In June, Johnson agreed to pay a settlement reported to have been as high as $25,000 to a Michigan father and son his site had accused of having been responsible for the killing of protester Heather Heyer during the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., the year before, despite their having nothing to do with the murder. The murder was actually committed by a white nationalist.
That same summer, Freestartr, a site Johnson founded that was used to raise money for Nazis and extremists, shut down. GotNews.com, a font of fake news that he ran, also met its demise.
Despite that, Johnson — who had been informally involved with the Trump campaign — remained an influential figure, a kind of right-wing martyr maligned by media and technology elites. Even so, he retained untrammeled access to the highest reaches of the Trump administration.
That much is clear from his surprising exchange with Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross on June 25, 2018.
“Hi Secretary Ross,” the markedly informal email sent by Johnson that day begins. “Great chatting with you the other day.” Johnson proceeds to say that he would be “speaking before about 30 congressmen on tech issues” in Washington and “would love to meet” with Ross as well.
Ross responded about three hours later, in an email apparently typed from his iPhone. He explained that he had to fly to Wisconsin in order to attend the groundbreaking for a plant opened by Foxconn, the Chinese electronics manufacturer. He urged Johnson to schedule a time for them to meet by going through Macie Leach, a senior adviser to the commerce secretary who had overlapped with Johnson at Claremont McKenna College, a small and prestigious California liberal arts university with a reputation for a conservative student body.
“Sounds good,” Johnson replied, copying several Commerce officials, as well as another email account belonging to Ross. The subject line of his email was “Tech discussion with Sec Ross.”
Ross and Johnson did meet that summer, according to a person familiar with the matter, but Johnson’s request for a subsequent meeting in October was turned down.
It is not known what they discussed, but Johnson is a vocal critic of what he views as bias against Republicans and conservatives in the tech and social media world, while the Department of Commerce oversees the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. President Trump has amplified such complaints, raising them recently in a meeting with Twitter founder and chief executive Jack Dorsey.
The Department of Commerce would not confirm that a meeting between Ross and Johnson took place. Questions remain about why a high-ranking government official would entertain a figure as divisive as Johnson, especially since by late 2018 Johnson’s affiliation with white supremacists and other fringe figures was well known. Three years before, he had been booted off Twitter for threatening to “take out” Black Lives Matter activist DeRay McKesson. His fundraising sites welcomed campaigns by neo-Nazis like Richard Spencer and Andrew Anglin.
The exchange with Ross came several days after a California superior court rejected Johnson’s bid to have his Twitter ban lifted. (Johnson may have found a way around the ban; shortly after an exchange with Johnson, this reporter was followed on Twitter by @charles46532569, an account purporting to belong to “charles johnson.” The account followed, and shared messages from, accounts associated with several right-wing figures. Johnson denied to Yahoo News that the account was his, replying with an emoji of a sunglasses-wearing visage.)
Johnson headed to Washington amid these defeats, though it’s not known which members of Congress he tried to brief, and on what subject. No evident record of such a meeting exists, but Johnson clearly relished the access he had to the Trump administration and conservative members of Congress.
In 2017, he had posted on Facebook, “10 years ago I came to California with $50. I knew no one. Now the money I made and saved from odd jobs, poker, and risk taking has made me a multimillionaire before I turned 30 and bitcoin has hit $10k. Now I hang out with cabinet members and congressmen. What a country.” It is not clear which cabinet members, or legislators, Johnson was referencing.
“It’s concerning that a reputed Holocaust denier is familiar enough with Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross that he can apparently reach the Secretary via a private email account,” said Charisma Troiano, communications director for Democracy Forward, a progressive group that obtained Ross’s emails through the Freedom of Information Act. “The public deserves to know why.”
Ross’s email address is redacted in the documents reviewed by Yahoo News. However, Democracy Forward had specified in its Freedom of Information request that it sought “all communications sent to or from any nongovernmental email address established, controlled, or used by the Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross.” The back-and-forth with Johnson, therefore, had to have been conducted at least in part via an email address affiliated with Ross but not issued by the federal government.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump frequently castigated his Democratic competitor, Hillary Clinton, for using a private, off-site email server while serving as secretary of state for President Obama. Several high-ranking Trump administration officials have been found to have used private emails for government business.
In a text-message exchange with Yahoo News, Johnson expressed concern that he would be “falsely” accused “of being a troll or worse,” which made him hesitant to “engage with the #fakenews.”
Johnson later sent a statement denying that he was a Holocaust denier and claiming that he was a supporter of Jewish causes. He also pointed out that one of his lawyers was an Orthodox Jew, presumably as proof that he harbored no anti-Semitic tendencies.
Johnson also depicted himself as a free speech advocate, not a supporter of extremist causes. And he said that he was not the author of the false GotNews.com report about the Charlottesville killing. He said the settlement in the case was for a lower amount than what has been reported elsewhere (that is, $25,000).
Of his exchange with Ross, Johnson would only say it was “a national security matter.” It is not clear what topic pertaining to national security Johnson, who once authored a book on President Calvin Coolidge, would have the standing to discuss with Ross. The Department of Commerce has broad oversight of U.S. trade, though Trump has ceased to seek Ross’s counsel on that issue.
Johnson reached out to Ross again in October 2018, saying he had “something of international import to discuss.” Leach, the senior Commerce adviser, appears to have handled the request, forwarding it from her personal email address to her Department of Commerce one. This time, however, Johnson was not as fortunate as he had been over the summer. “The requested meeting did not occur,” a Commerce spokeswoman said.
Ross remains the commerce secretary, though his credibility has been seriously tarnished by his handling of the Trump administration’s effort to include a citizenship question on the 2020 census. He is routinely spoken about as on the verge of losing his job.
Johnson’s current occupation is unclear, though he told Yahoo News he wants to be called an “entrepreneur.” The substance of his present-day entrepreneurial activity is unknown.
Updated [May 14, 2019, 4:10 pm]: The story has been updated to reflect new information regarding Johnson’s meeting with Ross. The headline has also been updated to reflect this information.
Updated [May 14, 2019, 11:25 pm]: The story has been updated to include additional comments from Charles Johnson.