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Politico
Politico
Politics
Kyle Cheney and Nicholas Wu

'I've prayed for each of you': How Mike Johnson led a campaign of election denial

House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) departs a vote at the U.S. Capitol on Oct. 25, 2023. | Francis Chung/POLITICO

One day before a mob bludgeoned its way into the Capitol, Rep. Mike Johnson huddled with colleagues in a closed-door meeting about Congress’ task on Jan. 6, 2021.

A relatively junior House Republican at the time, Johnson was nevertheless the leading voice in support of a fateful position: that the GOP should rally around Donald Trump and object to counting electoral votes submitted by at least a handful of states won by Joe Biden.

“This is a very weighty decision. All of us have prayed for God's discernment. I know I've prayed for each of you individually,” Johnson said at the meeting, according to a record of his comments obtained by POLITICO, before urging his fellow Republicans to join him in opposing the results.

A review of the chaotic weeks between Trump’s defeat at the polls on Nov. 3, 2020, and the Jan. 6 Capitol attack shows that Johnson led the way in shaping legal arguments that became gospel among GOP lawmakers who sought to derail Biden’s path to the White House — even after all but the most extreme options had elapsed.

As Trump’s legal challenges faltered, Johnson consistently spread a singular message: It’s not over yet. And when Texas filed a last-ditch lawsuit against four states on Dec. 8, 2020, seeking to invalidate their presidential election results and throw out millions of ballots, Johnson quickly revealed he would be helming an effort to support it with a brief signed by members of Congress.

Throughout that period, Johnson was routinely in touch with Trump, even more so than many of his more recognizable colleagues.

Some of Johnson’s vocal opponents at the Jan. 5, 2021, closed-door meeting were Reps. Chip Roy (R-Texas) and Don Bacon (R-Neb.), who warned Johnson’s plan would lead to a constitutional and political catastrophe.

“Let us not turn the last firewall for liberty we have remaining on its head in a bit of populist rage for political expediency,” Roy said at the time, according to the record.

Nearly three years later, on Wednesday afternoon, Roy and Bacon cast two of the unanimous House GOP votes to make Johnson the next speaker.

Johnson declined to comment Wednesday when asked about his involvement in events leading up to Jan. 6, telling reporters that “we will talk about all these things in detail” and added: “I've covered it many times over the last couple of years.” After his election as speaker, Johnson also did not respond to shouted questions from reporters about the 2020 election.

Johnson’s rise to the speakership in some ways shows that colleagues like Roy, Bacon and Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.) — who sharply rejected Johnson’s arguments at the time — have made peace with Johnson’s role in the election-objection effort and the national reckoning that has ensued.

Buck opposed two other candidates for speaker, Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.) and Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), in part because they had refused to accept the results of the 2020 election, but he made an exception for Johnson.

Buck told reporters Wednesday that Johnson’s “amicus brief is fundamentally different than trying to overturn something on the floor.” Going through the courts was “absolutely appropriate,” according to Buck, who noted that “most of the conference voted to decertify the election.”

Buck didn’t acknowledge Johnson’s role in advocating for the objections in the conference, including during the impassioned Jan. 5 conference meeting.

Until Johnson’s unlikely bid for the speakership, his involvement in Trump’s bid to remain in power despite losing the 2020 election had largely avoided attention, overshadowed by his more visible colleagues — like Reps. Scott Perry (R-Pa.), Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and Jordan — who more actively strategized with the outgoing president. Johnson wasn’t among the six Republican lawmakers subpoenaed by the Jan. 6 select committee, and he earned just one passing mention in its final report.

But a review of his closed-door comments and public statements at the time reveal the newly elected speaker as a ubiquitous contact for Trump at key moments, within days of the former president’s defeat at the polls and throughout his increasingly desperate effort to subvert the 2020 election.

‘President Trump called me’

“I have just called President Trump to say this: ‘Stay strong and keep fighting, sir! The nation is depending upon your resolve. We must exhaust every available legal remedy to restore Americans' trust in the fairness of our election system,’” Johnson tweeted on Nov. 7, 2020, the day pollsters and media outlets largely called the race for Biden.

