The Trump Loyalty Test at the Center of Republicans’ Speaker Endgame

Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana had just survived a closed-door vote to end a tumultuous period of paralysis without a House speaker on Tuesday night and was celebrating with smiling and exhausted Republican colleagues.

“Democracy is messy sometimes,” he said, “but it is our system.”

But moments later, Johnson was confronted at a news conference about his own past role in American democracy, when he worked in alliance with former President to block the certification of the 2020 election.

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Boos rang out at the reporter’s inquiry. Johnson closed his eyes and shook his head. “Shut up! Shut up!” one congresswoman shouted. “Next question,” Johnson said.

Only hours earlier, the speakership bid of another candidate, Tom Emmer, the majority whip, had been felled amid a lobbying blitz from Trump himself. Among Emmer’s apparent apostasies: certifying ’s election. His tenure as speaker designate lasted only four hours.

Then, on Wednesday, when Rep. Pete Aguilar, a Democrat, chastised Johnson for leading efforts to reject the Electoral College votes on the House floor in 2020, one Republican lawmaker shouted back, “Damn right!”

The back-to-back-to-back developments on Capitol Hill underscored not only the extent to which loyalty to Trump has become a prerequisite to taking power in today’s Republican Party, but also how — 2 1/2 years after a riot that left the Capitol covered with blood and broken glass — the greater sin inside the GOP is to have stood with the voters that day and certified the election of Biden.

“Bottom line is the Trump wing of the House is dominant and has been dominant for some time,” said former Rep. , a moderate Republican from Pennsylvania. Dent called Johnson “affable” and “bright” but said the political takeaway was clear: “A member of the Trump populist wing is now speaker.”

Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, a Trump ally who filed the motion that took down former House Speaker , beamed, “This is what victory feels like,” celebrating Johnson’s rise on Steve Bannon’s “War Room” podcast Wednesday before the official floor vote. Gaetz called him “MAGA Mike Johnson” — the same moniker that the Biden campaign used hours later.

At a New York courthouse, where he and his company are on trial for financial fraud, Trump praised Johnson. “I think he’s going to be a fantastic speaker,” the former president said Wednesday.

The internal politics of House Republicans do not revolve solely around Trump. The former president had publicly backed Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio for speaker this month, only to see him blockaded by a more moderate faction in the conference.

But the end of the three-week paralysis shows that the party remains yoked to the former president’s election denialism, with Johnson’s selection by his Republican colleagues coming on the same day that one of Trump’s former lawyers tearfully pleaded guilty in a Georgia racketeering case related to Trump’s attempts to overturn the election.

“If I knew then what I know now, I would have declined to represent Donald Trump in these postelection challenges,” said Jenna Ellis, a once-combative Trump attorney who is now cooperating with Trump’s prosecutors. Prosecutors struck deals with two other Trump figures, Sidney Powell and Kenneth Chesebro, in the past week.

It was a different story on Capitol Hill.

With Trump dominating polls in the 2024 presidential primary — and even his top rivals staying relatively silent on his election fraud falsehoods — the party appears content to look past the fact that many of the party’s most prominent election deniers lost in key swing states such as Arizona and Pennsylvania in the 2022 midterm elections.

For many Republicans, the primary victories that preceded those defeats are as politically significant. Last year, Trump sought to methodically cleanse the party of his critics, especially those who had voted to impeach him after the Jan. 6 riot. He mostly succeeded: Only two of the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach him survived.

In contrast, Johnson served on Trump’s impeachment defense team. And before that he recruited House Republicans to sign onto a legal brief to object to the outcome of the 2020 election. When that failed, he had played a key role in articulating a rationale for Republican lawmakers to oppose certification of the 2020 results on the floor. His guidance did not directly echo Trump’s wild allegations and was narrower in scope, but it led to the same final vote.

“We know now it’s too high of a hurdle to be directly criticized by Donald Trump” and still become speaker, said Kevin Sheridan, a veteran Republican strategist. Referring to Johnson, he added, “He seems to have found the right temperature for the porridge so far.”

But Jenna Lowenstein, executive director of Informing Democracy, a nonprofit devoted to vote counting and election certification, said she was “very concerned” about Johnson’s ascent.

“As a member of the House, Johnson was willing to use the powers of his office to try to obstruct a fair election and interfere with certification,” she said. “And we have to assume he would do the same with the broader powers of the speakership.”

Johnson has served as vice chair of the Republican conference and was previously the chair of the conservative Republican Study Committee. He is initially expected to be a more policy-minded leader than McCarthy, who was best known for his backslapping personality. McCarthy also objected to certifying the election and visited Trump in Mar-a-Lago only weeks after the attack on the Capitol, in a trip that was widely seen to restore some legitimacy to the former president.

An evangelical Christian, Johnson has vocally opposed abortion and gay marriage. (During the roll call vote in which he was elected as speaker, Rep. Angie Craig, D-Minn., pointedly declared, “Happy wedding anniversary to my wife!” to Democratic applause.) Democrats were quick to highlight some of his hard-line stances.

Elected to the House in 2016, the same year that Trump won the presidency, Johnson, a former constitutional law attorney, will have the least years of House experience of any speaker in many decades. But he is representative of the wave of House Republicans who have served in Washington only since the party was reshaped by Trump — and who are now a majority of the conference.

“If you don’t have a coup on your résumé,” Charlie Sykes, the Trump-tired editor-in-chief of The Bulwark, wrote in a column about the speakership fight, “don’t bother to apply.”

c.2023 The New York Times Company


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