Did Mike Johnson Just Get Religion on Ukraine?

It turns out that, eight years into the Trump takeover of the Republican Party, there are still a few surprises left. On Wednesday morning, Mike Johnson, the accidental Speaker of the House, finally made the choice that he had spent months evading and released the text of long-stalled legislation to send more than sixty billion dollars in assistance to Ukraine, among other national-security priorities. He promised a vote this weekend. The threat was real that, if he proceeded, a small faction of the most extreme Trumpists in the House—a loudly pro-Russia lot—would soon force him out of the post that he would not have got in the first place without Donald Trump’s support.

And yet, by Wednesday afternoon, there was Johnson, speaking to the cameras in the Capitol’s ornate Statuary Hall. His words were unexpectedly passionate, his delivery crisp. Invoking this “critical” moment in the world, Johnson said, “I can make a selfish decision”—namely, keeping his job by not moving forward on the aid for Ukraine and, once again, caving to the sort of angry nihilists who have bullied the past three Republican Speakers out of the House. “But I’m doing here what I believe to be the right thing.” He talked about why aid for Ukraine was “critically important,” adding, “I really do believe the intel and the briefings that we’ve gotten.” This was yet another heresy for many Republicans, who, following Trump, have spent years tearing down the truthfulness and reliability of America’s intelligence agencies.

Johnson’s summation of the current geopolitical map differed little from what one might hear from President Biden at the White House lectern—and it suggested that the Speaker’s world view has departed sharply from Trump’s autocrat-admiring brand of American isolationism. “I believe Xi, Vladimir Putin, and Iran really are an axis of evil,” Johnson averred. He warned that Putin, if left unstopped in Ukraine, “would continue to march through Europe,” threatening the Balkans or Poland or another NATO ally. He sounded a personal note as well: “To put it bluntly, I would rather send bullets to Ukraine than American boys. My son is going to begin in the Naval Academy this fall. This is a live-fire exercise for me, as it is for so many American families.” His closing remarks were a rebuke to the publicity-hungry tormentors in his own party already calling for his head. “This is not a game—it’s not a joke,” he said. “I’m willing to take personal risk for that, because we have to do the right thing, and history will judge us.”

Was this the same guy who, a few days earlier, on a visit to Mar-a-Lago, had so eagerly appeared at Trump’s side and prattled on about a bill to stop non-citizens from illegally voting in elections—an unnecessary and redundant measure seemingly concocted in order to pretend that Trump’s oft-repeated false claims of huge numbers of “illegals” voting are actually true?

On Wednesday, Johnson sounded like Republicans used to sound. Before Trump. Before Marjorie Taylor Greene, the Trump favorite who talks of “Jewish space lasers” and echoes Russian propaganda about “Ukrainian Nazis,” became a force in the House. A Republican like the ones who once bashed Democrats for not being tough enough on Putin. Listening to Johnson brought to mind the scene in “The Lord of the Rings” when the evil spell possessing the good King Théoden is broken and he suddenly returns to himself—an accommodationist no more, revivified, ready to fight. The old-school Republicans soon hailed Johnson’s “courage”; Greene quickly reiterated calls for his ouster. Donald Trump, Jr., made post after post on social media denouncing Johnson’s “garbage bill,” which, he insisted, “would do the bidding of Democrats and hurt my father’s ability to negotiate an end to the war between Russia and Ukraine.” By Thursday afternoon, Trump himself weighed in, finding time amid jury selection in his New York criminal hush-money trial to complain that Europe, not the U.S., should spend more money on Ukraine. His post—which was inaccurate in that E.U. institutions have committed close to twenty billion dollars more than the U.S. to Ukraine—stopped short of attacking Johnson or directly calling for the bill’s defeat. But that did not deter Florida Representative Matt Gaetz from saying it did, in a post bookended by fire emojis: “TRUMP OPPOSES SCHUMER/JOHNSON FOREIGN AID BILL.”