A day later, Johnson and Trump spoke again. “President Trump called me last night.” Johnson tweeted on Nov. 9, “and I was encouraged to hear his continued resolve to ensure that every LEGAL vote gets properly counted and that all instances of fraud and illegality are investigated and prosecuted.”

In an interview that day with Lafayette, La.-based host Moon Griffon, Johnson expanded on his call with Trump and made clear that they already had their eye on a Supreme Court showdown over the election that wouldn’t materialize for another four weeks. Trump, he said, relayed that he was encouraged by Justice Samuel Alito’s order for Pennsylvania to segregate late-arriving absentee ballots in case they were ultimately disqualified as invalid.

“That’s a good sign,” Johnson said at the time. “I think there’s at least five justices on the court that will do the right thing.”

Johnson appeared intimately familiar with Trump and his campaign’s legal strategy, predicting the filing of at least 10 lawsuits in the coming days. The lawmaker added hopes that one of them wound up on a “rocket docket” to the high court. He revealed that his views on election fraud were in many ways shaped by the 1996 Senate race between Democrat Mary Landrieu and Republican Woody Jenkins.

“I was a young pup law student at the time, but I was kind of carrying around everyone’s briefcases trying to help,” Johnson said, adding that despite evidence of fraud, Senate Democrats “buried it all.”

By Nov. 17, 2020, Johnson told two Louisiana radio hosts that the election was not over — and that Trump didn’t think so either. “I don’t concede anything,” he said. “I’ve talked to the president in the last few days, and he is still dug in on this.”

Amplifying Dominion falsehoods

Johnson then ran through a litany of allegations of election law changes in key states that he said were unconstitutional — and then he lent credence to a discredited claim of election fraud: “The allegation about these voting machines, some of them being rigged with the software by Dominion — look, there’s a lot of merit to that.”

In the same interview, Johnson — who as speaker will be privy to the nation’s most sensitive intelligence secrets — returned to the Dominion matter. He embraced the false description of Dominion machines as “a software system that is used all around the country that is suspect because it came from Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela.”

When the hosts pressed Johnson on Trump’s losses in court, the Louisianan noted that there were still a dozen suits pending but it was an “uphill climb.” Later that day, House Republicans elected Johnson as the vice chair of the GOP conference.

When Johnson joined the effort to support Texas’ fight at the Supreme Court, he said Trump had been in touch with him yet again.

“President Trump called me this morning to let me know how much he appreciates the amicus brief we are filing on behalf of Members of Congress,” Johnson tweeted the next day.

His effort, which garnered 126 signatures including that of then-GOP leader Kevin McCarthy, was the first signal that more than half of the Republican conference was prepared to toss the election results. It tracked closely with the approximately 140 members who supported challenges to the results on the floor of Congress on Jan. 6, both before the mob attack and after the riot.

When the Supreme Court voted 7-2 to reject Texas’ lawsuit, contending that the state lacked standing to sue over the issue, Johnson repeatedly expressed his dismay. But he returned to his refrain.

“No one knows yet how this will play out,” Johnson said in a Dec. 14 radio interview the morning of the Electoral College vote. He noted that Congress still had the last word on whether to accept Biden’s electors on Jan. 6, 2021.

The effect on his speakership

Despite Johnson and his allies’ reticence to discuss the issue, it was among the first things on Democrats’ minds when asked Wednesday morning about the Johnson speakership.

Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), a former member of the select panel investigating the Capitol attack, quipped that Johnson was an “insurrectionist esquire.”

“His arguments are obviously more sophisticated than those of Donald Trump, but it's the same essential authoritarianism,” he said.

Another former Jan. 6 panel member, Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.), said Johnson wasn’t as much of an “existential threat” to democracy, in his view, as Jordan — but argued that Johnson had given GOP lawmakers a “safe place.”

On the morning of Jan. 6, 2021, the day after Johnson’s contentious remarks at the conference meeting, he led a statement with 36 colleagues, defending their decision to lodge objections to electoral votes from multiple states.

“Our extraordinary republic has endured for nearly two and a half centuries based on the consent of the governed,” he wrote. “That consent is grounded in the confidence of our people in the legitimacy of our institutions of government. Among our most fundamental institutions is the system of free and fair elections we rely upon, and any erosion in that foundation jeopardizes the stability of our republic.”

Daniella Diaz and Christine Mui contributed to this report.

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