Inside Mike Johnson's Relationship With Joe Biden....
Inside the White House Situation Room, new House Speaker Mike Johnson made clear to Biden administration officials his demands when it came to foreign assistance: Aid to Israel for its war against Hamas would have to be separated out from support for Ukraine, defending itself from a Russian invasion now more than 20 months long.
Immediately, Johnson faced pushback, according to people with knowledge of the Oct. 26 briefing. Democratic lawmakers in attendance, as well as national security adviser Jake Sullivan and White House budget director Shalanda Young — spelled out to Johnson their deep opposition to splitting up the aid, said the people, who were granted anonymity to discuss a private meeting.
Even some House Republicans in the room signaled they disagreed with the new speaker’s stance.
“He was listening to a degree, but he was also bringing forth many of the MAGA Republican viewpoints and not from a perspective of bringing Congress together to move us forward in a better direction,” said Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., referring to former President Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan. Meeks attended the White House briefing.
That confrontation, just 24 hours after Johnson catapulted into the speakership, showed the Republican leader’s willingness to challenge well-established White House expectations and even defy members of his own party, both in public and in private. It also started to telegraph to the administration and congressional Democrats how he might govern.
A Challenging Start for Speaker Johnson
Mike Johnson's ascension to the role of House Speaker has been marked by challenging and contentious interactions with the Biden administration. In a recent meeting at the White House Situation Room, Johnson made his demands clear, calling for the separation of foreign assistance to Israel for its conflict with Hamas and support for Ukraine's defense against Russia's ongoing invasion. This move faced immediate pushback from Democratic lawmakers, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, and White House Budget Director Shalanda Young.
Democratic Representative Gregory Meeks expressed his concern, stating that Johnson appeared to be representing the MAGA Republican viewpoints rather than focusing on bringing Congress together for the common good. This confrontation, which occurred just 24 hours after Johnson assumed the role of Speaker, highlighted his willingness to challenge established White House expectations, even when facing disagreement from members of his own party.
Unconventional Approach to Foreign Assistance
One of the key points of contention has been Johnson's approach to foreign assistance, particularly regarding aid to Israel. The administration was surprised by his decision to link emergency foreign assistance with offsetting cuts, a rarely taken step. Additionally, in a sharply partisan move, Johnson chose to fund aid using IRS resources intended to combat tax evasion.
This legislation passed the House with a 226-196 vote, with 12 Democrats joining Republicans in support. White House aides had worked diligently to limit Democratic defections by emphasizing President Joe Biden's policy objections and the political importance of standing with Israel during the bill's final hours.
Despite the criticism, Johnson defended his position, asserting that the debate should revolve around whether hiring more IRS agents is more important than supporting Israel in its current situation. He maintained that he did not attach this provision for political purposes.
White House's Approach and Curiosity
The White House has approached Speaker Johnson with a sense of curiosity, despite initial skepticism. They found reasons for encouragement, particularly in Johnson's unexpected support for aiding Ukraine, considering his past votes against such funding.
While some Democrats view Johnson as a useful political foil, the White House has been cautious not to overtly antagonize him, deferring most campaign-style attacks on his background and positions to the party's political committees.
The White House's Get-to-Know-You Process
The White House's effort to get to know Speaker Johnson is ongoing. Jeff Zients, the White House chief of staff, and presidential counselor Steve Ricchetti held a cordial meeting with Johnson when President Biden met him for the first time. Johnson was also invited to the Situation Room, where he was informed that he could bring a national security aide into the classified session, a prerogative granted to the Speaker of the House.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre emphasized President Biden's desire to work in good faith with Speaker Johnson to deliver for the American people. Johnson, a low-profile conservative with limited political leadership experience, has starkly different political backgrounds from President Biden.
Johnson's Background and Positions
Speaker Johnson, a 51-year-old conservative, was first elected to Congress in 2016 and is known for his hard-right positions. His support for former President Donald Trump's efforts to overturn the 2020 election results was notable, as he rallied other lawmakers to sign a letter of support for unsuccessful legal challenges. Before entering politics, Johnson was a lawyer specializing in constitutional issues.
In his rationale for seeking the Speaker position, Johnson criticized President Biden's leadership and expressed concerns about the president's cognitive abilities. This has led to occasional public disagreements and an ongoing tension between Johnson and the White House.
A Unique Counterpoint to the Administration
Johnson's direct and straightforward demeanor is seen as one of his strengths by his allies. They believe that he won't play political games and that his positions will be clear to all. While some find his style contrasting to President Biden's emphasis on personal relationships and bipartisanship, others appreciate his approach, stating that he is kind, compassionate, and polite.
Speaker Mike Johnson's early days in his new role have been marked by challenges and disagreements with the Biden administration. His approach to foreign assistance and the linkage of aid to Israel with offsetting cuts has caused significant controversy. However, Johnson remains resolute in his positions, emphasizing the importance of supporting Israel and questioning the allocation of resources for hiring more IRS agents.
The White House continues to cautiously engage with Speaker Johnson, looking for opportunities to work together in the best interest of the American people. Johnson's direct and straightforward style is viewed as a unique counterpoint to the administration, and while his approach may differ from President Biden's, it is expected to shape his tenure as Speaker. As the political landscape evolves, the interactions between Speaker Johnson and the White House are likely to be a key focus of attention.