Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., broke with Senate decorum Tuesday by calling Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., “racist” on the chamber floor over Johnson’s remarks about the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.
Johnson told a conservative talk radio show last week that he was not afraid of the pro-Trump rioters that day but that he would have been afraid had they been Black Lives Matter protesters or antifa members and former President Donald Trump had won re-election.
“Look, I get no one likes to be called racist, but sometimes there’s just no other way to describe the use of bigoted tropes that for generations have threatened Black lives by stoking white fear of African Americans and Black men in particular,” Menendez said on the Senate floor.
“I don’t think the senator is ignorant of the fact that for centuries in this country white supremacy has thrived on using fear to justify oppression, discrimination and violence against people of color,” Menendez said. “I do, however, think my colleague may be ignorant of the pain caused by his comments and unaware of how they compound the trauma that so many still feel in the wake of the events of January 6.”
Menendez noted how his speech broke with Senate decorum, because, as he added, “we often twist ourselves into pretzels to avoid saying anything that might be interpreted as a criticism of another senator.” He said he received a concerning letter about Johnson’s remarks from a longtime aide, who is Black, which prompted the speech.
“For one of our colleagues to cast those who attacked the Capitol as harmless patriots while stoking the fear of Black Americans is like rubbing salt in an open wound,” Menendez said before reading the aide’s letter.
In his appearance on “The Joe Pags Show,” which airs nationally from NBC News affiliate WOAI in San Antonio, Johnson described the largely white pro-Trump rioters who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 as people who “truly respect law enforcement” and “loved this country.”
“Now, had the tables been turned, now, Joe, this will get me in trouble, had the tables been turned and President Trump won the election and those were tens of thousands of Black Lives Matter and antifa protesters, I might have been a little concerned,” Johnson said.
Others also noted the heavy law enforcement presence and response last summer when Black Lives Matter organizers protested against police brutality.
Johnson defended his comments Tuesday, telling reporters, “There was nothing racial about my comments, nothing whatsoever.”
He added: “This isn’t about race. It’s about riots.”
Johnson claimed that a “small percentage of people” were involved in both the Black Lives Matter protests over the summer and the attack on the Capitol that “actually turned to violence” — seeming to equate them.
However, the riot left several people dead, including a police officer, and dozens more officers injured.
An analysis conducted by The Washington Post in October found that the Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality were “remarkably nonviolent.” It also found that when violence occurred, police or counterprotesters were largely directing it at the protesters.
Dartunorro Clark is a political reporter for NBC News.
Frank Thorp V
Frank Thorp V is a producer and off-air reporter covering Congress for NBC News, managing coverage of the Senate.