Speaking to reporters this week at a New York courthouse where he is facing a civil fraud trial, Donald Trump claimed credit for the election of Mike Johnson as Speaker of the House of Representatives.
“This time yesterday, nobody was thinking of Mike,” the former US president said. “Then we put out the word and now he is the Speaker of the House.”
To some, Trump was exaggerating the role he played in elevating a little-known Louisiana lawmaker and an avowed loyalist to become presiding officer of Congress’s lower chamber, and second in the presidential line of succession after the vice-president.
But the election of Johnson — who was among the chief congressional architects of Trump’s attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election — nevertheless underscores his enduring influence over Capitol Hill, particularly as he seeks another four years in the White House.
Despite his mounting legal woes, and the blame many lay at his feet for Republicans’ disappointing results in last year’s midterm elections, Trump is the frontrunner vying for the party’s presidential nomination in 2024.
“Donald Trump is the leader of the Republican party, not only from a policy standpoint, but also from a messaging standpoint,” said Ford O’Connell, a Florida-based Republican strategist. “If you are on Capitol Hill, and you don’t have his seal of approval, you are not going to go very far.”
Johnson’s election capped nearly a month of Republican infighting. The Louisiana congressman was the fourth Speaker candidate in less than four weeks, after three colleagues tried and failed to unite the party behind their own bids.
A conservative evangelical Christian, Johnson takes a hardline stance against abortion and same-sex marriage, and despite having a lower profile than many of his colleagues, has several times shown himself to be a loyal acolyte of Trump.
He was a member of Trump’s defence team in his first impeachment trial, and in the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election he led more than 100 House Republican colleagues in signing an amicus brief in support of a lawsuit that tried to overturn the election results in four swing states.
Earlier this month, the former president stayed on the sidelines of the battle for Speaker, as Matt Gaetz, the firebrand Republican congressman from Florida — and staunch Trump ally — led a rebellion to oust Kevin McCarthy, who Trump had for years referred to as “my Kevin”.
But not long after McCarthy’s removal, Trump weighed in, first flirting with suggestions that he himself should be the next Speaker, before insisting that his sole focus was on running again for the White House.
He instead threw his support behind Jim Jordan, the former wrestling coach turned combative chair of the House judiciary committee, who has long been among Trump’s loudest supporters on Capitol Hill.
While Steve Scalise, the House majority leader, initially beat Jordan in a secret ballot among Republicans in the chamber, he withdrew his candidacy hours after Trump told a Fox News interviewer that he had concerns about Scalise’s health. The congressman is undergoing treatment for blood cancer.
“He’s got a very serious form of cancer. And, you know, most importantly, I want Steve to get well, I just don’t know how you can do the job when you have — that’s a serious problem,” Trump said at the time.
And while the enthusiastic endorsement was not enough to get Jordan elected — the divisive Ohio congressman lost three painful public votes on the House floor before calling time on his candidacy — Trump was able to flex his political muscles by torpedoing the aspirations of the third Republican Speaker candidate, Tom Emmer.
Emmer had voted to certify Joe Biden’s 2020 election win and also supported a deal to avert a government shutdown this autumn.
While Emmer insisted he had a good relationship with Trump, the former president issued a blistering Truth Social post calling him “out-of-touch” and a “globalist Rino”. Emmer withdrew from the race within hours, setting the stage for the lesser-known Johnson to enter the fray.
He was ultimately elected Speaker on Wednesday with the unanimous support of the House Republican conference.
Many Republicans on Capitol Hill acknowledge Johnson’s success can in part be attributed to fatigue, with lawmakers simply exhausted by the internecine warfare, and facing growing external pressure to act on issues of critical importance at home and abroad. These include a White House proposal for billions of dollars in additional aid for Israel as it wages war against Hamas.
But many in Washington also say the mild-mannered Louisianan had the right demeanour to win over fellow Republicans who had been put off by Jordan’s more aggressive style.
“You were not going to be elected Speaker without Trump’s support. You had to have his support, but then you had to have a little bit more,” said O’Connell, who described Johnson as “Jim Jordan, with a blazer on”.
Johnson’s unflinching loyalty to Trump has won him little goodwill from Democrats, who have already raised alarm bells about what the new Speaker would do if the former president contested the results of the 2024 election if he wins the Republican party nomination.
The Speaker has skirted questions about his role in trying to overturn the 2020 election, at one point simply replying, “next question” to a reporter who raised the matter on Capitol Hill this week.
But Johnson insisted on Thursday that he “respected” the office of the president, telling Fox News after a 20-minute meeting with Biden that he had “no problem” with him as an “individual”.
“You respect the office. It is a biblical admonition that you give honour where honour is due,” Johnson said. “But he and I agree on almost no policy . . . I think it’s been a failed presidency.”
For his part, Biden told reporters earlier in the week that he was not concerned about Johnson or any other Republican trying to overturn the results of the 2024 election.
“Look, just like I was not worried that the last guy would be able to overturn the election,” Biden said. “I understand the Constitution.”
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