The Accidental Speaker

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You could be forgiven for thinking it was Mike Johnson’s idea to host the House Republicans’ annual policy retreat at the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia, though in fact the conference has gathered there for several years. Step into the upper lobby, red staircase runner giving way to gleaming black-and-white tile, symmetrical furnishings, George Washington gazing east from his gilded-frame portrait above a marble fireplace, and for a moment Johnson’s fantasy of what Congress once was, what it could be—what he tries to convince himself it actually still is—seems suddenly more plausible.

When House Republicans met there in March, Johnson was in his fifth month as speaker of the House, and his victory of this past weekend, in which he secured funding for the Ukraine war, seemed completely improbable. In fact his whole tenure seemed improbable back in March, defined almost entirely by Republican infighting. But here at the Greenbrier: How could one not aspire to civility?

At the conclusion of the retreat, I met Johnson in a small, mustard-hued room in one of the more secluded corridors of the resort. At 52, he is a curiously unimposing presence—horn-rimmed glasses, ruminative expression—with little of the gravitas one might assume of the person second in line to the presidency. Really, he just looked tired. But he was pleased with these past few days, he said, the opportunity to bring much of the conference together and reinforce the central themes of his young tenure. “What I try to do, my leadership style,” Johnson explained, “is that I bring in the Freedom Caucus, and then I bring in Main Street or Problem Solvers Caucus guys—people from across the conference with disparate views—and I put them around the conference table in the speaker’s office, and we just hash it out, let them debate and talk.”

“I mean, that’s the beauty of—it’s part of the process,” he said.

Even before he ascended to the speakership, Johnson had oriented his nascent brand around the politics of civility, his guidepost the image of President Ronald Reagan and Democratic Speaker Tip O’Neill: clashing views on policy, but a relationship governed by trust in the other’s good faith, a desire to get to yes. In January 2017, just days into his first term in Congress, Johnson drafted and invited colleagues from both parties to sign the “Commitment to Civility,” a pledge in the midst of the “increasing division in and coarsening of our culture,” to show “proper respect to one another” and “set an example of statesmanship for the younger generations.” (Twenty-nine Republicans and 21 Democrats signed.)

Yet by the time Johnson declared his interest in becoming speaker of the House, nearly seven years later, his ambitions of civility and dignified disagreement had grown only further detached from his party’s prevailing impulses, and remained entirely at odds with its undisputed leader, a man whose closest approximation of statesmanship is extending his “best wishes to all, even the haters and losers.”

When Johnson assumed the speakership in October, an all-but-accidental selection after a series of failed candidates, he had few useful models for bringing a fractious Republican conference to harmony, or even succeeding in the role more generally, at least not in this century. In the brief historical survey of Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic former speaker: “He had Kevin [McCarthy], who didn’t last. The last speaker before that, Paul Ryan—respected on both sides of the aisle, but decided to leave. John Boehner, same thing—made a decision to leave in the course of the year, just decided, ‘This is it, I’m out of here.’ And before that, the speaker went to prison, so …”

Johnson would quickly learn that not even his own hard-line brand of conservatism—a record in lockstep with the Republican base on issues from abortion to Donald Trump’s border wall—could insulate him from far-right charges of betrayal. In the past six months, he has seen his closest ideological allies become his most outspoken opponents, their belligerence manifesting in a ceaseless churn of failed procedural votes, public denunciations of his leadership, and, now, the threat of his removal.

On Saturday, the House voted to pass Johnson’s massive foreign-aid package, including $61 billion for Ukraine. The speaker relied primarily on Democrats to clear the “critically important” measure, as he deemed it, a dynamic that only reinforced the far-right resolve to cut his speakership short.

Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene castigated Johnson on X as a “traitor” to his conference and country, and assured reporters that she would continue gathering support for her motion to vacate him from the job; two other members are currently backing the effort. For Republicans, it was the culmination of a week marked not by high-level debate so much as new variations of schoolyard petulance: As the speaker—a “Sanctimonious Twerp,” Steve Bannon decreed him—attempted to broker consensus on the future of the global democratic order, his colleagues stood on the House floor and told one another to “kick rocks, tubby.”

This is where the beauty of the process has brought Mike Johnson.

Picture of Mike Johnson walking through Statutory Hall moments before the articles of impeachment headed to the Senate on April 16, 2024 in Washington, D.C.
Johnson walks through National Statuary Hall moments before the articles of impeachment against Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas headed to the Senate on April 16. (Jason Andrew for The Atlantic)

Johnson’s earliest intimations of a political philosophy were anchored in the fact of his existence. Friends of Jeanne Messina had urged her to consider an abortion; she and Pat Johnson were only in high school, both of humble circumstances in south Shreveport, Louisiana. But instead, they’d gotten married, and welcomed James Michael in January 1972; three more children followed. “Exactly one year before Roe v. Wade, my parents, who were just teenagers at the time, chose life,” Johnson said at the annual March for Life rally earlier this year. “And I am very profoundly grateful that they did.” In all things God works for the good of those who love him: This Mike Johnson was taught to trust.

