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The evolution of Mike Johnson on Ukraine

When the House passed a $40 billion emergency funding bill for Ukraine in May 2022, support for Ukraine was largely still a bipartisan issue. But a little-known conservative congressman from Louisiana was one of the 57 Republicans to oppose it.

Now, just six months after his unlikely elevation to speaker of the House, Mike Johnson (R-La.) has pushed through a $60 billion effort to bolster Ukraine’s arsenal, along with funding for Israel and the Indo-Pacific.

The move marks a major victory and dramatic turnabout for the speaker, who is trying to gain control of a bitterly divided Republican conference. The far right is fiercely against Ukraine aid — 112 Republicans, just over half of the conference, opposed it on the House floor Saturday, and Johnson had to rely on unanimous Democratic backing — and Johnson’s decision to greenlight a floor vote could come at great political cost. He could very well lose his job as speaker over it.

It is also a major rebuke to former president Donald Trump, who publicly backed Johnson at a recent Mar-a-Lago event but has long criticized Ukraine while repeatedly sympathizing with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Johnson appears fully aware of the consequences of his decision to send money to Ukraine for its grinding war against Russia. He made the difficult decision despite threats from an angry and vocal minority of hard-right Republicans — ironically, the ones who helped catapult him into power — who are using their conservative bully pulpit to challenge Johnson and threaten his job.

He seems to have accepted his fate.

“Look, history judges us for what we do,” said an emotional Johnson, holding back tears and with a quivering lip at a news conference last week in response to a question from The Washington Post. “This is a critical time right now, critical time on the world stage. I could make a selfish decision and do something that’s different, but I’m doing here what I believe to be the right thing.”

Johnson’s son will be headed to the U.S. Naval Academy in the fall. “To put it bluntly, I would rather send bullets to Ukraine than American boys,” he said. “This is a live-fire exercise for me and for so many American families.”

The speaker’s torturous path to embracing Ukraine aid is the result of many factors: high-level intelligence briefings as a House leader, his faith, the counsel of three committee chairs named Mike, and a realization that the GOP would never unite on Ukraine. This story is drawn from interviews with more than a dozen lawmakers and staff, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss Johnson’s evolution. The speaker’s office did not respond to an interview request.

Johnson rose to power as a member of the conservative, isolationist camp with little influence in the party. After the 2020 election, he spent his political capital encouraging his colleagues to help overturn the results. He had never had a high-level intelligence briefing, had never met President Biden, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) or Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). He had no meaningful relationship with House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.)

In a matter of moments, Johnson became second in line to the presidency. The day after he was elected speaker in October, he met with Biden and the three House national security panel chairs — Reps. Michael R. Turner (R-Ohio), Michael McCaul (R-Tex.) and Mike D. Rogers (R-Ala.) — who brought him to the White House for a worldwide threats briefing heavy on Ukraine. Former CIA director and ex-secretary of state Mike Pompeo became an informal adviser.

The new speaker heard from evangelical Christians in the United States and Ukraine about the persecution of Ukrainian Christians by Russia. Over the next months, the other congressional leaders twice brought him to meet with Biden at the White House, where he got an earful about the importance of this moment in history from the president, McConnell and Schumer.

It was eye-opening.

One Republican House member recalls: “I’ll never forget Johnson one time said, ‘I’ve gone from representing my district only to representing the entire [House] and the country.’ For someone to go from where he was to where he is now as quickly as he did … is remarkable.”

But as Johnson was warming to Ukraine aid, some say as early as December or January, the issue continued to create deep fissures within the GOP. The anti-Ukraine hard-liners grew louder and more steadfast as pro-Ukraine Republicans quietly and privately grew more frustrated and impatient with Johnson and their colleagues.

At a meeting this month of conservative members of the Republican Study Committee, freshman Rep. Max L. Miller (Ohio) stood before three dozen of his fellow Republicans with tears in his eyes.

He told his colleagues that two-thirds of his family had been exterminated in the Holocaust, insisting that his personal story could have ended differently had the United States intervened earlier in World War II. The same unnecessary story of lives lost could happen in Ukraine, he warned, if the United States ends its financial and militaristic support.

Ultimately, Johnson decided to advance a Senate foreign aid bill broken into three parts, with a minor modification. A portion of the $60 billion House bill for Ukraine would be a loan. A second bill would provide about $17 billion in weapons for Israel, as well as just over $9 billion in humanitarian aid for Gaza and elsewhere. The third bill would contain $8 billion for the Indo-Pacific region to deter China. To appease his members, he’d add a fourth bill of Republican priorities, including banning TikTok and seizing Russian assets.

All four bills passed overwhelmingly on Saturday and will be taken up in the Senate this week. But until the 11th hour, Johnson, who many Republicans lamented was an indecisive leader, searched for consensus.

Johnson momentarily retreated after the anti-Ukraine faction expressed outrage hours after he released his proposal Monday. He convened a meeting of about a dozen ideologically diverse Republicans on Tuesday, which lasted four hours, well past 11 p.m., and was described by participants as heated, intense and angry. “The battle lines were very clear in the end,” one Republican said.

National-security-conscious Republicans tried to impress upon farther-right members the importance of imminently funding U.S. allies. Turner, Rogers and McCaul shared their latest assessments with the group based on intelligence.

But the hard-liners didn’t care. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), who was responsible for sparking the ouster of former speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), had defended Johnson. Gaetz now warned Johnson that if he moved forward with his plan, he would be toppled from the speaker’s job. He cautioned other Republicans that if they backed Johnson’s plan, hard-liners would attack them on social media and endorse primary challengers.