There had been little to suggest that such a last-minute conversion by Johnson was imminent. When Russia invaded Ukraine, he was an obscure backbencher from Louisiana and a fervent Trump supporter, best known for rallying fellow-Republicans in late 2020 to sign on to a spurious legal challenge to Biden’s win in furtherance of Trump’s “rigged election” claims. Like Trump himself, Johnson seemed skeptical of Ukraine. He voted against the billions of dollars in military aid that the Biden Administration pushed through Congress. After becoming Speaker, in October, Johnson spent months parrying demands to pass Biden’s aid package for Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan, insisting that it would have to be paired with conservative legislation addressing illegal immigration at the border, which was a non-starter for Democrats.

In recent weeks, though, the time for hemming and hawing drew to a close. The Senate had passed the foreign-assistance bill on an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote, in February, and since then Ukraine’s military situation had grown increasingly dire. The Pentagon warned that Ukraine would have insufficient ammunition left to fight off Russian advances at the front; in Ukrainian cities, Russian missiles barraged civilian targets and took out energy infrastructure because Kyiv no longer had adequate air defenses. Biden’s pledge to stand with Ukraine “as long as it takes” looked hollow—an embarrassing signal to the world’s tyrants that America’s internal divisions in the age of Trump meant that its international assistance could no longer be counted on. Over the weekend, after Iran, a supplier of many of the weapons being used by Russia against Ukraine, launched hundreds of unmanned attack drones and ballistic missiles at Israel, a U.S. ally, it became clear that, back in Washington, the House would face enormous pressure to act.

On Monday, the House’s Democratic leader, Hakeem Jeffries, had sent a letter to colleagues framing the stakes of the upcoming week in positively existential terms. It was, he warned, “a Churchill or Chamberlain moment.” Would House Republicans—and Johnson—“confront aggression” by passing the aid package or “continue to appease it”? By Wednesday afternoon, Jeffries had Johnson’s answer, if not yet that of the full House Republican Conference.

For supporters of Ukraine, Johnson’s pivot was welcome news, albeit frighteningly late. It also raised as many questions as it answered: Will the bill end up passing? Will Greene follow through on her threatened motion to vacate the chair, and, if she does, will it result in the toppling of Johnson, as a similar motion from Gaetz ended Kevin McCarthy’s Speakership last fall? Or perhaps this will finally be the moment that the House bullies are tamed? Then again, Johnson’s majority is about to shrink to just a single vote with the impending resignation of Wisconsin Representative Mike Gallagher. Won’t that simply make an already ungovernable House even more impossible for him to lead?

Whatever the outcome of the fraught internal politics of the House, there is a great risk, it seems to me, of overinterpreting what Johnson’s newfound—and possibly very temporary—independence from Trump may mean. For starters, it’s important to remember that this latest Republican feud is very much a dispute among fellow-Trumpists. Even those who have been openly critical of the former President’s stance on Ukraine and his false claims about the 2020 election, such as the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, have largely fallen in line to endorse his 2024 campaign. On Capitol Hill today, and nationally, Republican officials are all essentially Trumpists now.

In the past few days, in fact, even as the Ukrainian-aid fight was playing out, there have been memorable new examples of Trump-bashing Republicans returning to the fold. On Sunday, New Hampshire’s governor, Chris Sununu, offered a master class in this sort of cringe, squirming his way through an explanation of why he now supports Trump for reëlection, despite saying in the past that Trump had “absolutely contributed” to the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6, 2021, and took “absolutely terrible” actions after losing in 2020. On Wednesday, former Attorney General Bill Barr, who publicly refuted his boss’s lies about the 2020 election and testified to the House January 6th committee about Trump’s “bogus” claims, also backed him for reëlection. To do otherwise and vote for Biden, he told Fox News, would be tantamount to “national suicide.” When faced with a choice between Trump and their principles, in other words, they—once again—choose Trump.

Let that be a cautionary tale. In choosing Ukraine over Russia, Johnson has taken a real stand—one that may allow Ukraine to avoid, for now, the defeat that would surely come from the U.S. withdrawing its support. But Johnson is no more a resistance hero than Barr ever was. Both are backing Trump for President. And, with Trump as President, Russia will be a winner no matter how Congress votes this week. ♦

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