Sunday, October 29, 2023

Sunday Reading

How We Got A Wingnut As Speaker of the House — Jonathan Blitzer in The New Yorker.

On Wednesday morning, after House Republicans nominated Representative Mike Johnson, of Louisiana, as their fourth candidate for Speaker in a span of three weeks, many in Washington were forced to admit how little they knew about the man who was about to be second in line for the Presidency. The Republican senator Susan Collins said she’d have to Google him. In a conference of bracing personalities, Johnson’s relative anonymity to the wider world was an advantage. Trim and bespectacled, with dark hair and a youthful face, he blends in rather than stands out. Democrats call him “Jim Jordan in a coat,” because of his history of taking radically conservative positions—especially on the 2020 election, which he refused to certify—and presenting them with lawyerly polish. Hours before Johnson won the vote on the House floor, on Wednesday afternoon, without a single Republican defection, I asked a former senior G.O.P. aide how moderate members could justify voting against Jordan but for Johnson. Their politics are nearly indistinguishable; Johnson, who sits on Jordan’s Judiciary Committee, once compared their relationship to being “like Batman and Robin.” The aide replied, “Have you ever heard of Mike Johnson?”

Johnson, a fifty-one-year-old constitutional lawyer, came to Washington the same year Donald Trump did. He had served briefly in the Louisiana state house, but he was better known as an attorney pursuing conservative causes. “Some people are called to pastoral ministry,” he said, when he first ran for Congress. “I was called to legal ministry, and I’ve been out on the front lines of the ‘culture war.’ ” As an attorney and spokesperson for the Alliance Defending Freedom, a right-wing advocacy organization, he appeared twice before the Louisiana Supreme Court to defend the state’s ban on same-sex marriage. Within a few years in Washington, Johnson emerged as a trusted member of the Party—an unflinching partisan combatant in a conference lurching to the right. “Everyone likes him,” the former aide told me. He chaired the Republican Study Committee, the largest conservative faction in the House, and joined Trump’s defense team during the President’s first impeachment.

The key to Johnson’s current standing among House Republicans is his role in the aftermath of the 2020 election. Trump’s refusal to accept the result put his congressional supporters in a bind. Their base shared Trump’s belief in the illegitimacy of the outcome, but privately the Party’s top leaders admitted that the President was unhinged. Apostates such as Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, who sat on the January 6th committee, have since been ostracized by the G.O.P. But at the time even hard-right Republicans, including members of the notoriously obstructionist Freedom Caucus, were uncomfortable invalidating the vote. “History will judge this moment,” Chip Roy, the Texas Republican, said, in a closed-door Party meeting on January 5th. “If a majority of Republicans vote to reject the electors, it will irrevocably empower Congress to take over the selection of Presidential electors.”

Johnson had proposed an alternative that allowed members to skirt the question. According to a detailed report, published last year in the Times, he suggested that House Republicans could vote against certifying the results not just because of fraud, which no one could prove, but on arcane legal grounds. “Constitutional infirmity,” Johnson called them. Many states had modified their voting procedures in response to the pandemic. But in the process, he argued, they had violated the Constitution. According to Johnson’s theory, they could only make changes to election protocol with the approval of each state’s own legislature; as a result, Republicans could rule out the results. “I am a lawyer. I don’t engage in conspiracy theory,” Johnson told my colleague Isaac Chotiner at the time. “I have gone to great lengths to say, ‘We have to be intellectually consistent about this.’ It’s not just about the support of Donald Trump in 2020. It’s about the institutions themselves.”

That December, Johnson tweeted out his theory of the case around the time that the attorney general of Texas was filing a petition before the U.S. Supreme Court to discount Joe Biden’s wins in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Georgia. On the morning of December 9th, Johnson, who planned to submit an amicus brief in the case, was gathering signatures from House Republicans when he heard from Trump. “Someone showed the President my post, I guess, and he called me and said he was so glad we were doing this,” Johnson told Chotiner. Within an hour, Johnson wrote an e-mail to his colleagues with the subject line “Time sensitive message request from President Trump.”

“Dear Friends,” he began. “President Trump called me this morning to express his great appreciation for our effort to file an amicus brief in the Texas case on behalf of members of Congress.” Then, in bolded and underlined red type, he added, “He specifically asked me to contact all Republican members of the House and Senate today and request that all join on to our brief.” The next day, a hundred and five lawmakers signed on. Prominent leaders, including former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, held out—which enraged Trump. Within another day, twenty more had signed the letter. One of the last to do so, citing a technical glitch for his delay, was McCarthy.

On Tuesday night, with the Party coalescing behind him, Johnson appeared on Capitol Hill to take questions from the press. Predictably, someone asked about the certification scheme. Johnson smiled and shook his head. The members surrounding him booed; one told the reporter to “shut up.”

Johnson’s power has followed from his discretion. In 2020, he managed to give Trump and the Republican base what they wanted, while claiming that he was plotting a principled course of his own. His canniness has paid off. Earlier this week, the Party’s third-ranking member of leadership, Tom Emmer, of Minnesota, was eliminated from contention for Speaker after Trump and the far right attacked him for being insufficiently conservative. Of the viable candidates still in the running, he was the only one who’d voted to certify the 2020 election. Yet there were others in the conference who’d opposed the bids of Jordan and Steve Scalise because they had refused to certify those results. One of them was Ken Buck, of Colorado. When he and I recently spoke, Buck told me that the old Jim Jordan wouldn’t recognize the person he’d become. But now Buck supported Johnson. On CNN, Abby Phillip asked him how he could square the two positions. “Jim Jordan was involved in much of the post-election activity,” he said, stammering a bit. “Mike Johnson was not. He voted to decertify, absolutely. That wasn’t my vote. But we need to move forward.”

Johnson is the most conservative Speaker in recent memory, perhaps ever. Last year, for instance, Johnson introduced a bill to prohibit discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity at any institution that receives federal funds. After the Supreme Court repealed Roe v. Wade, Johnson called it “an historic and joyful day.” He has also said that the landmark abortion case “gave constitutional cover to the elective killing of unborn children in America, period.” In a move sure to cause friction with some Republicans, he’s also voted to block further funding for Ukraine. Republican moderates, particularly those in districts that Biden won, may feel uneasy about their new leader, but they were apparently willing to suspend their misgivings in order to end the embarrassment of the past three weeks. The former aide told me, “The moderates decided it wasn’t a hill worth dying on.”

Doonesbury — Have we met?