Johnson wins Trump’s blessing — and perhaps some more time

Last updated on April 13, 2024

PALM BEACH, Florida — Mike Johnson got what he came for on Friday — an appearance shoulder to shoulder with Donald Trump, who criticized efforts to depose the House speaker.

“He’s doing about as good as you’re going to do,” Trump said.

The former president’s comments may not be enough to persuade Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) to abandon her push to oust the Louisiana Republican. But Trump’s remarks will likely give Republican thinking of aligning with Greene — and against Johnson — pause.

After praising Johnson, Trump said, “I’m sure that Marjorie understands that. She’s a very good friend of mine, and I know she has a lot of respect for the speaker.”

While Trump in recent days has put his talent for disrupting House GOP leaders’ best-laid plans on display, Greene’s frustration with Johnson poses the most immediate threat to his future. Her spokesperson did not immediately return a request for comment on Trump’s public show of support for Johnson, though she confirmed this week she discussed her attempt to remove Johnson with Trump.

Meanwhile, as Johnson remains mum on when he’ll take up a long-stalled Ukraine aid plan, he’s getting pulled in two different directions: With Greene signaling that his handling of it will affect her campaign to boot him, some GOP centrists are urging him to bend Trump’s ear on it. They, and some Senate Republicans, remain hopeful that the speaker could corral the former president behind an alternative approach to an aid bill that Greene and other conservatives abhor.

Trump told reporters Friday that “we’re looking at” Ukraine aid now and that it could be a loan rather than “just a gift,” though he also used the opportunity to criticize Democrats and lament the victims of the war.

The speaker talks to Trump frequently and their teams have coordinated strategy on keeping the House in Republican hands this fall. Johnson has to get comfortable riding the Trump rollercoaster if he wants his agenda to succeed, and despite this week’s stumble on government surveillance legislation, there are clear signs that the two have a decent relationship.

The former president has at times taken Johnson’s counsel on how to engage in House races. Earlier this year, Johnson traveled to Mar-a-Lago to talk about congressional elections. The two were joined by North Carolina Rep. Richard Hudson, the National Republican Congressional Committee chair.

The speaker, along with Hudson, had been scheduled to meet with Trump on Friday to discuss House elections. But their respective teams decided to add a press conference that would be focused on “election integrity”-related matters — a catch-all for Trump’s concerns about elections, including his false claim that the 2020 election was rigged.

Johnson has told people that he has stressed to Trump the importance of retaining the House majority, according to a person familiar with the discussions who was granted anonymity to speak freely. The speaker has also said that he told Trump that he is likely to get impeached by Democrats if he’s elected president if Democrats win the House majority. He has also said that he conveyed to Trump that his appointees would likely be subpoenaed by House Democrats.

Those close to the two men say their relationship grew in part over Johnson’s role in defending Trump during his first impeachment over allegations that he pressured Ukraine to investigate President Joe Biden’s family.

But that’s not to say Trump isn’t willing to insert some chaos into the House GOP. In the 48 hours before Johnson showed up at Mar-a-Lago, Trump showed once again he’s willing to buck House leadership. Soon after the former president posted on Truth Social on Wednesday that Republicans should “kill” a government surveillance law, 19 Republicans brought down a bill reauthorizing a key section of it that Johnson had painstakingly negotiated.

It was the latest in a series of major priorities that Trump has helped grind to a halt in Johnson’s House simply by voicing his opposition — after a bipartisan Senate border deal and a Senate-passed Ukraine aid bill that the speaker is vowing to resist.

And things got more awkward from there. Johnson acknowledged to his members in private, according to three lawmakers familiar with the conversations, that he had spoken to Trump less than 24 hours before the failed Wednesday vote but that they didn’t even talk about the surveillance fight that’s plagued the speaker for months.

Trump “had an impact on how leadership dealt with the rule defeat,” said Rep. Dan Bishop (R-N.C.), one of the 19 conservatives who initially opposed taking up the surveillance bill on the floor. “[Former] President Trump hanging out there and being in the picture has an impact.”

Johnson moved quickly after Trump’s broadside, shortening the period of reauthorization for the government surveillance program from five years to two years. That amounted to a gift to Trump, who would be able to preside over the next fight over the program if he wins a second term.

And as the speaker prepared to head to Florida, his members were eager to hear if Trump would formally clarify his position on the surveillance power while appearing with Johnson. Republicans on both sides of that fight cast their votes believing that Trump had softened his opposition; Trump-friendly Rep. Anna Paulina Luna (R-Fla.) forecasted a “great announcement” from the duo about the spy power, which Trump did during the Friday press conference.

Trump repeated he is “not a big fan” of the broader surveillance law during his press conference — but hesitantly offered support of the new two year guardrail on the House bill. The former president said he told everybody to “do what you want” in regards to the bill.

“They put a lot of checks and balances on,” Trump said. “And I guess it’s down to two years now so that it would come due in the early part of my administration on the basis that we live up to the polls.”

Surveillance wasn’t the only issue that Republican lawmakers were hoping Johnson could convince Trump to address during their meeting. House GOP centrists, including Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.), wanted him “to try” to get a commitment out of the former president.

Moderates like Bacon know Trump’s blessing could help clear Ukraine aid through the House, plus give Johnson political cover on the issue that has propelled the first threat to strip his gavel.

Republican senators, who have heard Johnson say repeatedly in private — albeit somewhat vaguely — that he supports aiding Ukraine, are also eager for the speaker to move on it.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has publicly leaned on Johnson to pass his chamber’s foreign assistance bill rather than fight it out again in the upper chamber, where about half of Republicans oppose Ukraine aid and debating Israel aid could get ugly among Democrats. But McConnell isn’t the only one leaning on Johnson.

“I take him at his word, which is he says he’s going to have a Ukraine bill on the floor,” said Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.). “This is of the most significant votes in this Congress, that many Congress will address and vote on. and it’s hugely important.”

Johnson did not respond to requests for comment about whether he plans to move on Ukraine aid next week, though supporters expect it to come up and are eagerly awaiting the details. If he doesn’t, the matter is likely to slide into May — a three-month delay since the Senate passed its bill.

Part of the problem for Johnson: He’s not alone in working to cultivate Trump’s favor and influence. In addition to Greene, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) — who was Trump’s pick for speaker after Kevin McCarthy got fired — noted Friday that he talks to the former president “all the time.”

What’s clear to many House Republicans is that Johnson and Trump are still figuring each other out, which doesn’t necessarily mean that a single disagreement can blight their dynamic.

“They never ceased to have a good working relationship,” said Rep. Brian Mast (R-Fla.), who worked on the noncitizen voting bill and had planned to attend the Mar-a-Lago event if possible.

Burgess Everett contributed to this story.