And he had to trust this, because how else could he have made sense of the events of September 17, 1984? On that afternoon, his father, an assistant chief of the Shreveport Fire Department, was summoned to the Dixie Cold Storage plant on the report of an ammonia leak. In rubberized suits, he and his partner ventured into one of the vaults to locate and cap the valve, their flashlights barely cutting through the dark. Then: an explosion, screams, both men on fire, everything around them on fire, Pat Johnson’s suit and then flesh melting off his body as he squeezed through a hole in the wall later estimated to be no more than 12 inches square. His partner died two days later in the hospital; Pat, with burns covering more than 72 percent of his body, clung improbably to life. The family prayed, Jeanne playing tapes of the Psalms at her husband’s bedside. Ten days into his stay involving more than three dozen surgeries, Pat was finally able to speak. “Pat told me today that he would make it!” Jeanne recorded in her diary, according to a 1987 book about the explosion and its aftermath. “I asked him how he knew; he said, ‘The Lord.’”

“I was 12 years old, and I watched them,” Johnson told me. “Faith was not some ethereal concept—we prayed and believed, and it happened.”

In some ways his childhood ended with the fire. His mother regularly spent nights in the hospital waiting room, often returning home only at the coaxing of doctors. Mike, meanwhile, helped take care of his three siblings. His role as man of the house became necessarily more literal when his father, not long after the accident, left the family in search of purpose and drier climates, remarrying and divorcing several times. Out of this crucible emerged an uncommonly serious and diligent teenager, the class president and Key Club officer and speech trophy winner. At Louisiana State University, the Interfraternity Council president didn’t drink, one Kappa Sigma brother recalls, but he never seemed to look down on those who did, either.

He was just shy of his law degree at LSU when, in May 1998, at a friend’s wedding, he met Kelly Lary, an elementary-school teacher who wore a red dress and ordered Diet Coke at the bar. Six months later, they were engaged. In a spring ceremony at First Baptist Church of Bossier, the two entered into a “covenant marriage,” a legal distinction in Louisiana providing stricter grounds for divorce. They soon became the legal guardians of a Black teenager named Michael James, whom Johnson had met while volunteering at a Christian youth ministry in Baton Rouge. The couple would go on to have four biological children.

Johnson’s ideological worldview developed in tandem with the final triumphant stirrings of the Moral Majority. As an attorney, he worked for the Alliance Defense Fund (now the Alliance Defending Freedom) and served on the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, articulating a conservatism anchored in the SBC’s position on abortion and LGBTQ rights, an image of government actively engaged in the delineation of moral rectitude. In columns for the Shreveport Times, Johnson described same-sex marriage as “the dark harbinger of chaos and sexual anarchy that could doom even the strongest republic,” tied his state’s population drain to the proliferation of “adult entertainment,” and heralded George W. Bush’s election in 2004 as a referendum on the “militant anti-religious” character of much of the Democratic Party. After winning election to the Louisiana state House, in 2015, he quickly burnished his political identity as a “social issues warrior,” as Baton Rouge’s The Advocate newspaper called him.

Yet like many of his peers in the post-Reagan sweep of movement conservatism, Johnson bracketed his grave portents of moral decline with the default assurance that America remained the shining city on a hill, its best days yet ahead. From a young age, he saw in Reagan an unreservedly conservative politics tempered by a conviction that bipartisanship was both desirable and still possible. During the 2008 Republican presidential primary, Johnson would take to Mike Huckabee’s line: “I’m a conservative, but I’m not mad at everybody over it.”

Of course, by the time Johnson won election to Congress, eight years later, Huckabee was mad; everybody in the Republican Party, it seemed, was mad. Nevertheless Johnson proceeded to Washington apparently intent on marshaling the wisdom gleaned from his leadership of his junior class at Captain Shreve High: “Our class has a history of being a diverse but well-unified group,” he’d told the yearbook. “I believe this was the reason we achieved so much and had so much fun all the while.”

Less than a year into his first term representing Louisiana’s Fourth District, Johnson was with his two younger sons at D.C.’s Reagan airport when they happened upon Democratic Representative John Lewis. And certainly this seemed fun, the boys’ gap-toothed smiles as they posed on either side of the civil-rights icon for a curbside photo, which Johnson uploaded to Facebook. “As we waited for our rides, the legendary civil rights leader told the boys about being the youngest speaker and one of the ‘Big Six’ organizers at the 1963 March on Washington—speaking to an enormous crowd after Dr. King’s celebrated ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. Wow!” he captioned the post, adding: “I’m happy to show my sons that two men with different party affiliations and ideas can still get along in this town.”

A sampling of the comments in response:

“I hoped you explained to your children that John Lewis is a bigot and a racist.”

