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Updated Jan 19, 2024, 6:27am EST
politics

Mike Johnson talks like a lawyer. That might be a problem.

REUTERS/Leah Millis
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The Scene

When House Speaker Mike Johnson talks, all of Washington listens — and for some reason, everyone seems to come away feeling they’ve been told more or less what they wanted to hear.

Take Thursday. As lawmakers looked to head off a looming government shutdown, hardline conservatives urged Johnson to allow a vote on attaching border security measures to Congress’s short-term spending bill.

“The speaker is considering it, and he’s working through the mechanics to make sure we have the best path forward on how to do it within the legislative process,” House Freedom Caucus Chairman Bob Good, R-Va. told reporters after a private meeting about the longshot request.

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Apparently Johnson didn’t contemplate it for very long. Within an hour, his office announced he’d bring the funding stopgap to the floor without changes.

Or consider last week, when conservatives pushed Johnson to tear up the full-year bipartisan spending deal he’d struck with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. For a moment, some appeared to believe they’d convinced him.

“There’s going to be a new deal drawn up and that’s what we’re in the process of doing,” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., said.

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Not so. The next day, Johnson announced that he wasn’t renegotiating the spending pact.

It’s not just the right that seems to get wrongfooted by Johnson. On Wednesday, President Biden met with top congressional leaders to discuss the need for more Ukraine aid, which conservatives have said they won’t support without major border security changes. Afterwards, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Michael McCaul, R-Texas said there “was a consensus on the fact that we can’t abandon our allies.”

Johnson’s team summed up the meeting on X rather differently, however:

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Jordan’s view

Here’s a simple explanation for what might be going on: Johnson is a longtime lawyer, and he talks like one. The man doesn’t necessarily fib or mislead. But in his public statements and interviews he often leaves just enough ambiguity to avoid overcommitting himself to a position, but also opens up space for confusion.

He told Sean Hannity, for instance, that he believes the U.S. “can’t allow Vladimir Putin to prevail in Ukraine, because I don’t believe it would stop there.” But he didn’t actually commit to providing Kyiv more aid. After Wednesday’s White House meeting, he told a press conference that Republicans were looking for “substantive policy change” on the border and that their own bill, H.R. 2, included “critical elements” such as restoration of the Trump administration’s remain in Mexico policy. But he notably didn’t mark out any red lines.

Johnson appears to be supremely careful about even small word choices. Last week, reporters noticed that he crossed out and rewrote his original remarks announcing that he wouldn’t try to change his budget deal with Schumer. The words “We are sticking with the topline agreement” became “Our topline agreement remains.” (Presumably, a listener could add the words “for now” to the edited version.)

Even Johnson’s off-the cuff comments can seem strategically vague. On Fox Wednesday, host Laura Ingraham explained that she had just spoken with former President Trump, who said he’d told the speaker to oppose the Senate’s evolving border deal. “He was extremely adamant about that,” she said.

“President Trump is not wrong,” Johnson responded. (“Not wrong” about exactly what, he didn’t specify.) “He and I have been talking about this pretty frequently. I talked to him the night before last about the same subject. We don’t have the text of whatever the Senate has cooked up yet. And so we have to reserve judgment, I think, to see what comes out of it. It doesn’t sound good at the outset.” Again, plenty of wiggle room.

Could Johnson’s style become a problem for him? Possibly. His predecessor, former Speaker Kevin McCarthy, lost his job in part because conservatives in his conference felt they couldn’t trust him. (Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla. once publicly accused him of “lying like a dead dog.”)

Ambiguity was an issue there as well: McCarthy clashed with members over their interpretation of an alleged secret agreement he made to secure their support as speaker. Were they right? We don’t know — it was secret and there was even debate over whether it constituted an “agreement.” If conservatives come to feel they can’t put any stock in Johnson’s lawyerly elocutions, he may eventually lose their backing as well.

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Kadia’s view

Of course, the problem could also be the members. Johnson is famously polite and has often been described as a good listener — it was one of his selling points when he was nominated as speaker. But some members may confuse his listening for agreement, in part because after the McCarthy era they simply aren’t used to having an open dialogue with leadership. Some Republicans would also argue that the hard-right flank of their conference tends to aggressively read their views into his comments in the hopes they can lock leadership into positions by raising expectations among their base that they’ll come through.

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Joseph’s view

Another possibility: Johnson slips doublespeak into his comments because he just wants to keep his job. That’s a view you can find expressed on both sides of the aisle. “He’s definitely not good at having hard conversations,” one senior House GOP aide said. “He wants people to like him. He doesn’t want to piss anyone off, which means he’ll say anything in the moment.” Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn, was blunter: “Speaker Johnson is in a 24-hour survival mode,” he told reporters recently. “He needs to say whatever he needs to say in order to survive Wednesday to Thursday and Thursday to Friday.”

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Notable

  • During a press gaggle Thursday, Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C. offered a harsh assessment of Johnson’s speakership so far, in which he said the leader’s strategy had left Republicans “sucking wind.” “We wish him great success,” said McHenry, who served as a lieutenant to McCarthy during budget negotiations. “But he needs to widen the group of advisers he has. The loudest members of our conference should not dictate the strategic course of a smart majority — especially in the most complicated bits where those loudest voices are least likely to participate in the votes necessary.”
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