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Menendez rips Johnson as 'racist' over Capitol riot remark

Menendez rips Johnson as 'racist' over Capitol riot remark
© Greg Nash

Sen. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezSenate Democrats ramp up push to limit Biden's war powers Democrats reintroduce legislation to ban 'ghost guns' Juan Williams: A breakthrough on immigration? MORE (D-N.J.) slammed GOP Sen. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonImmigration experts say GOP senators questioned DHS secretary with misleading chart GOP split on counteroffer to Biden's spending Rand Paul clashes with Fauci over coronavirus origins MORE's (Wis.) recent remarks on the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, calling them "hurtful," "racist" and beneath the Senate.

"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 in a speech on the Senate floor.

Menendez's fiery speech — out of character for the normally clubby Senate, where even questioning a colleague's motives can be a violation of the rules — was in response to recent comments from Johnson that sparked a wave of controversy.

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Johnson, speaking earlier this month to a conservative talk radio host, said he wasn't afraid during the Jan. 6 riot when a pro-Trump mob violently breached the Capitol building, but if "those were tens of thousands of Black Lives Matter and antifa protesters, I might have been a little concerned."

Menendez, referencing the comments from the Senate floor, asked, "Is that not racism?"

"I don't think the senator is ignorant of the fact that for centuries in this country, white supremacy has thrived on using fears to justify oppression, discrimination and violence against people of color," Menendez said. "I do, however, think my colleagues 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 Jan. 6."

Menendez read a letter from a staffer offended by Johnson's rhetoric and noted that "thousands of people of color" work around the Capitol complex.

"Every member of this body owes their labors to the sacrifices made that afternoon by Capitol police officers, including officers of color," Menendez said.

A spokesman for Johnson didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

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Johnson has defended his comments, saying during a radio interview this week that there was "no racism" in his previous remarks.

“It has nothing to do with race. It has everything to do with riots,” Johnson told Milwaukee-based WISN-AM, according to The Associated Press. “I completely did not anticipate that anybody could interpret what I said as racist. It’s not.” 

Still, the Wisconsin Republican has drawn blowback from others in Congress.

GOP Rep. Adam KinzingerAdam Daniel KinzingerTrump critics push new direction for GOP Democrats fundraise off of vote to remove Cheney from GOP leadership Kinzinger on Cheney removal: History will call this 'low point of the Republican Party' MORE (Ill.) called Johnson's initial comments "absolutely ludicrous," while House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerWhat's a party caucus chair worth? House fails to pass drug bill amid Jan. 6 tensions Cheney set to be face of anti-Trump GOP MORE (D-Md.) said Tuesday that they were a "racist statement."

Menendez added during his floor speech that Johnson's remarks were like "rubbing salt in an open wound."

"Everybody in this body should know that when you perpetuate such racist tropes, you contribute to a culture that gives people permission to treat Black Americans as suspicious and their lives as expendable. We in the United States Senate are supposed to hold ourselves to a higher standard," he said.

"I hope members of this body on both sides of the aisle will join me in making sure that we do not debase this institution," he added.