“Wouldn’t be caught dead in a photo with this fool … poor choice !!!”


There is of course some romance to the idea: Mike Johnson startling at a sudden tap on his shoulder, turning to find the speaker’s gavel being presented to him—no, urged on him—by the bleary-eyed conscripts of a leaderless tribe. Johnson himself can seem partial to it. “I was just content to be a lieutenant,” he said during our conversation. “So when it happened, I wasn’t expecting it.”

Kevin McCarthy was only eight months into his speakership when, on October 3, 2023, eight conservative hard-liners—enraged, ostensibly, by a recent bipartisan deal to avert a government shutdown—voted with Democrats to oust him from the job. In the immediate scramble to anoint McCarthy’s successor, a handful of obvious contenders emerged, among them the House majority leader and Louisiana Republican, Steve Scalise, and Jim Jordan, chair of the Judiciary Committee and a co-founder of the Freedom Caucus. Representative Matt Gaetz floated Johnson as another potential replacement, but Johnson would wait three weeks before declaring his own candidacy. He “held back,” he told me, largely out of deference to Scalise (“who’s like my brother”) and then Jordan (“who’s like my other brother, my mentor”), both of whose bids would fail. And also, Johnson went on, “because a mentor told me when I was in eighth grade, ‘Always remember that real leadership is recognized, not imposed.’”

But perhaps it could be entertained. Publicly, Johnson all but rolled his eyes at being mentioned as a possible speaker; privately, he started contacting friends right after McCarthy’s toppling, indicating interest. Woody Jenkins, a longtime acquaintance who chaired Donald Trump’s Louisiana campaign in 2016, read to me a text message he said Johnson had sent him on October 4: “My name is being mentioned for Speaker along with two of my close friends Steve Scalise and Jim Jordan,” Johnson had written. He asked Jenkins to “pray that Kelly and I will have crystal clear wisdom and discernment.” Louisiana State Senator Alan Seabaugh, a former law partner and longtime friend, recalled hearing from Johnson as well. “He told me … when it first happened, ‘I think I might be the only one who can get to 217,’” Seabaugh said. “He kept saying: ‘Everybody else has three or four people that have vendettas against them; I don’t think I do.’”

Johnson told me he “knew,” even then, “that I could get all the votes in the room.” But he didn’t want to campaign openly at first, he said, “because I wanted them to come to me and say, ‘You should be the leader.’ And ultimately that’s what happened.”

What had made Johnson, a fourth-term congressman and virtual backbencher, so serenely confident in his chances? “I’ve always been a bridge builder,” he mused at the Greenbrier. “Probably the first box that had to be checked was that you didn’t have any enemies in the room. And I didn’t have any enemies in the room.”

In late 2020, when he sought to become vice chair of the House Republican conference, a role largely focused on messaging and day-to-day-operations, Johnson had asked his colleague Tom Cole to nominate him for the job. While Johnson is a hard-line conservative and ardent Trump supporter, Cole, the recently appointed chair of the House Appropriations Committee who has held his Oklahoma seat for more than two decades, is a totemic remnant of the party’s establishment; to step off the third-floor elevator in the Capitol nearest his (now former) office was to find oneself instantly dislocated by a dense fog of cigar smoke. Johnson’s request took him by surprise. “I kind of gave him this quizzical look, and I said, ‘Well, you know, I’ll do it, Mike, but why me? I mean, we don’t run in the same circles particularly,’” Cole recalled to me. “And he goes, ‘Well, I think you can help me reach some people that I don’t normally deal with.’”

For some colleagues, Johnson’s conviction that he was “prepared” for the speakership seemed odd; the role of vice chair had occasionally put him in the room where decisions were made, sure, but it never afforded him any real say in what those decisions were. To the extent that anyone interviewed for this story could remember the particulars of his tenure, it was for his creation of the “Patrick Henry Award,” a prize for members who gave the most floor speeches in a certain period; Johnson had “meticulously” kept track of the numbers, a former senior House GOP aide recalled, even getting little busts of the prize’s namesake to present to winners. “He takes the universe he’s given and he wants to kind of chop it up and make it methodical,” this person, who requested anonymity to speak frankly, explained. “That being said, he doesn’t then do super well with the chaos and the unexpected.”

Johnson concedes now that his concept of the speakership was perhaps tidier than the reality. During our interview, he thought back to the night of his election, October 25, when Patrick McHenry—the Republican who served as interim speaker through the post-McCarthy fracas—prepared to pass off the gavel. “And he said, ‘When I hand you this, your life’s never gonna be the same,’” Johnson recalled to me. “And I was like, Ha ha ha.’”

He emitted a strange half laugh and glanced down at his shoes. “I had no idea,” he said. “I had no idea.”

On October 26, Johnson awoke to thousands of text messages and a suddenly bubble-wrapped existence, or at least the beginnings of one. There were now plans and protocols related to his movements, his family’s, and if Johnson understood the necessity of these developments, he did not take great care to hide his disdain for them, either. “He hates having those people”—Capitol Police, sheriff’s deputies—“park outside of his house,” Royal Alexander, a Shreveport attorney and friend of Johnson’s, told me.

