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How Mike Johnson defied the Trumpists in Congress over Ukraine

The US Senate has approved a bill for $95bn worth of foreign aid – thanks to the Republican speaker of the House risking his career to get it there.

By Harry Lambert

On 20 April the US House of Representatives authorised $95bn in spending, including $60bn for Ukraine, $26bn for Israel and $8bn designed to combat the threat of Chinese expansion in the Indo-Pacific. The Ukraine package passed for three reasons: Democrats in the House were united in support of it, more than 100 Republicans backed it, and – crucially – Mike Johnson, the Republican speaker of the House, allowed the bill to be brought to the House floor after months of delay.

Besides Donald Trump, Johnson is the Republican figure of the moment. He spent months delaying a vote on aid for Ukraine, fearing the repercussions of bringing it to the House when half of his party opposed it, but recently Johnson described himself as having begun to feel the weight of history. “My philosophy is you do the right thing and you let the chips fall where they may,” he said on 18 April. “If I operated out of fear over a motion to vacate [a vote of no-confidence such as the one tabled against the previous speaker, Kevin McCarthy, in October 2023] I would never be able to do my job. History judges us for what we do. This is a critical time right now on the world stage. I could make a selfish decision but I think providing lethal aid to Ukraine right now is critically important.”

Johnson described how he had been swayed by various recent briefings, most notably from the CIA director Bill Burns, which convinced him that “Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin and Iran really are an axis of evil. I think they’re in coordination on this, and Putin would continue to march through Europe if he were allowed. I think he might go to the Balkans next. I think he might have a showdown with Poland or one of our Nato allies. And to put it bluntly, I would rather send bullets to Ukraine than American boys.” He cited his son, who will soon join the US Naval Academy. “This is a live-fire exercise for me as it is [for] so many American families. This is not a game. It’s not a joke.”

Johnson spent months being lobbied in public and private. Those pleading with him to advance aid to Ukraine included Mike Pompeo, Donald Trump’s former secretary of state; David Cameron, whose bid to meet Johnson in recent weeks was rejected by the speaker; and Mitch McConnell, the departing Republican Senate minority leader, who has been steadfast in his support for Volodymyr Zelensky. Hakeem Jeffries, the Democrat minority leader in the House, described the decision as “a Churchill or Chamberlain moment”. Johnson was swayed in recent weeks by that analogy, perhaps imperilling his future as speaker in the process.

Mike Johnson, the eldest of four children, was born to teenage parents in Louisiana. His father was a firefighter – a career Johnson might have emulated if his mother and father had allowed it. Elected to the House in 2015, he was an essentially unknown congressman from Louisiana until 2020. He is an evangelical Christian and a father of five, including an adopted black son. Johnson and his wife took in Michael Tirrell James when he was a homeless teenager. Now 40, James has credited the Johnsons with keeping him out of prison.

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As a young conservative lawyer, Johnson argued in favour of sodomy laws and against same-sex marriage. Six months ago he became speaker after McCarthy was ousted over funding for Ukraine; three better-known candidates failed to win majority support. Johnson benefited from being untainted by a noticeable career. He remains largely unknown: only 55 per cent of Americans have an opinion on him.

He has claimed that his support for Ukraine has never wavered. “I’ve always said Vladimir Putin needed to be defeated,” he told CBS’s Face the Nation on 7 January. “I’ve never changed my position.”

But he has. In January he was still seeking to make aid for Ukraine contingent on Congress passing new legislation that would curb a record wave of illegal immigration over the US-Mexican border. “We must secure the US border before we secure anyone else’s,” Johnson said at the time. On 20 April he abandoned that position, prioritising Ukraine and winning praise across Washington and in the media.

If history is going to judge Mike Johnson, it will need to judge him on multiple fronts. His support for Ukraine must be paired with his support for another, earlier cause: the bid to overturn the 2020 election.

Attend any Trump rally and you will see how deep the idea of a stolen election now runs in the GOP. That is, in no small measure, down to those such as Johnson. Trump’s protestations after his defeat only influenced Republicans because others gave them credence.

Ten days after the 2020 election, Johnson suggested to a Louisiana radio show that “a lot of us know intuitively that there was a lot amiss about this election day”. There was, he said, “a lot of merit” to the idea that Dominion’s voting machines had been “rigged”; its software was “suspect because it came from Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela”. Fox News was later forced to pay $787m to Dominion for allowing its journalists to make such libellous claims. Johnson was fortunate to escape the company’s attention.

In that interview Johnson claimed that in the swing state of Georgia, “it really was rigged – it was set up for the Biden team to win”. He cited an eight-fold increase in mail-in ballots for Biden relative to Hillary Clinton in 2016, adding that voter ID was not required for such ballots (in reality, voters have to supply ID numbers with mail-in ballots in the state). “The system is set up for massive fraud and error and irregularity,” he claimed.

Johnson then filed an amicus brief – a legal submission by a third party – in support of a futile legal effort to have the Supreme Court scrutinise the election result in multiple swing states. He did so on behalf of 125 congressional Republicans, whose support he rallied by emailing them to say Trump was “anxiously awaiting the final list” of congressional supporters “to review”. Critics read that email as a naked attempt to please the aggrieved then president, rather than a genuine attempt to scrutinise electoral procedure. Johnson rejects this, insisting he never intended to “overturn” the election and that “if Trump had won, I would have had the same concerns… as God is my witness”.

Johnson’s amicus brief objected to the way officials in swing states had adapted to the pandemic by changing mail-in voting rules to accommodate absentee ballots. Johnson argued that the constitution forbids any authority other than state legislatures from adjusting such rules. “What happened in many states by changing the election laws without ratification by the state legislatures is a violation of the constitution,” Johnson told CBS News in January. “That’s a plain fact that no one can dispute.” But the Supreme Court disputed it, rejecting the argument in June 2023.

Nevertheless, Mike Johnson’s legal objections have been used by many Republicans as justification for supporting Trump’s claims of election fraud. On the morning of 6 January 2020, Johnson tweeted: “We MUST fight for election integrity, the Constitution and the preservation of our republic!” In October 2022 he told the New York Times: “I never egged on any of that,” distancing himself from the insurrection that followed. On 20 April he sought to make himself a new reputation as Ukraine’s congressional saviour, disowning the path he took in pursuit of the power he now wields.  

[See also: Rage and conspiracy on Trump’s trail]

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This article appears in the 24 Apr 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Age of Danger