In 2019, Professor Ryan Owens recorded a conversation with notorious Never Trumper Charlie Sykes, who is regarded as a traitor by many in the GOP base. It’s vanished. Where is it? Owens has been critical of Trump at times in the past, saying Trump’s emergency action at the southern border “was just as excessive as Obama’s unconstitutional actions were.” He says he voted for Trump twice out of three elections.
A podcast that Professor Ryan Owens recorded at UW-Madison with notorious Never Trumper Charlie Sykes has mysteriously disappeared.
The 2019 conversation with Sykes is one of four podcasts that Owens recorded – including two with Never Trumpers and one with a professor whose syllabus contained negative comments about Trump – that have vanished from the Internet.
We specifically asked Owens whether he deleted/removed the podcasts from the Internet and what happened to the Sykes’ audio, and he did not respond to that question.
The four podcasts no longer appear on the Tommy G. Thompson Center on Public Leadership’s website podcast list, even though they were prominently highlighted by the center when they occurred, and they’re scrubbed from the center’s Soundcloud account too.
In addition, the new Thompson Center director, Professor Alexander Tahk, told us he can’t find the Sykes audio anywhere despite us giving him four days to do so. He did tell us that he unearthed the other three podcasts in an internal shared file, but wouldn’t give them to us without an open records request. We filed one, but it’s still unfulfilled by UW-Madison. Average voters would have a very difficult time getting access to those podcasts – or even knowing they existed – and the Sykes’ audio can’t be found at all, at least so far.
Owens’ campaign released a statement saying, “Desperate campaigns take shots – Ryan’s going to keep talking about how he’ll fight for Wisconsin’s freedom and safety as attorney general. Ryan’s sole focus is beating Josh Kaul and replacing his failed leadership with a rule of law AG and a steadfast conservative who can think big. The stakes are too high to become distracted or to elect candidates who cannot run this office on multiple fronts.”
We would note that we discovered the podcasts weren’t on the Internet anymore when researching Owens’ podcasts on our own, not from another campaign.
The campaign also sent us a comment from Owens, who said, “Of course these podcasts should be available to the public and I hope UW Madison releases them right away.” We also asked Owens to provide the podcasts but had no luck with that.
The Thompson Center, under Owens’ leadership, also sponsored a talk that Sykes gave at the UW-Parkside Student Center called, “A Conversation with Charlie Sykes: Overcoming Partisan Politics for the Good of the Public.” Around that time, Owens recorded the 30 minute, 48 second interview with Sykes. The Center once directed people to it via Twitter and there was an MP3 and URL for it; now it’s gone. Sykes’ criticism of Trump, but also other Republicans like U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, has enraged many Wisconsin Republicans.
Owens is a Republican candidate for state Attorney General. We previously ran a story scrutinizing his experience and comments in another podcast praising Gov. Tony Evers’ COVID-19 response. We have also written investigative pieces on his Republican primary opponent, Fond du Lac County DA Eric Toney, and on Democratic AG Josh Kaul. It’s all part of our efforts to educate voters on their choices by vetting the candidates.
The other podcasts that are also no longer on the center’s website are conversations between Owens and Never Trump political consultant Mike Murphy, Wisconsin Conservative Energy Forum Executive Director Scott Coenen, and UW-Madison Political Science Professor Kenneth Mayer.
When we spoke with new Center director Professor Alexander Tahk at his office on the UW-Madison campus, Tahk expressed surprise about the missing podcasts and said he didn’t know what happened to them. He’s only been in the position for two months; Owens left in February, shortly before his campaign launched, and there was an interim director in between. Tahk then called us back to say he had unearthed the Murphy, Coenen, and Mayer podcasts on an internal shared file but still couldn’t explain why they were removed from the website and wouldn’t give them to us immediately. He told us to file an open records request to get them to ensure he was handling all requests to the center equally; it’s still unfulfilled by UW-Madison.
