Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), a conservative Republican firebrand, was the lawmaker responsible for inviting the controversial internet troll Chuck Johnson to Tuesday night’s State of the Union address.
Johnson’s presence in the gallery during the speech by Donald Trump raised eyebrows and immediately sparked questions over how a right-wing activist and blogger best known for attempting to dox the subject of the UVA campus rape story managed to get a ticket to the high-profile affair.
Reached by phone on Wednesday, Gaetz confirmed that he was the one who provided Johnson with the ticket.
Gaetz told The Daily Beast that he and Johnson had no pre-existing relationship and that he provided him with a ticket to the speech after Johnson “showed up at my office” the day of the speech. The congressman said he had an extra ticket after his father came down with bronchitis and couldn’t make it. Johnson just happened to be in the right place at the right time.
Gaetz’s public profile has grown in recent weeks as he has helped lead the charge for the releasing of the highly-controversial memo House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes (R-CA) has put together on government surveillance. His advocacy for the memo’s release has led him to odd places, including an appearance on Alex Jones’s conspiratorial Infowars program.
Gaetz said that he and Johnson did not discuss the Nunes memo and didn’t interact much at the event at all. Asked if he planned to stay in touch, Gaetz replied: “He has my number.”
Johnson offered a different explanation of how the evening came together. Initially, he said he and Gaetz were introduced by another member of Congress, whom he declined to name. In a separate conversation with The Daily Beast, however, Johnson said that he was invited by several members of Congress but “took Gaetz’s invitation” as “he’s into stuff on the issues that I care about.”
Asked about Gaetz’s differing account, Johnson said, “I’ll go with whatever version Gaetz says because I’m not a gangster rapper.”
The issues that drew him to the congressman, Johnson said, included “weed and bitcoin and Trump and animal welfare.” He said he also likes Gaetz because he has “that fuck you mindset.”
Johnson also said that he ran into Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) during the State of the Union address and that he was a big fan of the California Republican. Johnson helped arrange a meeting between Rohrabacher and Julian Assange in addition to donating to the congressman’s campaign.
“It was a wild time. I certainly did a bunch of jumping out of my chair,” Johnson said of the State of the Union speech itself. “Trump was straight up gangster.”
Johnson, the founder of the right-wing website GotNews, is a notorious figure in online political circles. He routinely stakes out intentionally inflammatory positions on divisive political issues, and has on a number of occasions bungled facts in attacks on prominent public figures, including journalists and politicians.
In 2015, Johnson was permanently banned from Twitter after soliciting donations to help “take out” prominent Black Lives Matter activist Deray McKesson.
Nevertheless, Johnson remains a marginally influential figure in the political orbits of President Donald Trump and other Republicans. In April, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke carved out time for a phone call with Johnson. The two discussed plans for a wall on the southern border.
Johnson’s writings have also directly informed White House personnel decisions after articles published at GotNews found their way to the president’s desk.