From quiet caucus member to House speaker: The Mike Johnson story

“Meet the Double Agent Who Now Controls House Conservatives,” the headline reads.

“The spy’s mission was simple,” the story begins. “Gain their trust, become one of them, and eventually take them over.”

The article claims to describe “the perfect mole” — a “clean-cut” politician “hungry for power and influence.” The subject: Republican Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana. The twist: It was written in November 2018 — five years before Johnson rose to become the unlikely speaker of a deeply divided Republican House.

It turns out that the ambitious Louisianan’s careful presentation could conceal more than one play at a time.

Published in the left-wing Daily Beast, the story’s reporter used interviews with multiple Republican colleagues to paint Johnson as an ambitious politician who downplayed his relationship with the conservative House Freedom Caucus in order to gain the acceptance, and the eventual chairmanship, of the powerful Republican Study Committee.

“For two years,” Andrew Desiderio wrote, “he was groomed and positioned, never denouncing but never formally affiliating with the Freedom Caucus and all the while getting closer and closer to his goal of total control over conservative Republicans in the House. And it worked.”

Of course, it’s easy to see the story in a different light now that Johnson has climbed the ladder to the top of his conference and used his authority to cut deals with Democrats, most recently selling out border security to send more than $60 billion to Ukraine over the objections of a majority of his own party.

It turns out that the ambitious Louisianan’s careful presentation could conceal more than one play at a time. Today, Johnson is effectively the head of a center-left coalition government, having passed every important spending bill of his tenure with Democrats’ support, and even relying on Democrats to protect him from being ousted from the speakership by the GOP.

It’s always more difficult to discern motives than it might seem, and much of what happens in Washington, D.C., is significantly closer to an episode of “Veep” than an episode of “House of Cards.”

“There wasn’t some grand strategy here,” one current Freedom Caucus member told me, waving away theories that Johnson had kept a friendly distance from the caucus to protect his potential path to leadership. “He’s contended, and others have, that it was strategic, but that’s revisionist history.”

Johnson’s socially conservative credentials were solid before he took the speakership. He has the right friends, including his fellow Louisianan Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, and he once took a lot of the right stances — but could be counted on to vote with leadership when pressure mounted.

When Republican leadership demanded a yes vote on the National Defense Authorization Act that signed women up for the draft, for example, Johnson, then a member of the powerful House Armed Services Committee, voted yes. When leadership asked members to bust budget caps for Biden’s 2023 budget, he voted yes. When leadership wanted to pass a farm bill with all the handouts it entailed, he was a yes. The list goes on.

“I think he’s mobilized by a belief that to some degree he’s called by God to be there to lead,” the Freedom Caucus member, who asked not to be named to speak freely, explained. “To do the things that he believes he needs to do, like fund Ukraine, like cut deals to get bills funded, and yes, move up and use those conservative credentials to effectively have the conservative movement be behind him and to try to leverage that. But meanwhile, we’re doing whatever the defense world wants us to do: Reauthorize FISA, bust caps, fund foreign aid.”

“The speaker,” the congressman continued, “is who he is. This is someone who’s been upfront that he wanted to get funding to Ukraine, he was upfront about not wanting to have a shutdown. At the end of the day, he’s going to value and prize those types of things … at the expense of the difficult kind of leadership that it takes in Washington.”

“How does it feel to be a RINO?” one member of the Republican Main Street Caucus reportedly joked to Johnson when the speaker met with the more liberal group of lawmakers April 17. He was working at the time to gain Republican allies for his $95 billion foreign aid package. Johnson, the Washington Post reported, responded with “a simultaneous shrug, awkward chuckle, and a gentle pump of his fist.”

The speaker is “someone who can forgive himself for lying because he thinks it’s for a higher purpose,” a senior conservative staffer who worked closely with Johnson in 2018 explained.

“He has an exceptional capacity for self-justification.”

Five years ago, it seems, Mike Johnson’s colleagues understood the kind of man they were dealing with. Neither side realized where those attributes would take him.

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