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‘MAGA Mike Johnson’: A Trump world ‘LOVE’ story — but for how long?

Rep. Matt Gaetz mocks critics: ‘They're hand-wringing and bed-wetting’

Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., is sworn in on the House floor as the chamber's 56th speaker on Wednesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., is sworn in on the House floor as the chamber's 56th speaker on Wednesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

“Who the Hell is Mike Johnson?”

That came from a longtime political observer in a late-Tuesday text message as the little-known Louisiana Republican lawmaker became his party’s fourth nominee for speaker in three weeks.

Your correspondent had only a vague notion. A YouGov poll released Wednesday that asked about his speakership bid suggested the average American knew little about the new House speaker as he was ascending to the chamber’s top job.

“In the days before his election, Johnson had barely any support from U.S. adult citizens who identify as Republicans and Republican-leaning independents,” YouGov analysts wrote in a summary of the survey. “Johnson was picked by only 1 percent as the person they most want as the next speaker, from a lengthy list.”

But Donald Trump sure knew Johnson. So did the MAGA faction that keeps things spicy in the House GOP conference.

“The swamp is on the run. MAGA is ascendant. If you don’t think that moving from Kevin McCarthy to ‘MAGA Mike Johnson’ shows the ascendence of this movement and where the power of the Republican Party truly lies, then you’re not paying attention,” Rep. Matt Gaetz, the Trump-aligned Florida conservative who led the charge to oust Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., from the speaker’s office, said Wednesday.

“They are crying, they’re hand-wringing and bed-wetting over on K Street because we have an honorable, righteous, righteous man,” Gaetz said of Johnson on the “War Room” podcast, hosted by former Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon. “He’s going to do great things for the country.”

Trump World’s fingerprints were all over Johnson’s stunning move from backbencher to the speaker’s suite in the Capitol. The victory lap continued Thursday. The former president gave the Pelican State attorney-turned-lawmaker a final shove across the finish line Tuesday evening as House Republicans were about to take another secret ballot vote, one that ultimately gave Johnson the conference’s nod. Johnson won every GOP vote on the floor Wednesday to become the 56th speaker amid Democratic warnings about his MAGA ties and policy stances.

House Democrats were nowhere to be found Tuesday night when Johnson stood smiling at a lectern, surrounded by some — some — of his fellow House Republicans. A reporter asked Johnson about his refusal in January 2021 to vote to certify the 2020 presidential election. Rather than explain his legal rationale back then, Johnson dismissively shook his head and refused to answer the question.

North Carolina GOP Rep. Virginia Foxx, standing to the left of Johnson, flashed her often-combative side. She twice, raising her voice, told the reporter to “Shut up!” Conservative firebrand Rep. Lauren Boebert of Colorado was beside Foxx; she was equally dismissive of the question, waving a hand at the journalist.

The Republican members standing with Johnson shouted in unison after the questions, all eyes fixed on the reporter: “No! No! No!”

It was a quintessentially rowdy MAGA moment that unofficially kicked off the Johnson speakership, complete with the collective ignoring of a fact: Johnson stood proudly with Trump’s “big lie” that the 2020 election was stolen. In a December 2020 interview with the New Yorker, for example, he said Democratic officials, citing the COVID-19 pandemic, “tried to expand the ways we do elections.” He also alleged — without offering evidence, just as Trump continues to do — that voting fraud was “happening across the country all simultaneously.”

Will that kind of scene, with a defiant aura reminiscent of a Trump political rally, become a theme of Johnson’s speakership? After all, Democratic Whip Pete Aguilar of California said on the floor Wednesday of the three-week speaker drama: “This has been about one thing: Who can appease Donald Trump?”

Enter Johnson.

He is in his fourth term, first elected by voters in Louisiana’s 4th District in 2016 after he rode the MAGA wave all the way to Capitol Hill. But that does not mean he always stuck close by Trump: He voted with the then-president 94 percent of the time in 2017; 86 percent of the time in 2018; 96 percent of the time in 2019; and 89 percent of the time in 2020, according to a CQ vote analysis of votes where Trump’s position was known.

A CQ Roll Call deep-dive into voting data shows Johnson broke with then-President Trump 12 times over four years on bills on which the White House or chief executive took a position. Johnson broke with Trump four times in 2018 and 2020. He never broke with the then-president more than four times in a single calendar year.

