Mike Johnson stunned Washington when he won the speaker’s gavel this year. Rising from relative obscurity, he’s now second in line to the presidency, having leapfrogged better-known, seasoned GOP leaders to seize one of the top prizes in American politics.
As one of the least experienced speakers in recent history, Johnson, 51, is now relying on a cadre of trusted House allies, senators, former Trump officials and congressional leadership aides to help him navigate a perilous political landscape made more complicated by the GOP’s razor-thin majority, divided government and fresh shutdown threats.
Here’s a look at Johnson’s inner circle on Capitol Hill.
Johnson has had two main mentors during his seven years in Congress: Majority Leader Steve Scalise and Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan. Both of them ran for speaker and fell short during the GOP’s three-week leadership fight, clearing the way for their onetime mentee to rise to the top job. While the dynamic may be politically awkward, there’s no personal bitterness between Johnson and the men.
Scalise, a fellow Louisiana Republican, has known Johnson for more than two decades. Seven years Scalise’s junior, Johnson followed closely in his mentor’s footsteps. Both attended Louisiana State University and served in the statehouse in Baton Rouge; both won seats in the U.S. House, then won a competitive race to lead the conservative Republican Study Committee, which both men used as a stepping stone to GOP leadership. A senior statesman, Scalise has assumed the role of top lieutenant and trusted adviser to Johnson — a stark contrast to Scalise’s chilly relationship with his onetime rival, former Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.
“Mike is a passionate conservative. He’s come up here to work,” Scalise said in a brief interview. “Ultimately as speaker, he’s been really focused on unifying everybody and getting our agenda back on track.”
His other mentor is Jordan, R-Ohio, another former Republican Study Committee chairman who was also the founding chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, the far-right group of which Johnson was briefly a member. Earlier this year, Jordan had appointed Johnson, a constitutional attorney, as the chairman of Judiciary’s Subcommittee on the Constitution and Limited Government. And as the House begins to ramp up its impeachment investigation, Johnson and Jordan will need to remain in close contact.
In an interview, Jordan called Johnson a friend and a “solid Christian guy.” He recalled a trip he and the now-speaker took with their wives to Israel in February 2020. During a breakfast meeting, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the lawmakers this new Covid-19 situation was going to get really bad. They were in disbelief, but as Netanyahu delivered the warning, he was coughing, sneezing and blowing his nose, Jordan said.
“It’s just one of those funny things,” Jordan said, chuckling as he recalled the story. “So we’ve been friends too. A great guy, he’s gonna do a great job.”
Johnson was the vice chair of the GOP Conference when House Republicans dumped Chairwoman Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., and replaced her with Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y. Johnson quickly offered his support to the new chair and the two discussed how they could partner together running the conference, a GOP aide said.
When Johnson won the speaker’s gavel, Stefanik returned the favor. In those initial days, she sent some of her communications staff to Johnson to help “triage” a chaotic situation and get the office up and running, the source said.
Last weekend, Stefanik played the role of “Sherpa,” the aide said. She introduced Johnson around her home turf, New York, as the two made the fundraising rounds and raised cash for the handful of vulnerable Empire State Republicans who are key to holding the majority. The duo hauled in more than $1.5 million, Stefanik said.
“He knows New York’s incredibly important,” Stefanik said in an interview. “We had a lot of introductions to donors that have supported myself and the House Republicans for years. They enjoy getting to know the speaker, and I think it’s going to be the beginning of a great long-term investment in our effort to save the country.”
Later, the pair sat on a sofa next to each other on “Fox & Friends,” fielding questions on everything from the ousted Rep. George Santos and Ukraine funding to the impeachment inquiry.
Johnson is also close to the chairwoman of the influential Energy and Commerce Committee, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash. At his request, McMorris Rodgers gave the speech to nominate him as speaker in a closed-door meeting of House Republicans.
They became friends shortly after Johnson arrived in 2017, when McMorris Rodgers was serving as GOP Conference chair. When Johnson won the vice chair post three years later, McMorris Rodgers advised the future speaker on numerous matters.
The two frequently discuss energy, a leading industry in Johnson’s home state of Louisiana. And they’ve bonded over their conservative Christian faith — they’re both members of a congressional prayer group — and their children, aides said. Johnson has four children, while McMorris Rodgers has three, including one with special needs whom she frequently speaks about.
The Senate liaisons
Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah; Rick Scott, R-Fla.; and Ron Johnson, R-Wis.; have earned reputations for bucking their party leadership and causing headaches for Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. The trio is part of a small group of Senate rabble-rousers known as the “Breakfast Club,” which regularly meets for dinner on Wednesday nights.
Until recently, the group had been little more than a thorn in the side of McConnell and his allies. But with Johnson’s ascent to the speaker’s office, the three conservative senators have taken on a new, more prominent role: liaisons between the new speaker and the Senate GOP Conference.