Sitting with Johnson for a portion of our interview at the Greenbrier was his wife, Kelly; I had wanted to know how her life, too, had changed in the months since her husband’s election. “We’re not ever really alone,” she explained. “Because—”

Johnson, looking at her, interjected: “We haven’t been alone since October 25.”

She looked back at him. “Well, but I guess sleeping at night.”

“Well, but they’re standing right outside by the door,” he noted flatly.

Kelly Johnson, 50 years old and a Louisiana native, is a distinctly southern presence, gracious and blond. On this occasion she wore a pearl necklace and white cape blazer (“I think this is almost like Jackie O., with this flowing-sleeve thing,” her husband observed). She is the sort of woman who smiles even as her eyes cloud with tears—for example when discussing her recent decision to put her Christian counseling practice “on pause.” “I didn’t want to, because I do enjoy it. But I just couldn’t do that and fulfill my new role as speaker’s wife and support him,” she said. “I had been in denial and thought I could do it all, and I was going to try, and then a couple weeks ago I went home …” Her voice trailed off. “Because I’m coming up to Washington more …”

“Because I need her all the time,” Johnson said.

“Yeah, because now he says, ‘I need you here,’” Kelly explained. “Before he was like, I want you to be here and I’d like for you to be here. Now it’s like, I need you here.”

Around-the-clock security is one of those prosaic conditions of the speakership at which Republicans like Scalise, a longtime member of House leadership, or Tom Emmer, the majority whip who also tried and failed to succeed McCarthy, would have barely blinked. But for Johnson, who had served in Congress a shorter time than any member elected speaker since 1883, it would prove as much of an adjustment as the demands of fundraising and vote counting, and the scrutiny, too: He seemed unsettled to find the various activities and remarks and posts that constituted his past suddenly of global interest, and to encounter the already-emergent consensus, as he saw it, that his evangelical faith somehow “taints” his ability to lead. By December, Johnson was venting over text to Woody Jenkins: “All of the leftist media is trying to gut me like a fish.”

To other friends he has described the speakership like this: “I feel like a triage nurse on the battlefield: They wheel a bloody body in and yell, ‘Stop the bleeding!’ And I will, and then turn around and there’s another bloody body.” There was the pace of catastrophe, yes, but also the utter unpredictability of its source. He told me he did not anticipate, for example, the moment when he was briefed on a member’s crusade to renovate their space in the Cannon House Office Building; in view of their desired positioning of a club chair, the member had petitioned to have a door remodeled to open this way instead of that; the matter made it all the way up to the speaker. “So, sir, you have to decide,” Johnson’s aides informed him. “Are you kidding me?” he replied. Given the historic status of the building, he told me, the project would have cost $36,000. It was a no for Johnson.

“This is my life every day,” he said.

Picture of the United States House of Representatives Mike Johnson with his wife Kelly Johnson during a GOP spouses reception on April 16, 2024 in Washington, D.C.
Johnson with his wife, Kelly, during a GOP spouses reception at the Capitol on April 16. (Jason Andrew for The Atlantic)

It is true that after six years and 10 months in Congress Mike Johnson had no enemies. It is also true that in his six years and 10 months in Congress he had never been in a position, really, to make them. The resulting dynamic has given his speakership an almost circular quality, the amiability that allowed him to win the job now arguably the greatest threat to his ability to do it.

More pointedly, as one Republican adviser close to leadership, who requested anonymity to speak candidly, has come to conclude, “I think members can push him around a little more than they could with McCarthy and others.”

Johnson’s aversion to conflict showcased itself almost at once. Among the more cosmetic changes the new leader set forth was one concerning the weekly meetings of the conference’s Elected Leadership Committee, or ELC. As speaker, McCarthy had expanded the meetings to allow additional representatives from the “Five Families,” as he termed them—the Freedom Caucus, the Problem Solvers Caucus, and other ideological factions—to attend, and Johnson wanted to roll the number back to just one each. This meant, in the case of the Freedom Caucus, that Representative Byron Donalds, a rising GOP star and Trump favorite from Florida, was no longer invited.

When a Johnson aide called Donalds’s team with the news, however, the Floridian’s chief of staff said that Donalds would need to hear it from the speaker directly. A plainly unbothered Donalds went ahead and attended Johnson’s first ELC meeting as speaker—showing up late, even. The staffers spoke again, but according to four people familiar with the matter, Johnson himself said nothing—not that week, nor for the next few weeks as Donalds continued to show up. Instead, when Donalds raised his hand to share his thoughts, Johnson, to the dim confusion of others in the room, simply gave him the floor. (Donalds eventually stopped attending the meetings, but a spokesperson for him declined to elaborate on the reason.)

