How Mike Johnson Got to ‘Yes’ on Aid to Ukraine


For weeks after the Senate passed a sprawling aid package for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan, Speaker Mike Johnson agonized over whether and how the House would take up funding legislation that would almost certainly infuriate the right wing of his party and could cost him his job.

He huddled with top national security officials, including William J. Burns, the C.I.A. director, in the Oval Office to discuss classified intelligence. He met repeatedly with broad factions of Republicans in both swing and deep red districts, and considered their voters’ attitudes toward funding Ukraine. He thought about his son, who is set to attend the U.S. Naval Academy in the fall.

And finally, when his plan to work with Democrats to clear the way for aiding Ukraine met with an outpouring of venom from ultraconservatives already threatening to depose him, Mr. Johnson, an evangelical Christian, knelt and prayed for guidance.

“I want to be on the right side of history,” Representative Michael McCaul of Texas, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, recalled the speaker telling him.

Mr. Johnson’s decision to risk his speakership to push the $95 billion foreign aid bill through the House on Saturday was the culmination of a remarkable personal and political arc for the Louisiana Republican. It was also an improbable outcome for a man plucked from relative obscurity last fall by the hard right — which had just deposed a speaker they deemed a traitor to their agenda — to be the speaker of a deeply dysfunctional House.

As a rank-and-file hard-liner, Mr. Johnson had largely opposed efforts to fund Kyiv’s war effort. And early in his speakership, he declared he would never allow the matter to come to a vote until his party’s border demands were met.

But by the time he made clear he planned to band together with Democrats to muscle through the aid package over the objections of many in his party, Mr. Johnson was speaking a starkly different language.

“History judges us for what we do,” he told reporters at the Capitol last week. “This is a critical time right now. 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. I think providing lethal aid to Ukraine right now is critically important.”

Mr. Johnson attributed his turnabout in part to the intelligence briefings he received, a striking assertion from a leader of a party that has embraced former President Donald J. Trump’s deep mistrust of the intelligence community.

“I really do believe the intel,” Mr. Johnson said. “I think that Vladimir Putin would continue to march through Europe if he were allowed. I think he might go to the Baltics next. I think he might have a showdown with Poland or one of our NATO allies.”

Mr. McCaul, who repeatedly huddled with Mr. Johnson and the chairmen of the other congressional national security committees in a secure room of the Capitol where lawmakers can review classified material, described Mr. Johnson’s journey as “transformational.”

“All of a sudden, he’s realizing that the world depends on this,” Mr. McCaul said. “This is not some little political game on the floor.”

One of the most impactful briefings, according to people familiar with the discussions, came in February in the Oval Office, when congressional leaders met with Mr. Biden to discuss government funding and aid for Ukraine. At that meeting, Mr. Burns and other top national security officials sought to impress upon Mr. Johnson how rapidly Ukraine was running out of ammunition, and how dire the consequences would be if their air defenses were no longer reinforced by American weaponry.

Convinced that they would come around to his way of thinking, Mr. Johnson repeatedly urged Republicans who opposed the funding measure to go to the secure space at the Capitol and receive the same intelligence briefings, according to people he spoke to.

Mr. Johnson was also struck by the stories he heard in meetings with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine and others about the magnitude of the misery Russian forces have unleashed across the embattled nation. All of it tugged at Mr. Johnson’s sense of Christian faith.

The speaker also faced mounting political pressure to act. Senate Democrats had struck a deal with Republicans to pair the aid to Ukraine with strict border measures, as the G.O.P. had demanded, but after Mr. Trump denounced it, Republicans rejected it out of hand. Then the Senate passed its own $95 billion emergency aid legislation for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan without any immigration measures, and the onus was on the House to do the same.

Adding to Mr. Johnson’s predicament, he found himself badly out of step with the three other congressional leaders, most notably Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, who vocally supported bolstering Kyiv and saw it as a critical part of his legacy.

