Mike Johnson pulls a fast one on Ukraine past a distracted Donald Trump

The House speaker finally got fed up with Republican shenanigans — but he may still end up like Kevin McCarthy

By Heather Digby Parton


Published April 19, 2024 9:46AM (EDT)

Donald Trump and Mike Johnson (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump and Mike Johnson (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

The Republican Party has been in such a state of pandemonium for so long that it's hard to imagine what new turns it can take and yet from week to week, it always does. The 2020 election tantrum and insurrection was certainly the pinnacle of Trumpish anarchy, still Republicans in the House of Representatives have been working hard to emulate their Dear Leader ever since they won the majority in 2022. It's a bad idea to make sweeping statements about them finally jumping the shark since they always manage to outdo themselves but this week is certainly one for the books — if only because the stakes are so very high and they have sunk so very low. 

As I wrote a couple of days ago, House Speaker Mike Johnson was caught in a trap between his fellow right-wing zealots, led by Marjorie Taylor Greene, who have appropriated Donald Trump's hostility to Ukraine, and the rest of his caucus which is more reluctant to see the world blow up. The events in the Middle East last weekend were a sober reminder that the United States' role in global security isn't the best issue to use as leverage for parochial electoral advantage. It can get real very quickly. 

Maybe he got word from a higher power reminding him that Donald Trump isn't really the Big Guy In Charge. 

Johnson had indicated that he planned to bring four separate votes to the floor: aid packages for Ukraine, Israel, Taiwan and a bill to require Russian assets to be confiscated for Ukraine along with a ban on TikTok unless it is sold to a different entity, among other things. This caused a huge uproar among the MAGA fanatics who were distraught that they didn't get their way. (They claimed they wanted funding for a massive border crackdown but everyone knows that Trump ordered that nothing should be done so he could use it as an election issue.) It was unclear if Johnson's deals would ever make it to the floor and looming over all of this is the fact that Greene has been holding the threat of deposing Johnson over his head for weeks. 

So that's where we stood on Wednesday morning and it didn't look very promising. Then suddenly, out of the blue, Mike Johnson had what he would no doubt call a "come to Jesus" moment and he went before the microphones that afternoon to declare that he didn't care if his fellow Republicans threw him out of the speaker's office, he was going to do the right thing. Johnson gave a stirring speech about how he believes the intelligence he's seen and warned of the danger of allowing Ukraine to fall. 

So, I think that Vladimir Putin would continue to march through Europe if he were allowed. I think he might go to the Balkans next. I think he might have a showdown with Poland or one of our NATO allies. To put it bluntly, I would rather send bullets to Ukraine than American boys... this is not a game, this is not a joke.

It's hard to say what happened to bring about such a public change of heart. He's been stalling this necessary funding for months and could have suspended the rules and allowed the Senate package to come to the floor and it would have passed easily. Instead, he allowed Trump and Greene to dictate this course and it's been a disaster. Maybe it was that intelligence finally convincing him that this was leading to a very bad outcome or perhaps he finally sees the upside to being a profile in courage instead of a MAGA toadie. Who knows? Maybe he got word from a higher power reminding him that Donald Trump isn't really the Big Guy In Charge. 

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All day Thursday there were reports of intense infighting in the caucus over rumors that Johnson and members of the leadership were going to back a rules change that would require more than one member (like Greene) to call for a motion to vacate the chair, the deal with the devil that his predecessor, Kevin McCarthy, made that ultimately took him down. Some members are clearly getting tired of these antics:

The extremists went ballistic over this, cornering Johnson on the floor and he eventually shot down the rumor, saying the rule would not be changed. 

You get the feeling that Johnson has just put himself in the hands of fate at this point. And fate looks a lot like Marjorie Taylor Greene:

With Democrats staying cool (or as Minority leader Hakeem Jeffries called it, "united and frosty") there is every reason to believe she will be thwarted if she tries it so I remain skeptical that she will. Greene enjoys the attention she gets wielding Johnson's ouster as a threat. But any member could do it and some sound so incensed that one might just decide to go for it.

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On Thursday night Democrats on the rules committee broke with all precedent and stepped in to save the bills, voting to move them to the floor. It's expected that Democrats will likewise vote to proceed and the bills will pass with bipartisan support in both chambers of Congress. That is unless something happens to derail it — which could easily happen because Republicans are crazy. 

What does the leader of their party say about all this? Well, he's on trial in New York and can't watch TV or tweet any instructions. Trump has had some luck with intimidating jurors already (with the help of Fox News) by suggesting that there are liberal plants in the jury pool lying to get chosen so they can stick it to him as usual. One juror has already asked to be excused and others may follow once it becomes clear that Fox is intent on identifying the ones about whom Trump has suspicions.

He's also very upset that he has to sit in the freezing courtroom from morning until night (It's common for the elderly to get cold easily...)

As for what's going on in Washington, much less the rest of the world, Trump is not really engaged. He doesn't know what to say about anything to do with foreign policy anyway except "it wouldn't have happened" if he were president and to complain about how nobody else is paying their fair share. That's pretty much all he had to say about Johnson's plan in one perfunctory Truth Social rant on Thursday. He's focused on the biggest issue: himself. 

This may explain why Johnson is finally going to get this done — Trump is out of commission and unable to meddle in things he doesn't understand. His being on trial may end up being the best thing that's happened to our politics in a very long time. As long as he's tied up in court, he's irrelevant when it comes to anything important.  

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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Commentary Donald Trump Marjorie Taylor Greene Mike Johnson Mtg Ukraine