The episode presumably did not inspire confidence in Johnson’s capacity to govern on matters of global consequence, and certainly there was before him no shortage of such matters: a government yet again barreling toward a shutdown, record numbers of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border, and the uncertain fate of military aid to Ukraine and Israel. In some ways it was not until the new year, as Johnson began charting the more substantive course of his speakership, that he was forced to reckon with the inherent fragility of his mandate. He had a three-seat majority (soon to be one), and remained tethered to concessions McCarthy had made to the far right in order to win the speakership himself—most notably, a reversion to a pre-2019 rule allowing a single member to initiate the process of ousting a speaker.

In January, Johnson reached an agreement with Democrats to maintain effectively the same government funding levels McCarthy had established in his bipartisan debt-ceiling deal the year prior, which had largely inspired the conservative revolt against his speakership. The agreement allowed Johnson to avoid a shutdown. But his far-right colleagues were quick to remind him of the trapdoor beneath him, as well as their willingness to pull the lever. “I don’t know why we would keep him as speaker,” Chip Roy of Texas, the Freedom Caucus policy chair, had said before the vote. As Johnson negotiated with other congressional leaders on bipartisan Senate legislation that would tie foreign aid to border-security measures, Marjorie Taylor Greene declared her red line. “We don’t have to trade $60 billion for Ukraine for our own country’s border security,” she told reporters. “I’ll fight it as much as possible. Even if I have to go so far [as] to vacate the chair.”

By mid-February, the House had broken the modern record for rule-vote failures in a single Congress. Before 2023, the mundane procedural vote—which governs the terms of debate on a given bill—had not failed once in two decades. In the first six months of Johnson’s speakership alone, however, dozens of members, mostly conservatives, have killed the rule four times. It has become the far right’s preferred method of obstruction, used sometimes in an effort to sabotage the underlying bill itself, other times to punish leadership for an unrelated decision. Johnson has thus been forced to kick most major legislation of his speakership to the floor under a process that requires a two-thirds majority, rather than a simple majority, for passage—forced, in other words, to rely on Democrats for votes. By thwarting the regular rhythms of the House, Johnson’s conservative critics boxed him into the very concessions they then went on to complain about.

By spring, Johnson’s more mainstream Republican colleagues were growing restless for their own reasons. Whether Johnson is “deliberative” or “indecisive” depends on which member you ask; though the speaker’s agreeable nature usually assures smooth conversations conducted in indoor voices, it can also leave members—centrists and Freedom Caucus types alike—convinced that he is on their side. In meetings, Johnson can spend more time taking notes than talking, offering only the occasional I hear you, brother as members press their cases. And there are many meetings. “He has to sort of slow down and think things through and talk to more people because he just doesn’t have that instinct yet of No, this is what we’re doing,” one senior House GOP aide, who requested anonymity to speak frankly, told me.

There can sometimes seem about Johnson a faintly dazed air, the sense that whatever has just transpired on the House floor was not deliberately orchestrated so much as realized by the sheer force of inertia. At no point did this seem clearer than on the evening of February 6, when House GOP leaders achieved a historic first in their failure to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas—and then promptly saw their stand-alone Israel aid package get voted down, too. Following the impeachment flop, Democrats erupted in whistles and applause, leaving a number of observers unsure why Johnson had still pressed ahead on Israel. “The floor really does have a pulse,” John Stipicevic, a lobbyist and former floor director for McCarthy, told me. “You have to be able to sense when the momentum has shifted.”

After the Mayorkas vote, which Johnson gaveled himself, he stepped down into the directionless hum of his conference, his demeanor oddly placid. Clay Higgins, a Louisiana Republican and Freedom Caucus member who’d helped manage the Mayorkas effort, was slightly taken aback when Johnson, “unshaken” and “totally confident,” approached to ask if he was okay. “And I was like, ‘Yeah, I guess.’ You know—‘What’s the plan?’” Higgins recalled. “And he immediately was very calm. He said, ‘We got this; Steve will be back next week.’” (Seven days later, with Scalise back in commission following treatment for blood cancer, the impeachment articles passed by one vote; the Senate tossed them aside.)

Higgins, who described Johnson as a “beautiful American man, with an amazing spirit,” framed the exchange in positive terms, a dose of reassurance when he’d needed it. But the story called to mind criticisms I’d heard from other conservatives on Capitol Hill, for whom Johnson’s unrelenting calm has occasionally proved more unnerving than soothing. “Their view is, ‘Can you at least act a little concerned that this is not going well?’” as one Republican consultant, who requested anonymity to disclose private conversations with clients, summarized it. “‘Because it’s not going well.’”