That was evident at the White House meeting in February, which Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader, described as an “intense” pile-on.

“Everyone in that room was telling Speaker Johnson how vital” sending aid was, he said then.

Privately, Mr. Johnson was huddling with his allies and puzzling over what measures they could include in a national security package to make it more palatable to Republicans. At retreats in Florida in February and West Virginia in March, he was already in discussions with Representative French Hill, Republican of Arkansas, about the REPO Act, which would pay for some of the aid by selling off Russian sovereign assets that had been frozen.

That provision, which he described as “pure poetry,” later became a key part of Mr. Johnson’s effort to sell his conference on the aid bill.

Around the same time, Mr. Johnson began — first privately, then loudly — telling allies that he would ensure the U.S. would send funding to Kyiv.

“I think he always understood the importance of this and believes in the importance of this,” Representative Mike Lawler, Republican of New York, said. “The function of being speaker is to try to build consensus, and I think he wanted to find consensus among the conference. Unfortunately, there are some folks that are just unwilling to compromise.”

In a small meeting with lawmakers, Mr. Johnson “made it pretty clear that if we didn’t get this done in April, that it could be too late for Ukraine,” Representative Don Bacon, Republican of Nebraska, said.

Patience among politically vulnerable Republicans who wanted to cast a vote in support of Ukraine also was running out. Mr. Johnson told reporters on Thursday that he believed that if he did not act soon, G.O.P. lawmakers would try to circumvent him by using a procedure called a discharge petition to force a vote on the Senate bill.

“If the House did not do this better policy and process — allowing for amendments on the floor in the process tomorrow — we would have had to eat the Senate supplemental bill,” he said.

By the time he agreed to advance an aid package, he had to contend with a wave of anger from his political home — the right wing of the Republican conference — whose members accused Mr. Johnson of betraying them, and repeatedly urged him to change course.

In a heated scene in the back row of the House chamber last week, a group of hard-liners surrounded the speaker and urged him to tie the foreign aid package to stringent anti-immigration measures.

Mr. Johnson pushed back, replying that he would not have enough Republican support to advance such a measure. He told them he was not worried about his own speakership, but was seriously worried about Ukraine’s ability to hold off Russia without U.S. aid, according to a lawmaker on the floor for the discussion.

“My message to the speaker has been: ‘Stay true to the mission,’” Mr. Hill said. “You know what has to be done. And you know that you have to do the best you can, with the circumstances that we found ourselves in.”

The passage of the aid package unleashed a fresh wave of fury among hard-liners. Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, who is leading the charge to oust Mr. Johnson, promised that more Republicans would rally to her side.

“This is the third betrayal by Mike Johnson,” she fumed on the House steps minutes after the vote on Saturday, citing the government funding bills and legislation he advanced to renew an expiring warrantless surveillance law as his first two transgressions.

“A foreign war package that does nothing for America?” she continued. “It’s unbelievable. I’m thankful that America gets to see who this man is.”

For his part, Mr. Johnson skipped a victory lap on Saturday, never taking to the House floor to make the case for any of the aid bills — as speakers almost always do when matters of major import come before the chamber — and staying away as lawmakers cast their votes. After the legislation’s passage, he offered clipped remarks about the importance of the aid and chastised Democrats who had waved Ukrainian flags on the floor, noting that the only flags that should be displayed in the chamber were American ones.

But earlier in the week, Mr. Johnson had been more reflective, telling reporters that during tough times, he took comfort in an adage about former President John Quincy Adams’s time in Congress.

Another lawmaker asked Mr. Adams why he continued bringing up the same resolution to end slavery, only to see it fail each time. In Mr. Johnson’s telling, Mr. Adams replied: “Duty is ours. Results are God’s.”

“To me, that’s a very liberating thought,” Mr. Johnson said. “I’m going to do my duty, and the results are not ultimately up to me. I’m comfortable with that. We’ll see what happens, and we’ll lay the chips down on the table.”

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