Johnson had a whiteboard and searched frantically for a path of least resistance. Numerous ideas were floated but the most serious was to put forward a slimmed-down Ukraine bill including lethal aid only and tied to a harsh border security bill, which is what the hard-liners wanted.

Multiple participants said the meeting wasn’t constructive except for one discovery: Several members for the first time heard some of the hard-liners declare they would refuse to back Ukraine aid under any circumstances.

The meeting ended without resolution. But Johnson mostly stayed the course.

Throughout the process, other members of leadership had little insight into Johnson’s thinking. But, publicly, they backed him as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), a far-right member who wants Johnson out, gained additional support.

The pro-Ukraine Republicans rallied around Johnson, who has called himself a member of the MAGA wing. At a meeting Wednesday evening with Main Street Republicans, a conservative but pragmatic group, they applauded when Johnson entered. “How does it feel to be a RINO?” one asked jokingly, referring to an insult aimed at Republicans who appear to have gone soft.

Johnson gave a simultaneous shrug, awkward chuckle and a gentle pump of his fist.

“He came out of the meeting realizing that the people he used to hang out with … that they do not have his best interests at heart,” one Republican in the room said. “And a group of men and women that he barely knew are going to help him navigate through the disaster that is on Capitol Hill.”

“Mike Johnson was dealt a terrible hand of cards,” said Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.), who chairs the Main Street Caucus. “Not all politicians make that same choice. That was not a foregone conclusion on the day he was elected speaker.”

Early this year, Johnson started to suggest in conference meetings that he was open to funding Ukraine, making statements about being a “Reagan Republican” who believed in “peace through strength.” That’s when a far-right whisper campaign started as early as January about ousting Johnson if he dared move on Ukraine without first securing the southern border.

Meanwhile, the Senate was haggling over a bipartisan border security measure as part of its foreign aid package, including help for Ukraine. Those months-long negotiations bought Johnson time. But when Republicans in both the House and the Senate, led by Trump, immediately rejected the bipartisan border security plan, it became clear there was no chance such a measure could pass Congress.

That meant Johnson would have to choose whether to rely on support from the sizable pro-foreign-aid faction of House Republicans and Democrats to back Ukraine aid or acquiesce to demands by his right flank and do nothing.

The Senate passed a $95 billion foreign aid bill in February with 70 votes, significant bipartisan support omitting any border security component. But Johnson dithered even as Ukraine struggled on the battlefield, running out of ammunition and morale. He vowed to address must-pass legislation with deadlines first, including funding the government and approving an extension of foreign surveillance legislation known as FISA.

In fact, tensions among Republicans had been simmering for months. At a February leadership retreat in Florida, a group of over a dozen committee chairs and members of leadership kicked staff out of the room and got into a heated argument over Ukraine. Pro-Ukraine members sparred with those who argued there’s no point in sending aid to the country.

Republican infighting only grew. Many Republicans dismissed what the intelligence showed or refused to attend briefings, causing alarmed Republicans to say that misinformation and Russian propaganda has seeped into the Republican Party. Evangelical Christians tried to bend Johnson’s and his staff’s ear, pointing to the influence of propaganda from the Russian Orthodox Church. Johnson met with Pavlo Unguryan, a Ukrainian evangelical leader, who had been pushing for U.S. support.

Johnson is a devout Southern Baptist and his faith “guides him in every major decision he makes,” one Republican member said.

Johnson was given polling from the American Action Network, the policy arm of the Republican-affiliated super PAC, that found a large majority of voters in battleground districts favor aid to Ukraine and that favoring Ukraine aid was not a principal deciding factor for Republican primary voters. The polling reassured Johnson there was little political risk to funding Ukraine, an important data point when working to persuade his GOP colleagues.

This month, Johnson started to turn his attention to Ukraine behind the scenes. His most vociferous critic, Greene, introduced a motion to ultimately toss him from the speaker’s chair if Ukraine aid came to the floor. Many Republicans believed that Johnson would ultimately move a Ukraine bill, but the speaker remained coy.

Johnson was still searching for a solution that would appease the hard-liners while also satisfying the national security hawks. He was in search of a path that was as painless as possible and one that would preserve his job.

He opened discussions with the White House to see if it would accept any Republican demands, including turning the aid to Ukraine into a loan and seizing Russian assets. The White House maintained that it preferred the Senate bill.

Johnson also received a private, classified and sobering briefing from CIA Director William J. Burns about the status of the war in Ukraine and its implications.

A steady stream of European leaders and ministers have knocked on Johnson’s door in recent months, telling the congressman from Louisiana that his place among global statesmen is assured if he got this done.

British Foreign Secretary David Cameron applied some debonair wit. Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, one of Ukraine’s sharpest backers, told Johnson what it was like to live in a nation that borders Russia. Just last week, Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala met with Johnson and told him that the world’s eyes were on him.

“I really do believe the intel and in the briefings that we’ve gotten,” Johnson said last week. “I believe [Chinese President] Xi [Jinping] and Vladimir Putin and Iran really are an axis of evil. I think they’re in coordination.”

Ultimately, Johnson put a Ukraine bill on the floor. And he may lose his job because of it.

“I think he figured out the best way possible in a really terrible situation to allow people to vote,” Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-N.D.) said. “It takes some semblance of fortitude to do that.”

Michael Birnbaum contributed to this report.


A previous version of this article reported that a vote for $40 billion in Ukraine aid took place in September 2022; the House voted on $40 billion in May 2022. It also said Mike Johnson is third in line to the presidency; he is second in line. The article has been corrected.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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