“Some of my closest friends are in the Freedom Caucus,” Johnson maintained during our interview. “Philosophically, there’s not an ounce of daylight between us.” It is a point that Johnson often returns to, as if to talk both his audience and himself into believing that ideas still count for something. But it has been a long time since ideas counted for something in the Republican Party, the “conservative” label now a statement not of one’s policy preferences but of one’s tactics and disposition. As speaker, Johnson has seen his most insistently “conservative” friends, men like Chip Roy—who as a freshman matched with Johnson as part of the House’s mentorship program—publicly question his future. (Roy did not respond to my interview requests.) Those who refrain from criticizing Johnson openly, meanwhile, don’t seem altogether interested in praising him, either. Jim Jordan, Johnson’s own mentor, did not respond to any of my calls and emails over the course of three months.

Remarkably, it is Democrats who have often seemed more willing to extend Johnson a measure of grace. This is not something that his aides and others close to him are all that anxious to advertise, but it is nonetheless real: this sliver of cross-aisle sympathy that his predecessor never quite inspired. “I started out as very worried and concerned and very alarmed by people in his background—almost from being panicked about him. And now 15 percent of me, like, feels sorry for the guy,” James Carville, the Democratic strategist and Louisianan, told me. “I mean, I really want to hate him more than I do.”

Johnson’s struggles with the far-right, of course, are virtually the same as those endured by McCarthy. The difference is that many Democrats on the Hill—some of whom viewed McCarthy as “dishonest” and even “destructive”—trust Johnson as a person. Nancy Pelosi told me she viewed Johnson as “a person of integrity,” if not a great deal of experience. “Personally, I respect his authenticity; I disagree with his politics, but that’s okay.” She went on: “If you’re just sitting in the back bench, and then they tap you to become the speaker, they shouldn’t complain when you don’t know how to be speaker from day one.

“I’m not here to criticize him; I just want him to do well,” Pelosi said as our call last month wound down. Then, just before hanging up: “I hope that what is said about Donald Trump being his puppeteer is not true.”

“We have a very, uh, good relationship, um …” Johnson was squinting at his phone, trying to decipher a sudden blur of messages from his team. “Oh, it’s that Netanyahu called.” His communications director chuckled anxiously. “Yeah, we should, uh …” Johnson put his phone away. “That’s okay, that’s okay,” he said.

So anyway, yes: a very good relationship.

Johnson says the first time he interacted with Donald Trump was in early 2017, when the new president called the new congressman to whip him on House Republicans’ first Obamacare-replacement offering under Trump. “And I couldn’t do it,” Johnson recalled. The bill was a “mess,” in his estimation, and he told Trump as much. “And he was—he was quite frustrated by that. But I stood my ground because I told him that if we don’t get some amendments, it’s not going to be a good piece of legislation, and I would be doing wrong by my constituents, and that would make both of us look bad.”

Johnson ultimately supported the House’s revised effort (the one the late Senator John McCain’s thumbs-down would kill), and after that he and Trump “reconnected.” Johnson reiterated to me that Trump had been frustrated. “But he said he respected the fact that I told him what I thought was right and I didn’t just yield, because I don’t do that.”

In other words, Mike Johnson is no one’s puppet: This is what he wanted to tell me. But Johnson would not earn his “MAGA Mike” appellation—bestowed by Matt Gaetz upon his election to speaker, now Trump’s preferred way of referencing him—by regularly positioning himself at odds with Trump. For Johnson, as for a number of the most conservative House members, the Obamacare episode quickly revealed itself to be the rare exception to a rule of loyal devotion to the 45th president.

In early 2020, Johnson served on Trump’s impeachment defense team and then, later that year, promptly enlisted in efforts to challenge the validity of Joe Biden’s election victory. After urging donations to Trump’s “Election Defense Fund,” Johnson went on to spearhead an amicus brief in support of Texas’s lawsuit challenging the election results, arguing that some states Biden won had acted unconstitutionally when they changed their voting laws, partially in response to the pandemic.

I thought of this as Johnson explained to me what he sees as one of his core mandates as speaker: “trying to restore trust and faith” in American institutions.

Hadn’t he quite prominently fomented distrust in the nation’s electoral system?

No, he said; he’d done “exactly the opposite.” “I mean, anybody who’s read the brief, or understood what we were talking about, it was actually—we were the ones trying to maintain the rule of law,” he argued.

It’s true that the focus of Johnson’s argument before the Supreme Court was narrow, avoiding the more hysterical claims of fraud propounded by Trump. But Johnson was—is—smart enough to understand that very few voters would care to parse the particulars of a legal document; what mattered was the image of Mike Johnson out there fighting. This is where his protestations of independence from Trump and the coarser elements of his party ring their hollowest: whether Johnson emphasizes the nuance of his constitutional inquiry or embraces the more ambiguous profile of a fighter changes according to who’s listening. On April 12, Johnson stood alongside Trump at Mar-a-Lago to unveil forthcoming “election integrity” legislation to prevent voting by noncitizens, which is already illegal and rarely ever happens.