Tides have been shifting in the Senate this year; as then-Speaker McCarthy faced rampant demands from hard-liners in the House, the conservative flank across the Capitol was emboldened in turn.
At the end of September, McConnell — who is rarely overruled by his rank-and-file members — was forced to abandon his steadfast position on including aid to Ukraine as part of a deal to avert a government shutdown.
Now, with conservative newbie Johnson wielding the gavel, the Senate trio feels more empowered than ever to protest the views of leadership and instead push belt-tightening fiscal policies found untenable by the Democratic-led Senate.
A former low-level member of leadership, Johnson is not close to McConnell or many senators. So he has leaned on the trio to help introduce him to senators during his appearances at Senate lunches and to test how conservative proposals, like the “laddered” stopgap funding bill he used to temporarily fund the government, would play in the upper chamber.
“It’s helpful that he engages with us. So I can legitimately go and say that when I’m at our lunches and say … ‘We’ve sat down with the speaker and this is his goals. And this is what he’d like to accomplish,’” Scott said in an interview. “And I think that’s what we would like to accomplish. Let’s all figure out how we can do this together.”
In 2016, Johnson’s election to the House was overshadowed by the election of another Republican: Donald Trump. The future speaker had to navigate a challenging political environment with a new, unpredictable president whose early-morning tweets would often dictate the day on Capitol Hill. Johnson did so alongside his fellow members of the class of 2016, and he grew close to several, including Reps. Drew Ferguson, R-Ga., Jodey Arrington, R-Texas, and Lloyd Smucker, R-Pa.
“When you come in together, your class is the closest friends that you’ll have most of the time, because you learn at the same time and at the same pace,” Ferguson said in an interview. “And this place is full of political landmines, and your class is the only group that steps on them together. Everybody else is happy to let you do it. You have to learn to trust one another for good advice.”
Ferguson, who previously served in leadership as Scalise’s chief deputy whip, conceded that Johnson has been “dealt a tough hand” with a minuscule majority and a mounting to-do list. But he said the speaker is viewed by his colleagues as “smart,” “talented” and an “honest, transparent broker.”
Another one of that 27-member GOP class of 2016 is Arrington. As Budget Committee chairman, Arrington had a high-profile falling-out with then-Speaker McCarthy. But with his friend and classmate now in the top job, the West Texas lawmaker is suddenly back in the mix.
“Mike and I share the same faith. We both have a young family back home. The western part of Louisiana that he represents — the politics, culture, the values, it’s almost identical to West Texas,” Arrington said.
During the messy October speaker impasse, Arrington, too, had considered making a bid for speaker. During a private phone call, the two shared each other’s thinking about the race. Then, they prayed together.
“I knew he was feeling what we say in the evangelical community: He was feeling ‘called.’ And I told him I had an interest too, but I said I don’t feel the calling like I hear you feeling it,” Arrington recounted. “It was clear that God just made a path for him. The timing had to be just right. You had to have gone through the other candidates. And you could just see there was momentum.”
Johnson has built out his speaker’s office with a mix of veteran aides from his congressional office, former Trump White House officials and a former top McCarthy aide.
Heading the office is chief of staff Hayden Haynes, a Louisiana native who was Johnson’s first campaign manager when he ran for the House in 2016 and has served as his chief of staff ever since. He’s joined by deputy chief of staff Garrett Fultz, who served as Johnson’s deputy chief and legislative director in his personal office.
Perhaps Johnson’s most well-known staffer is Raj Shah, a former Trump staffer, whom the speaker has tapped to run his communications operation. Shah has spent the past four years as senior vice president at Fox Corp. and earlier held top communications roles in the Trump White House and at the Republican National Committee.
Chad Gilmartin is another former Trump official whom Johnson has brought onto his communications team; after Trump left office in 2021, Gilmartin went to work for McCarthy.
Chris Bien is a veteran McCarthy aide who rose at the start of this year to House floor director. He is continuing in that critical role for Johnson, advising Republicans on everything from parliamentary procedure to legislative strategy on the floor.
Others in the speaker’s communications shop include Corinne Day, a former aide to Sen. Ron Johnson; and Taylor Haulsee, who previously worked for then-Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and recently returned to Team Johnson after a short stint in the private sector.
Leading Johnson’s policy shop, tasked with crafting and reviewing legislation, is Dan Ziegler, who previously served as executive director of the Republican Study Committee when Johnson was its chairman. Before that, he worked for Heritage Action for America and the American Energy Alliance and served in the George W. Bush administration.
This article was originally published on NBCNews.com
Evan Massoud is a political analyst with a knack for dissecting policy and governance. He provides readers with informed perspectives on political developments at home and abroad. Evan’s dedication to civic engagement extends to volunteering in local politics.