Two of the times he broke with Trump in 2020 on the same bill, the annual defense authorization that Trump vetoed. Johnson voting “yea” on final passage of the bill and then on Dec. 28, 2020, voted to override Trump’s veto, as did 108 other GOP members and 212 Democrats.

Johnson, like the MAGA wing of the House conference, is not a fan of omnibus spending packages, the appropriations bills that typically move around the holidays and contain full-year funding for multiple federal agencies. Trump supported omnibus measures for fiscal 2017 and 2018, but Johnson voted “nay” on both. Trump also supported an upward adjustment of federal spending caps in July 2019 and Johnson voted “nay.” Notably, however, even Trump eventually soured on omnibus packages, making Johnson’s break less meaningful. This year, Johnson is walking into an unfinished appropriations environment that is ripe for a holiday season omnibus package with gifts for Democratic and Republican members alike.

Johnson has been a more loyal soldier to House GOP leadership, voting at least 96 percent of the time with his colleagues when majorities in the two parties were on opposite sides. That doesn’t mean he hasn’t deviated from the company line, including on a 2018 bill that would have overhauled cheese labeling rules. On several of the same spending measures when he broke with Trump, he also bucked GOP leadership.

When the House tried to pass a measure in June 2018 to overhaul the DACA program for undocumented people brought to the country as children and provide new funding for border security programs, McCarthy and other House GOP leaders voted “yea,” while Johnson voted “nay.” The measure failed, with 301 “nay” votes and 121 “yeas.”

Other than opposing large spending packages and a few other bills, however, the data shows Johnson stayed loyal to Trump and leadership a substantial majority of the time. Democrats have taken note.

‘Most extreme fringes’

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesperson Viet Shelton in a Wednesday statement that Johnson’s election shows “how the Republican conference has completely given in to the most extreme fringes of their party and embraced an agenda that promotes a total, nationwide abortion ban, espouses conspiracy theories, and cutting Social Security and Medicare.”

Perhaps more importantly for him securing the gavel with only GOP votes from a conference that is vehemently anti-President Joe Biden: He voted with the current president 8 percent of the time in 2021 and 12 percent in 2022, according to the same CQ analysis.

The first measuring stick moment of just how MAGA he will be will come in a few weeks.

With a Nov. 17 government funding deadline approaching, Johnson must decide whether he will try using another stopgap funding bill to keep the government open. If he, as McCarthy did late last month, does so without slashing funding levels below fiscal 2023 levels — the only way it would get through the Senate and signed by Biden into law — it could rankle the same anti-spending, anti-government group that drove out McCarthy.

In 2022, the lawmaker who has now been chosen speaker cast “nay” votes on a number of matters Trump and his allies oppose, and ones important to conservative GOP voters. That list includes votes against measures requiring the release of a sitting president’s tax returns; codifying federal recognition of same-sex marriage; codifying a right to provide or obtain contraception; and a gun violence package that would have expanded background checks and addressed mental health.

Johnson has a mixed recent record on spending and fiscal matters. Just consider that he voted for the June debt-and-spending deal McCarthy struck with Biden, but against the aforementioned “clean” continuing resolution.

Trump has sharply criticized both measures. And, as the CQ data shows, Johnson has shown a willingness to break with his party’s leader. But very rarely. Perhaps that’s why Trump, who used a social media post to help drive a dagger into Majority Whip Tom Emmer’s candidacy on Tuesday, used another to boost the man his loyalists call “MAGA Mike.”

“In 2024, we will have an even bigger, & more important, WIN! My strong SUGGESTION is to go with the leading candidate, Mike Johnson, & GET IT DONE, FAST! LOVE, DJT,” Trump, the GOP front-runner for the party’s 2024 presidential nod, wrote on Truth Social.

Johnson might soon find out, like so many others have, that “LOVE” from Trump — and his MAGA devout loyalists in the House GOP conference — can quickly devolve into the opposite.

Ryan Kelly contributed data research to this report.

Editor-at-Large John T. Bennett, a former White House correspondent, writes a weekly column for Roll Call, parts of which often first appear in the subscription-based CQ Afternoon Briefing newsletter.

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