The popular caricature of Johnson’s speakership, however—the idea that he arises each morning with a to-do list from Trump—assumes that Trump is actually paying attention. Generally, he’s not; if anything, Johnson can at times seem to wish there were a to-do list. Unlike Kevin McCarthy, according to two Trump advisers, Johnson occasionally hesitates before calling the former president directly. Instead, he and his staff often try to divine Trump’s position on this or that from conversations with those close to him. Earlier this year, when bipartisan border legislation in the Senate appeared close to passage, Johnson was “asking a lot of people around Trump what he should do,” said one of the Trump advisers, who requested anonymity to discuss private conversations. In that instance, Trump ultimately did tune in and broadcast his thinking on Truth Social (“I do not think we should do a Border Deal, at all, unless we get EVERYTHING needed to shut down the INVASION of Millions & Millions of people, many from parts unknown, into our once great, but soon to be great again, Country!”), and soon after Johnson declared the bill “dead on arrival” in the House. (It was “absurd” to suggest that he had done so to help Trump, Johnson told reporters.)

Richard Ray, Johnson’s former law partner, told me he worries “every day” about Trump “turning” on his friend. During that especially catastrophic stretch of failed rule votes, according to the two Trump advisers, the former president resolved to vent his frustrations with the speaker on Truth Social. But aides stepped in and urged him to put down the phone. “It was explained to him over and over again, you know, ‘It’s the same thing with Kevin—there’s only so much he can do with a slim majority, and these guys aren’t playing ball,’” as the other Trump adviser summarized the aides’ pitch. Trump, as it turned out, did not precisely know what they were talking about. “So, he got a little bit of a congressional education” on the “rules process,” this person went on, after which Trump apparently became more sympathetic to Johnson’s plight. There was no post. (Trump declined to be interviewed for this story.)

In the months since, as Johnson has gotten more comfortable in his role, he’s gotten savvier at managing up. It was Johnson who pitched the former president on a media appearance at Mar-a-Lago in April, just three days before the House was set to return from recess and the far-right threat to his speakership was likeliest to crest. “I think he’s doing a very good job,” Trump told reporters, calling the efforts to topple Johnson “unfortunate.” “I stand with the speaker,” he said. “We’ve had a very good relationship.”

Trump’s inclination to support Johnson might stem, at least in part, from the simple fact that Johnson, shortly after taking the gavel, endorsed him for president—in an appearance on CNBC, no less, the same network on which McCarthy, a few months earlier, had questioned whether Trump was the “strongest” Republican to take on President Biden.

Their alliance is nevertheless a strange one. To the extent that people close to Trump find themselves wondering about Johnson, it is often with a kind of detached fascination. Here was a man who’d named his dog Justice; whose favorite song is the hymn “Be Thou My Vision”; who embroiders even casual conversations with quotes from Reagan, Washington, John Adams. No booze, no foul language; a marriage voluntarily stripped of the easier means of leaving it. The second Trump adviser told me he always thought Johnson’s earnest demeanor was just a show—“like, he’s not really like this; no one can be like this.” Cue this person’s surprise, then, at a small private dinner following a recent Trump fundraiser in Washington, where Johnson was among guests such as Senators Tom Cotton, J. D. Vance, and Steve Daines, as well as a number of media personalities and former Trump administration officials. “Everyone’s guard is down because it’s a room full of people that everybody trusts”—which is to say there was booze, foul language—“and the man is still exactly the same.”

Privately, Johnson has used humor to signal an awareness of the gulfs that separate him from Trump—that he is not blind to the patent absurdity of the man. Over the years, he has honed his impression of Trump, and frequently deploys it when recounting their latest exchange. Friends still get a kick out of a story about how Johnson once told Trump that he was praying for him, to which the then-president responded: “Thank you, Mike. Tell God I said hi.”

Peel back the jokes, though, and all these years later, Johnson still seems quietly in search of affirmation that, behind the bluster, Donald Trump subscribes to the same basic truths about the world as he does. During our conversation, after Johnson referred to the “moral guidance” that “you would hope that everybody in power would have,” I asked if he believed that Trump has it. “I do,” he said. “You know, he talks about ”—a half beat passed—“faith. He and I’ve talked about”—a full beat this time—“faith.”

In what context?

“Well,” he said, “we had an experience …” He looked over at his communications director, a wordless request for permission.

It was last fall, the week of Thanksgiving. Johnson had gone down to Palm Beach for a fundraiser; his sons, on break from school, had gone with him. Trump, upon learning he was in town, called and invited the new speaker to Mar-a-Lago for dinner. Could the boys come? Johnson asked. No problem, Trump said. So they headed over, and what was supposed to be a 45-minute get-together stretched on for two and a half hours. A great start to the trip, Johnson recalled.

The next day, Johnson was meeting with donors at a beachside hotel, not far from Mar-a-Lago, when his security detail burst into the conference room. “Mr. Speaker, we need you right now,” they said. His sons had been swept out by a rip current.

