Passing Ukraine Aid Doesn’t Make Johnson a Bipartisan Hero


Photo: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

As House Speaker Mike Johnson basked in gushing bipartisan praise for his successful stewardship of a foreign-aid package that included crucial aid to Ukraine, despite the thinly disguised pro-Russia sentiments of many of his mega-MAGA colleagues, I wasn’t the only one who immediately thought of Mike Pence. New York Times congressional correspondent Annie Karni noted that Johnson was getting the same relieved adulation that Donald Trump’s vice-president received after an isolated act of statesmanship:

[A] speaker’s entire job is to move legislation through the House, and as Saturday’s vote to pass the bill demonstrated, the Ukraine measure had overwhelming support. But Mr. Johnson’s feat was not so different from that of another embattled Republican who faced a difficult choice under immense pressure from hard-right Republicans and was saluted as a hero for simply doing his job: former Vice President Mike Pence.

In Pence’s case, the refusal to play his assigned (and blatantly illegal) role in Trump’s plot to overturn the routine confirmation of Joe Biden’s election as president on January 6, 2021, represented a break from four years of abject sycophancy. So despite near-universal appreciation for Pence’s moment of rebellion among non-MAGA Americans, it was hard for some of us to entirely forget the veep’s role in helping Trump get elected in the first place and then for stridently supporting all of his misconduct in office (up to and including all the “stop the steal” lies that preceded the failed coup of January 6).

Ironically, Mike Johnson was the point man in Congress for the effort to accomplish legislatively what Trump wanted Pence to do during the fateful joint session of Congress on January 6: a refusal to confirm Biden’s state-certified majority in the Electoral College. Had Republicans held a majority in the House and Senate at that time, it might have even succeeded, at least before the Capitol Riot made even some Trump supporters draw back in horror and shame.

Since his rise from obscurity to the top position in the House GOP hierarchy, Johnson has bent the knee to Trump repeatedly. His most outlandish act of MAGA extremism occurred on the very brink of his “bipartisan” breakthrough on foreign aid and was likely designed (along with some concessions to Trump’s demands that Ukraine aid be made in the form of a loan) to head off any direct Trump intervention to stop it. On April 12, he raced down to Mar-a-Lago for a bizarre joint appearance with the 45th president in which the two leading figures in the Republican Party announced a redundant proposal to ban voting by undocumented immigrants while arguing that Democrats were deliberately opening the borders to recruit illegal voters for 2024 and beyond. Johnson was more explicit on this subject in remarks made in a separate venue at about the same time, as CNN reported:

In an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network this week, Johnson expanded on the theme, describing an alleged Democratic plot to fix the electoral map. “It sounds like a conspiracy theory, but I think it’s actually true, that the ultimate design is to turn some of these illegals into voters for their cause and to change the census outcome in 2030,” Johnson said. “It sounds like some sort of crazy, you know, criminal design. And in my view it is.”

This wasn’t Johnson’s first shout-out to the “great replacement theory” by any means, as the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent noted upon his elevation to the speakership:

“This is the plan of our friends on this side — to turn all the illegals into voters,” Johnson said at a congressional hearing in May 2022, gesturing at Democrats. “That’s why the border’s open.” …

Johnson employs it regularly. He reiterated the claim in an interview this year with the right-wing outlet Newsmax, accusing President Biden of “intentionally” encouraging undocumented migration to “turn all these illegals into voters for their side.” On numerous other occasions, he has made similar charges, even declaring that Democrats’ express goal is the “destruction of our country at the expense of our own people.”

Lest we forget, another less savory aspect to Johnson’s overall political profile is one he shares with Mike Pence: a career-long adherence to hard-core Christian nationalist positions on abortion, LGBTQ rights, and a host of other issues. While Trump’s very personal form of authoritarianism is the most terrifying aspect of the conservative ideology he has partly embraced and partly made over in his own image, he didn’t invent the kind of deeply reactionary politics Speaker Johnson exemplifies.

Any assessment of the Speaker’s brief but momentous tenure should include on the credit side of the ledger his success in helping keep the federal government functioning despite repeated House Freedom Caucus efforts to shut it down or hold it hostage. But on the debit side is the fact that the long delay he engineered in approving aid to Ukraine has put that country (and American security interests related to Ukraine) in an unnecessarily bad position, as the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin unhappily observes:

A week … a month … six months ago, the vote to deliver critical aid could have prevented countless Ukrainian deaths. Just last week, Russian missiles struck an apartment building in the northern Ukrainian city of Chernihiv, killing 17 people and injuring at least 61. That was merely one strike among many Russia has successfully carried out in recent months while Ukraine has been hampered by munitions shortages and inadequate antimissile defenses.

If Johnson ultimately loses his Speaker’s gavel as a direct result of his sponsorship of better-late-than-never foreign-aid legislation, perhaps the idea of Johnson as a courageous avatar of pre-Trump conservatism will have more merit, much as Pence became a more sympathetic figure when his 2024 presidential candidacy cratered as a consequence of his brief rebellion against The Boss. But for now, his apotheosis as Beltway hero and the savior of Ukraine mostly shows how much Trump has changed not only the GOP but the political system. A man who embraces the worst of both pre-MAGA and MAGA conservatism shouldn’t get too much praise for letting a bipartisan majority favoring a foreign-aid package work its will.

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