However, Tahk said he has been unable to find the Charlie Sykes-Ryan Owens podcast at all, even though we gave him four days to look for it, and it’s clearly public record. UW-Madison has retention policies for public records; we asked the university’s spokeswoman which records must be retained by the Center through that policy and are awaiting a response. We also stopped by Owens’ office to ask him about the podcasts, but he wasn’t in. It can be a crime in some circumstances to destroy a public record, although it requires intent to defraud or injure. “Whoever with intent to injure or defraud destroys, damages, removes or conceals any public record is guilty of a Class H felony,” state statutes say.
The state Attorney General is a key enforcer of state open records laws.
Mayer, whose conversation with Owens no longer appears on the Center’s podcast list, spoke with Owens about Trump’s impeachment; Mayer caused national headlines when his syllabus said some people find Trump a “spectacularly unqualified and catastrophically unfit egomaniac who poses an overt threat to the Republic.” A Republican lawmaker complained about Mayer, and the syllabus dispute led to a debate about academic freedom. We wrote Mayer about the podcast and didn’t hear back.
Murphy is a Never Trumper who has worked for Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney and John McCain.
The four podcasts were once listed in a 2019 newsletter put out by Owens and The Tommy G. Thompson Center on Public Leadership before he ran for AG.
Here’s a podcast list in the 2019 newsletter that came with an intro from Owens. The four podcasts are there.
This is the opening of that newsletter:
But now the podcast list is different; a visitor to the Thompson Center’s website would never know those four existed. (Other podcasts are also listed on the website but not in the newsletter because they occurred after the 2019 newsletter.) You can play audio for all of the below. Notice that the four missing podcasts are gone.
We checked several other podcast websites which host the Tommy G. Thompson Center podcast library including, Spotify, iTunes, and YouTube. The podcasts were missing from all of them.
Does Owens Support Trump?
Owens implied to conservative talk radio legend Mark Belling this month that he is a Trump supporter, telling Belling: “On election day 2020, I worked on the Trump legal team in the state headquarters.”
We asked his campaign what exactly he did for Trump. They responded, “Ryan worked in the legal war room answering questions that polling observers across the state had for the lawyers. He was a volunteer.”
We asked Owens specifically if he supported Trump all three times, asking, “Did he vote for Trump in 2016 in the primary and general election? How about in 2020?”
He told us he voted for Trump twice:
“I supported President Trump and voted twice for him. I was on the Trump legal team in 2020. My current campaign manager was the Wisconsin Deputy State Director for President Trump. I also represented Mike Lee and Ted Cruz at the US Supreme Court, both of whom advance the Trump agenda in the U.S. Senate. And I wrote numerous op-eds supporting the President’s nominees to the Supreme Court and lower courts…Lots of conservatives were unsure about Trump in 2016. I voted for him twice and worked on his legal team in 2020; I publicly and enthusiastically supported his nominees.”
We asked Owens’ campaign in which of the three votes he did not choose Trump – was it the 2016 primary and who did he vote for in that race? We did not hear back yet.
Owens has not always had positive things to say about Trump before his campaign for AG, Wisconsin Right Now has learned (the work he did regarding Lee and Cruz was filing friend of the court briefs).
In 2019, Owens told Wisconsin Public Radio, when discussing a Trump quote arguing that the Supreme Court should strike down a DACA case on immigration: “That’s rich. Given the emergency action he (Trump) wanted to take at the border; I mean that was just as excessive as Obama’s unconstitutional actions were.” The audio comes in the last few minutes at the above link. He added at another place in that interview, “Donald Trump is no conservative. He is by no means a conservative as classically defined.”
We asked Owens’ campaign about the comments on the border and Trump, and he said,
“I worried that Democrats would make the same argument about avoiding Congress to go after guns and other rights. And I was absolutely right. Not long after, Kamala Harris argued that if she was elected president, she would use that same authority to go after guns if Congress didn’t act on gun control. Imagine a national emergency declared on climate change or gun control? I fully support securing the border through a variety of tactics from building the wall, to investing in technology, to increasing the number of judges and agents on the ground.”