In Johnson’s telling, Will, who was 13, was drowning; 18-year-old Jack, prepared to give up his own life, tried to push his brother back to the surface. A parasailer happened to spot Will’s head from above. He hurried back to shore and alerted the lifeguards, who went out on jet skis to bring the boys in. Johnson arrived at the beach to find medical personnel hovering over his sons, pumping their chests. They would spend four hours in the emergency room before being cleared to go home.

“President Trump heard about it somehow—miraculously, this never made the news,” Johnson recalled. The two got on the phone. “He was just so moved by the idea that we almost lost them, and we talked about it at great length. And we talked about the faith aspect of that, because he knows that I believe that, you know—that God spared the lives of my sons. That’s how I understand those events, and we talked about that.” Johnson continued: “And he said, he repeated back to me and said, ‘God—God saved your sons’ lives.’”

For Johnson, repetition was window enough. Much like a parasailer glancing down at just the right moment, a Trump victory in November would not be accidental, Johnson told him, but “providential.” A gift to be embraced soberly, for a purpose larger than oneself. “And we talked about that, and I think he has a real appreciation for that, and that’s been, you know—it’s been encouraging to me.

“So we’ll see, we’ll see,” he said, his voice a touch quieter. “We’ll see where all that goes.”

Picture of Mike Johnson during a GOP spouses reception on April 16, 2024 in Washington, D.C.
Johnson speaks during a GOP spouses reception at the Capitol on April 16. (Jason Andrew for The Atlantic)

After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine two years ago, Johnson declared allegiance to the MAGA position on the war, voting “no” on supplemental aid to Ukraine in 2022 and 2023 and “yes” on amendments to strip the National Defense Authorization Act of any funding for the nation. “We should not be sending another $40 billion abroad when our own border is in chaos,” he stated in May 2022. He maintained this stance for much of his speakership, refusing to put any form of assistance to a vote.

And in the end, it would have been politically painless for him to stay this course. But in his elevation to speaker, Johnson had become privy, for the first time, to high-level intelligence. By the middle of this month—following a grim private briefing from CIA Director Bill Burns—he finally decided that action on Ukraine was worth the risk of losing his job. Last Wednesday, Johnson, addressing reporters in the Capitol’s National Statuary Hall, said his turnabout had been shaped by the dire portrait shared with him by the intelligence community. “I think that Vladimir Putin would continue to march through Europe if he were allowed,” he said.

Yet it was also personal for Johnson, whose son is headed this fall to the U.S. Naval Academy. “This is a live-fire exercise for me, as it is for so many American families,” he said, adding that he’d rather send “bullets” than “American boys” to Ukraine. “We have to do the right thing, and history will judge us.”

Three days later, Johnson brought $61 billion in aid for Ukraine—in addition to separate bills with funds for Israel and the Indo-Pacific—to the floor. The legislation passed, 311–112—with just 101 Republicans voting in favor. As Democrats waved miniature Ukrainian flags, Republican Representative Anna Paulina Luna made her way to the microphone. “Put those damn flags down,” she spat.

Even in the final 72 hours before the vote, Johnson was still having conversation after conversation with his far-right colleagues, trying to wrangle a “yes” out of members for whom “yes” had never been the goal. To the frustration of his more moderate colleagues, Johnson additionally refused to include language in the rule on the foreign-aid legislation that would have raised the motion-to-vacate threshold—a way out, in the moderates’ view, of the hostage crisis that has paralyzed the House Republican conference every day for the past year and a half.

For many Republican lawmakers, now on the cusp of their party’s second attempt in six months to topple a speaker, the time for appeasement has long since passed. What they want to see now is punishment, or, more diplomatically, “accountability”—consistently obstructionist members stripped of their committee posts, even iced out altogether from the process they seek to disrupt. “They’re forcing us to become more bipartisan, and we should be thinking that way,” Representative Don Bacon, a moderate from Nebraska, told me. “We should be able to cut these 10 guys out and say, ‘Hey, if we’re gonna get something to the Senate anyway, you gotta work with Democrats, so let’s start working them up front.’”

At the Greenbrier, Johnson told me he understands the sentiment. “How do you reestablish the norm, if you’re not going to exact a punishment for violation?” he said. But changing the rules now, as he sees it, would only “create greater problems.” “Because then you have the question of, ‘Oh, well, you’re only going to punish it going forward—well, these guys broke the rule here, and you didn’t do anything to them.’” Better to hold off on any “real changes,” he said, until after November, as part of the next Congress.

Which is to say that Johnson has every intention of keeping the job. “I would assume that I would stay in the post if we win the majority,” he said. “It would make sense to have continuity of leadership at that time.” But really, he insisted, he doesn’t “spend a lot of time thinking about that.”

What Johnson knows for certain is that the speakership is “something I’m supposed to do right now,” a sense of divine calling that he says has made the past six months “tolerable, I guess, instead of regretful.”

He assured me of this five times over the course of our conversation. “I don’t regret it,” he said. “I don’t.”

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