. Having a curious mind is the basis of science, and true scientific inquiry never stops asking questions and always seeks a greater understanding.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Many of the statements you’ve made in the last decade, ranging from climate change to the pandemic, indicate that you take extreme positions that are not supported by scientific consensus. For instance, you have said deaths from Covid are similar to the flu in a bad year. Also, you have made numerous comments since 2010, questioning or ridiculing climate change.

Senator Johnson: Labeling a position as “extreme” is a matter of opinion, and the scientific consensus has been proved wrong many times before. I would need the exact quote and context you are referencing when you claim I’ve said “deaths from Covid are similar to flu.” I have certainly stated what flu statistics have been (I’ve attached the chart I created from CDC data), and also quoted experts like Professor John Ioannidis and the Oxford Center for Evidence Based Medicine regarding their estimates of case fatality rates (CFR) and infection fatality rates (IFR) for Covid. I’ve acknowledged all of these are estimates and there is much we don’t know. But CFR and IFR are only two metrics needed to compare Covid to seasonal flu. Another important metric is contagiousness. In terms of determining the best public policy, we also should consider the human toll of the economic devastation and social dislocation caused by the lockdowns. In using a variety of metrics to put Covid into perspective, I have repeatedly stated I am not downplaying the severity of the disease or the tragedies caused by it. 


In a follow-up with my staff, you provided a quote from my Dec. 8, 2020 hearing, my second on early treatment of Covid, that shows I said, “Deaths from Covid are similar to flu.” Here is the full and exact quote from pages 101-102 of the hearing transcript:

Senator Johnson question/comment to witness Dr. Bhattacharya:

“The other one was — and I do not think this was in your testimony but I saw this in another writing — I have certainly been following it, and I have actually, in a couple of op-eds, talked about the case fatality rate versus the infection fatality rate. I have been monitoring what the estimate is. The prediction is from Oxford Center for Evidence-Based Medicine, for months now they have been predicting the infection fatality rate is going to be somewhere between 0.1 and 0.4. I think now it is between 0.1 and 0.35. You talked about, in an article, about these seroprevalence studies, 82 of them now, are kind of pointing to a 0.2 percent infection fatality rate.

“Seasonal flu — and I have printed this out from the CDC website — a bad year is about 0.18. So again, I am not downplaying COVID. As Senator Paul talked about, people he knows, as those of you who have treated, it is a deadly disease, and particularly for over 70, 5 percent of the people with COVID die from it, or with it. So I am not downplaying this. But I think you have to look at those numbers and ask, what have we done, and what is the human toll of our actions on a disease that, long-term, it looks like it is certainly worse than the flu, but is it that much worse, to cause that much economic devastation with that severe a human toll, 130 million people starving, and, of course, we heard all the other follow-ons.”

I believe the full quote underscores the explanation I provided above. Twice in this quote I emphasized I am not downplaying Covid and pointed to the 5 percent fatality rate for those over 70. I also stated, “It looks like it is certainly worse than the flu.” The fact that you were going to distort that quote into claiming I said “deaths from Covid are similar to flu” proves your bias, and virtually anything you write should be given the utmost scrutiny by your readers. Unfortunately, like so many of your colleagues in the left-wing mainstream press, you are an advocate, not a journalist. By the way, you should look at the NEJM-published findings on Swedish schoolchildren and teachers. Those findings should be publicized far and wide, and should raise serious questions regarding how we have closed down in-person learning and the human toll of those policies.

Regarding climate change, I am not a climate change denier, but I also am not a climate change alarmist. Climate is not static. It has always changed and always will change. I do not share Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s view that the “world is going to end in 12 years if we don’t address climate change.” (I consider that to be an extreme position — to say the least.) At some point, all the Malthusian predictions that have not come true should begin reducing the credibility of the scaremongers. But that would take honest reporting by mainstream media, so I’m not holding my breath.

I have repeatedly referenced and agree with the view of Bjorn Lomborg (who fully believes in man-caused climate change) when he acknowledges that with limited resources, there are far more efficient and effective ways of alleviating human suffering than spending money trying to prevent temperature changes that we should be able to easily adapt to (as long as we don’t destroy our economies in a foolish quest to hold back the tides). By the way, in one of the attachments, notice how the sea level has risen about 390 feet over the last 20,000 years. Does anyone think we would have had the capability of preventing that? We will have to adapt to climate change.


