Speaker Mike Johnson defends joining Trump at his New York trial

25 days ago

WASHINGTON — On the car ride from Trump Tower to the Manhattan courthouse Tuesday, former President Donald Trump was venting to Speaker Mike Johnson about the first 16 days of his hush money trial and how it’s kept him off the campaign trail.

Mike Johnson - Figure 1
Photo NBC News

“He’s clearly frustrated that he’s been tied up now for the fifth week in this trial that has no merit, that prosecutors had already passed on eight years ago, that they can’t define any crime that he has supposedly committed and the entire case is based upon a known perjurer, Michael Cohen. So it’s an atrocity,” Johnson, R-La., said Wednesday in an exclusive interview in his Capitol office with NBC News. 

“On the ride over, we talked about that. How it has tied up in court now, for five weeks, the soon-to-be official nominee of our party in what many of us regard to be the most critical election year of our lifetime,” Johnson continued. “And it is just wrong in every way.”

As the motorcade pulled into the courthouse, Johnson said Trump specifically noted that a large area around the courthouse has been cordoned off by law enforcement — something Johnson believes is politically designed to keep Trump’s supporters far from their leader.

“No one can get in except law enforcement. Why would they make such a large perimeter? Yes, he’s the former president, but he has a full security detail as he goes about the country,” the speaker said. “The reason they did that, I believe, is part of the political purposes of this. They don’t want supportive crowds to be seen in favor of President Trump. I think it’s part of the strategy and I just think it’s a travesty of justice.”

Johnson with Donald Trump as Trump arrives for his trial at Manhattan Criminal Court on Tuesday.Justin Lane / Pool via Getty Images

In the wide-ranging interview in his office, with a sweeping view of the National Mall, Johnson declined to recommend whom Trump should choose as his vice presidential running mate, although he stood side by side with several potential candidates for the job in New York. Johnson said he has “close friends” on the shortlist and that the GOP has a “deep bench.”

In media interviews he gave last week after surviving a vote to oust him from power, Johnson was jubilant and doing impressions of Trump. But on this occasion, the 52-year-old speaker was quiet and low-key — perhaps a result of his frenetic schedule and travel.

“My day is scheduled in five-minute increments now. Every day, the schedule looks like a Jenga puzzle, so it’s dizzying,” he said. “I haven’t had any time off in six months.”

Mike Johnson - Figure 2
Photo NBC News

Johnson, a low-tier, little-known member of leadership, was suddenly thrust into power after a three-week battle to replace ousted Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., last fall. But he's faced many of the same problems — and an even smaller majority. He breathed a sigh of relief when the House voted in a lopsided, bipartisan 359-43 roll call to kill a vacate motion from Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., with a majority of Democrats and Republicans teaming up to keep him in power.

Johnson predicted that he will not face another vote to remove him as speaker this year. “I don’t expect that we will do it again,” he said.

But the speaker’s trip to the Manhattan courthouse to defend Trump has infuriated Democrats and there’s no guarantee they will save the speaker again if Greene — or any other Johnson foe — forces another vacate vote in the coming months.

“It showed his true colors and why, with good intentions, we made a mistake in strategically saving his job,” Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., said, “because now we have enabled him to act with impunity like he did.”

A former litigator and constitutional attorney, Johnson defended his decision to stand by Trump’s side in New York, saying that the former president did not ask him to attend but calling it a “spontaneous” add-on to a trip for some events in the city.

“I went to New York to call out what I believe is a true threat to our system of justice,” he said. “I really do believe that and people can interpret that however they want. But I felt like that was the right thing to do. And I have an important voice to lend to that.”

And Johnson believes that lawmakers do not want to vote to eject him — a move that could throw the House into chaos for weeks and take vulnerable Democrats and Republicans off the campaign trail in a key election year.

"What I think most people in this building recognize is that the nation desperately needs a functioning Congress right now," Johnson said. "These are very dangerous times in which we are living. We have hot wars going on around the globe. And we have all the unrest. Even here domestically, we’ve had the open border, so we have a potentially very dangerous situation here on our own shores."

“We cannot afford to shut down the Congress, as was done in October,” he added, referring to the weeks of GOP infighting after McCarthy's ouster. “And I think reasonable people on both sides of the aisle understand that. I don’t think there’s an appetite to go through that again.”

Mike Johnson - Figure 3
Photo NBC News

Even so, Johnson said he is not expecting the House to change its rules and raise the threshold of lawmakers needed to force a vote to remove the speaker — currently set at just a single member of Congress — something he floated at the House GOP retreat in March.

“I don’t anticipate any of that happening before the election. I mean, it’ll be for the 119th Congress, not the current,” he said.

Johnson told NBC News he doesn't "expect" another motion to vacate.Frank Thorp V / NBC News

He also rejected calls from some of his GOP allies to take retribution out on Greene and the 10 other Republicans who voted to keep her vacate motion alive. Asked about the Old Testament saying “an eye for an eye,” Johnson, a self-described “Bible-believing” Christian conservative, called himself “a New Testament guy.”

“There’s a very different command in the New Testament, and that is, you forgive countless times over. You don’t do vengeance of your own,” said Johnson, whose office features a small Ronald Reagan bust and Louisiana State University jersey with the name “Mr. Speaker.” “I don’t hold grudges. I’m not upset with anybody. I want to and I have to work with all of our members. We have a one-vote margin as we sit here today. ... As the New Testament says, ‘Bless even those who persecute you.’ So that’s what I’ve been trying to do every day.”

Johnson said he is “bullish” about the November election, predicting that Republicans will grow their House majority and take back the White House and Senate in November. The speaker acknowledged that there’s “frustration” at the chaos that has defined the 118th Congress, but he pointed to a deal with President Joe Biden to fund the government through September and a separate deal last month with Democrats to provide billions in aid to U.S. allies Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan.

“We’ve emerged from the chaos and we’ve maintained the government — we’ve not shut it down. We’ve got our big obligations met,” Johnson said. “We’re demonstrating that we can govern here, even under the most extraordinary circumstances.”

If the GOP can capture total control of the government — similar to 2017, when both Trump and Johnson arrived in Washington — the speaker said border security would be at the top of the legislative agenda right out of the gate.

“We know the open border and all of the catastrophe and chaos that has come from that, it must be secured and it must be a top priority,” Johnson said, adding that Republicans would also pass bills addressing threats from China, crime rates and energy security.

“As I’ve told the president, President Trump, many times, I said, ‘Mr. President, when you win re-election, I mean, you could certainly be the most consequential president of the modern era because right now, everything has to be repaired and turned around,’” Johnson said. “I think he is thinking and focusing pragmatically on an agenda, policy-driven administration. And that’s something that excites me as a policy guy. So I’m very excited about the history that we can make early on in that Congress.”

Asked if he would stay on as minority leader in 2025 if Republicans lose control of the House — something former Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California did after the House flipped to Republicans in 2010 — Johnson said he's given no thought to it.

"I am singularly focused on governing right now and winning that majority," he said. "And I'm thinking through the first 100 days and next Congress with us in the driver's seat and what the first year in the Congress looks like. So that occupies all — what very little time I have for planning."

Scott Wong

Scott Wong is a senior congressional reporter for NBC News.

Frank Thorp V



Read more
Similar news