Mike Johnson is smart, friendly, very conservative. He also tried helping Trump overturn the 2020 vote
Attempting to help Donald Trump overturn an election is not a firing offence in the modern Republican Party.
In fact, it can land you a promotion.
The new Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives was not only one of the most important allies in the former president's attempt to cancel the 2020 election result; he also called the vote rigged and spread crackpot conspiracy theories about communist-controlled voting machines.
Yet Mike Johnson received unanimous support from Republicans in a 220-209 vote on Wednesday, ending an impasse that had paralyzed one-half of the U.S. Congress for nearly a month.
It's a dizzying ascendancy for the youthful six-year congressman from Louisiana, a career constitutional lawyer known as bright and amiable.
That's one thing his friends and foes agree on: Johnson is smart and likable.
"A very pleasant demeanour," is how top House Democrat Hakeem Jeffries described him, while cautioning that he's also extremely right wing.
"A friend of all, and enemy to none," is how senior Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik described him. "Above all else, Mike is kind."
That gentlemanly manner was on display the instant Johnson took up the gavel. In a gracious address, he began by speaking directly to the Democratic leader.
The parties may see the world differently, Johnson said, but he vouched for Jeffries's love for the country and vowed to work constructively together: "We're going to find common ground," he said.
That's where the amity ends.
Johnson's rise is a reflection of a bitterly polarized politics. A day earlier, Republicans seemed on the verge of selecting a relative moderate, Tom Emmer — backer of same-sex marriage, supporter of funding Ukraine, and a soft-red conservative who, it's worth noting, voted to certify the 2020 election.
The party base revolted. And Trump delivered the coup de grace Tuesday, with a scathing statement that killed Emmer's bid.
By Wednesday afternoon, Republicans had rallied behind an anti-Emmer.
A ruby-red conservative, Johnson is a repeated opponent of Ukraine aid, he frequently sponsors anti-abortion bills and he fought in court against same-sex marriage in his previous life as a lawyer for a Christian advocacy group.
He's no run-of-the-mill opponent of same-sex marriage, either. In newspaper columns many years ago, he referred to gay sex as deviate behaviour, calling it unnatural and dangerous, and said states would have a legitimate right to criminalize it on health grounds.
And, importantly, he worked, on behalf of Trump, to assemble colleagues' signatures for a legal challenge against the 2020 election result. Johnson appeared to exert some pressure, telling them the then-president was eagerly waiting to see the list of signatories.
He later insisted he wasn't trying to intimidate colleagues. He said he regretted his choice of words. Yet Johnson has referred to the election as fixed, and has repeated the sorts of canards about voting machines that resulted in a $787 million US defamation payout by Fox News.
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In the House of Representatives, as the vote began Wednesday, Democrat Pete Aguilar summed up the dynamics of the Speaker race: "This is about: Who can appease Donald Trump?"
When he referred to the Speaker-designate as a key architect of Trump's electoral college objection, a Republican shouted: "You're damn right!"
In fact, it's considered in poor taste, nowadays, among Capitol Hill Republicans to even bother asking about the unpleasant events of early 2021.
They heckled a reporter at Johnson's first news conference as Speaker-designate, when ABC's Rachel Scott began asking: "You helped lead the efforts to overturn the 2020 election…"
She never finished her question. It was drowned out in boos. Members including Steve Scalise burst out laughing like it was preposterous to even be raising this.
Another election objector reacted more angrily: "Shut up! Shut up!" shouted Virginia Foxx of North Carolina. Lauren Boebert waved at the reporter, as if shooing off a fly.
Johnson smiled and shook his head: "Next question."
And that was it. Somewhere between 60 and 70 per cent of Republican voters think the 2020 election was illegitimate, and there's little political incentive for members in solid right-wing districts, meaning most Republicans, to say otherwise.
Here's something Johnson had in common with his peers: Most of the speakership candidates had voted against certifying the election, as had the last Speaker, Kevin McCarthy.
Where Johnson differed from most was in the effort and intellectual brainpower he dedicated to it.
His promotion on Wednesday was celebrated by none other than Trump. In fact, the former president took credit for it, referring to his own actions aimed at torpedoing Emmer and elevating Johnson.
"At this time yesterday, nobody was thinking of Mike," Trump said. "Then we put out the word. And now he's the Speaker of the House."
Trump added: "He's going to make us all proud."
To be fair, Trump's track record as kingmaker is imperfect. He'd tried to elevate Jordan and fell short.
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Some Republicans refrained from backing Jordan, who was a louder backer of Trump's election lies. His voting record was also a shade more conservative than Johnson's.
New doubts about Ukraine
Johnson's appointment could fray nerves in Europe.
He has almost always voted against Ukraine funding. He has also offered no indication whether he will allow a vote on the issue, as President Joe Biden is requesting.
The president wants legislation that combines funding for Israel, Ukraine, the border, and other issues in a wide-ranging national-security bill.
Trump's allies celebrated his triumph. This included the lawmaker who led the move to oust McCarthy three weeks ago.
"The swamp is on the run," Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida said on the podcast of right-wing populist Steve Bannon.
"MAGA is ascendant. If you don't think moving from Kevin McCarthy to MAGA Mike Johnson shows the ascendance of this movement, and where the power in the Republican Party truly lies, then you're not paying attention."
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Alexander Panetta is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News who has covered American politics and Canada-U.S. issues since 2013. He previously worked in Ottawa, Quebec City and internationally, reporting on politics, conflict, disaster and the Montreal Expos.
Credit belongs to : www.cbc.ca