The information on climate change I have provided are well documented facts that I have been assembling since 2010 and represent only a small fraction of what I have read on the subject. Far from what Al Franken falsely and ignorantly claims below, it shows I do extensive homework on subjects. Many in the press do not. Instead they display their bias by selecting a particular statement out of many that is not precisely correct and subject it to the highly partisan PolitiFact process to “prove” conservatives don’t know what they’re talking about. A perfect example of that biased technique is my quote from 2016 you provided to my staff: “The climate hasn't warmed in quite a few years. That is proven scientifically.” Although the timing of my statement was slightly out of date, global warming either slowed down or paused, depending on which figures you look at, for approximately 16 years starting in the late 1990s (see, for example, the IPCC’s 2013 acknowledgement, a paper examining the pause, and an essay from a respected newspaper linking to other papers doing so). By the time I gave that 2016 interview, climate scientists still hadn't agreed on an explanation. In hindsight, it is true that the climate had ended this pause and returned to its slow warming trend by 2016. Although I could have more precisely stated it, the larger point I was making regarding this 16 year flattening of the curve was basically correct. I wish I had a dollar for every time PolitiFact contacted my office with what they thought was a “gotcha” quote only to be disappointed that it was true, and then not follow up by actually publishing the fact that I was correct.


Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Can you offer a response to those issues?

Senator Johnson: Responded above


Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Some of the people I’ve talked to say you trade in lies and conspiracy theories. Can you address that?

Senator Johnson: Who are these individuals? What is their expertise in being able to make these pronouncements with authority? Exactly what lies and conspiracy theories are they referring to? Without those specifics, it is impossible to answer this question and should you proceed to include these unsubstantiated smears in your report, I will conclude you are acting with actual malice and will respond accordingly.


Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: I wanted to ask you about your Senate hearings last year that involved the pandemic. I believe there were three hearings in May, November and December. Looking back on how the pandemic unfolded, do you feel you underestimated how bad it would be? Do you think we are out of the woods now?

Senator Johnson: Have you watched the video of the Nov. 19 hearing or the Dec. 8 hearing? Have you read my published opening statements? If not, you should before you write or publish your report. I don’t believe I’ve ever made an estimate of how bad Covid will be. I’ve quoted or referenced others’ estimates, but I’ve acknowledged there is much we simply don’t know about Covid. I certainly hope the end of the pandemic is in sight, but have no way of knowing. I have consistently questioned the extent to which we have shut down our economy and urged decision makers to consider the human toll of the economic devastation of those policy decisions. I have repeatedly stated I do not envy those having to make tough decisions with incomplete information, and also tried not to criticize those making the decisions. But that does not mean we shouldn’t be constantly monitoring new information and be willing to adapt our policies and reverse bad decisions. I have also attached the charts I receive and review daily on Wisconsin Covid cases and deaths.



Milwaukee Journal: Several of the people you called as witnesses have taken positions on medical issues that critics say are fringe positions. Why did you call so many contrarian doctors?

Senator Johnson: Who are these “critics”? What is their expertise to make such pronouncements? How many COVID-19 patients have these critics treated? What is your expertise and what authority do you use to label professionals that have devoted their lives to medicine, and have actually had the courage and compassion to risk their lives treating Covid patients “contrarian doctors”?

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Mark Becker, the former chairman of Republican Party in Brown County, said he had a conversation and text exchanges with you regarding what you said publicly and in private about whether Joe Biden had legitimately won the election. In the last text he got from you, you said he was a low-life weasel. Any response? Did Biden legitimately and fairly win the election?

Senator Johnson: Mark Becker called me under false pretenses. I was kind enough to engage in a lengthy conversation with him that I had every expectation would remain private. Months later, he went public with what he claims the conversation was about and what I had said. Anyone who would do that is a low-life weasel, and nothing they say should be given any credence. I acknowledged Biden was president-elect as soon as the Electoral College had voted. On a number of occasions before Jan. 6, I also acknowledged that I saw no scenario in which any of Biden’s electors would be disallowed. I also acknowledged that there were a number of election irregularities that need to be addressed to restore confidence in future elections.


Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Becker also said that while you may be a contrarian, you also are an actor and that he doesn’t think you actually believe all the things you say. Any response to that?

Senator Johnson: Same answers as above


Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Former Sen. Al Franken who served in the Senate with you for seven years and who, like you, grew up in Minnesota, said you don’t do your homework when you take positions on science related matters. One example he cited was your comment implying Greenland got its name because it was green when it was discovered 1,000 years ago. Any comment on that?

Senator Johnson: How does Al Franken know how much homework I do on any issue? He doesn’t, and his claim is simply wrong. Regarding Greenland, see the attachments. No one knows for certain how Greenland officially got its name, but it has been documented that Eric the Red urged his fellow Icelanders to venture with him to a “green land,” and as the National Geographic points out, it’s certainly plausible he saw green shores. Regardless of the naming history — and it is ridiculous for anyone to focus on such an insignificant and tangential issue — my main point, and what is clear, is that there was a warming period during the Middle Ages that brought a more temperate climate to Greenland’s coastlines for settlement (which is exactly what people like Eric the Red did). On these points, Al Franken is uninformed and should have done his homework before falsely and ignorantly criticizing me.