In another Center podcast with Prof. Wilfred Reilly a year ago, Owens said, “I think the left was you know justifiably concerned with some of the statements that President Trump or then candidate Trump made about whether he would find the election results legitimate if he lost. I think that was a significant attack on our institutions.” He said such attacks were also being seen on the left with riots and “attacks on police.” (In that same podcast, Owens talked about the George Floyd death and said, “They say, but for the fact he was black this wouldn’t have happened to him (Floyd). And it’s difficult to test that… maybe they’re right, maybe they’re wrong. I don’t know; I don’t know the answer to that.”)
That interview, though, does show that, Owens, as center director, did bring some voices to campus who countered liberal narratives dominant there; for example, Reilly criticized some of the media narratives against police in that interview. Owens also interviewed conservatives like U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson and former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch and liberals like Congressman Mark Pocan. Those podcasts are easily available online. As center director, Owens brought different perspectives to campus, and there’s nothing wrong with that; the question is, though, whether comments he made before he was running for AG square with comments he made before he was a candidate. That’s something voters are entitled to know.
In 2018, Owens said during a panel discussion, “Trump’s really not a conservative and I think there are a lot of conservatives who are very uncomfortable with Trump. Now, the reason most of them voted for him last time around is because of the Supreme Court. A lot of people who are conservative in principle went to the polls, they plugged their noses, they voted for Trump because they were concerned about what a Supreme Court would look like under a President Clinton.” (He also said he didn’t think Roe v. Wade would be overturned.)
So how did we find out the four podcasts ever existed?
Wisconsin Right Now found the four missing podcasts in a listing on an obscure page called podchaser.com. The Thompson Center has an account there. But when you click on those four podcasts – and only those four – the audio is missing. The audio for those four podcasts is missing everywhere you look, on Spotify, iTunes, the Thompson Center’s website, Soundcloud, and so on.
The revelation that the podcasts are missing, unearthed exclusively by Wisconsin Right Now, comes after Owens faced heated criticism on conservative talk radio over other podcasts he recorded on COVID-19 while center director. Those podcasts, which came in the wake of our story examining Owens’ lack of courtroom experience and a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article on Owens’ Safer at Home comments, led talk radio host Mark Belling to call Owens a phony, hypocrite, and RINO.
In one of those podcasts, Owens said, “The governor, to his credit, was ahead of the game when it came to the ‘safer at home’ order. We can quibble around the edges about the treatment of religion and things like that with it, but he was well ahead of a lot of states when he issued that order, to his credit.” He later claimed to Belling and conservative talk show host Dan O’Donnell that he misspoke and meant Evers’ emergency order, not the Safer at Home order.
In another podcast analyzing Evers’ Safer at Home actions, Ryan Owens criticized people “on the right” who are “saying the governor is a tyrant and all this,” calling it “that nonsense.”
Following that dust-up, we decided to review all of Owens’ podcasts.
That’s when we discovered that the audio for four of the podcasts is inexplicably missing. There are 34 other podcasts on the page, and the audio exists for all of those.
The Four Podcasts in Question
–A Dec. 4, 2019 conversation between Owens and Charlie Sykes. “Thompson Center Director, Ryan Owens, interviews Charlie Skyes (sic),” the podchaser page listing says. There’s a URL for an MP3 for the Sykes/Owens podcast, and the page says the interview was 30 minutes and 48 seconds long. The Thompson Center touted it on Twitter at the time. Sykes was a conservative talk show host with 620 WTMJ radio in Milwaukee for years, with a large following in the GOP base, until he viciously went after Trump, landing an MSNBC contract, and later extending his venom toward multiple other conservatives he once supported, such as U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson. That’s made him hated by many on the right.
But now the audio is mysteriously gone.
The Sykes/Owens podcast was touted on Wispolitics.com at the time, but the audio is missing there too; it appears the Thompson Center hosts its audio on Soundcloud, where it is gone.
A June 6, 2019, conversation between Owens and Never Trumper political consultant Michael Murphy. “Thompson Center director, Ryan Owens, interviews Michael Murphy about his experience and what he thinks future elections hold in store,” says the podchaser page. It says that the Murphy podcast is 48 minutes and 9 seconds long.
Murphy endorsed Joe Biden for president, even though he is a Republican strategist. He’s worked on the campaigns of John McCain, Mitt Romney, and Jeb Bush. In the 2016 GOP primary, Murphy was the chief strategist for the Right to Rise PAC, which supported Jeb Bush’s candidacy. Murphy has trashed Trump repeatedly in the past in other forums. He once said, “And that’s one thing Donald Trump – he speaks moron really, really well. That’s both one of his strengths and one of his disgraces.” On election night 2016, Murphy said he viewed Trump’s victory with “a mix of shock and horror. I’ve been anti-Trump since 19, probably 93 only because I was working back then for the newly elected governor of New Jersey, Christine Todd Whitman, and Trump was slippering around Atlantic city.” There are many similar anti-Trump comments from Mike Murphy online.
What did he say to Owens, and what did Owens say to him?
Who knows? The audio has disappeared.
A Sept. 26, 2019, conversation between Owens and UW-Madison Professor Kenneth Mayer about impeachment. The 31 minute, 33-second long podcast caption says, “Thompson Center Director, Ryan Owens, discusses the latest news relating to the Impeachment inquiry with UW-Madison Professor, Kenneth Mayer.”
What did Owens and Mayer talk about?
That’s unclear because their podcast is also missing.
An Aug. 1, 2019, conversation between Owens and Scott Coenen, the Executive Director of the Wisconsin Conservative Energy Forum. The podcast is 31 minutes and 55 seconds long. The forum is a non-profit with “a focus on advancing clean, reliable, affordable renewable energy and energy efficiency.” Tommy Thompson is on its board.
It too is gone. We emailed Coenen for comment and didn’t hear back.
These are the questions we sent Owens’ campaign:
1. Does he know why these podcasts are no longer available on the internet? Did he remove them? When and why? Does he know if someone else did? Who, when and why?
2. Can you send us these four podcasts?
3. Does he know why the Sykes audio can’t be found? Where is it? Is he concerned about that? Does he call on UW Madison to find and release it?
4. Does he believe these are public record and should be available to the public? Should they be available without an open records request (most voters don’t know how to do that)? What should the penalty, if any, be for the person who removed them, if that’s what happened? Does the UW Madison open records policy mandate retention of these podcasts? Why aren’t they on the center’s podcast list on its website under “podcast” tab? A person looking on the center website wouldn’t easily find the podchaser listings.
5. Does Ryan support President Trump? Did he vote for Trump in 2016 in the primary and general election? How about in 2020? Would he characterize himself as a Donald Trump supporter? Why or why not
6. We were given audio in which Ryan said, “That’s rich. Given the emergency action he (Trump) wanted to take at the border I mean that was just as excessive as Obama’s unconstitutional actions were.” Can you explain this quote more? Does Ryan support Trump’s border policies? If not, which does he not support? Does he support the border wall? Which of Trump’s border actions does Ryan believe were unconstitutional?
7. Ryan once said, “Trump’s really not a conservative and I think there are a lot of conservatives who are very uncomfortable with Trump. Now, the reason most of them voted for him last time around is because of the Supreme Court. A lot of people who are conservative in principle went to the polls, they plugged their noses, they voted for Trump because they were concerned about what a Supreme Court would look like under a President Clinton.”…Does he still believe these things? Any comment?
The responses we received from Owens are all in this story.