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Burning Down the House
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Burning Down the House

The end of Mike Johnson?

House Speaker Mike Johnson attends a press conference at the U.S. Capitol on April 16, 2024, accompanied by Majority Leader Steve Scalise. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

For months, House Republicans who support Ukraine have hinted that extraordinary measures might be needed to force a vote if Speaker Mike Johnson won’t put a new aid bill on the floor. All it would take to pass the multi-state foreign aid package approved by the Senate, they’ve warned, is a handful of hawkish conservatives to join with Democrats on a discharge petition.

Rep. Thomas Massie, a libertarian Republican and opponent of Ukraine funding, was indignant when presented with that scenario in February. “It’s violence against the speaker,” he said at the time.

Two months later, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene is threatening to call a vote to oust Johnson if he proceeds with his new plan for a standalone Ukraine bill. She had no allies in that effort—until Tuesday morning, when a Republican colleague threw his support to her.

Rep. Thomas Massie has chosen violence.

“You’re not going to be the speaker much longer,” he reportedly warned Johnson during a conference meeting. Greene hasn’t yet called a vote on the motion to vacate she recently introduced as I write this but Axios is reporting that Republican leaders expect it within the next 48 hours.

Two Republican votes to topple the speaker doesn’t sound like much … until you remember that, as of this coming Friday, the GOP will be down to a one-vote margin in the chamber. If Democrats vote unanimously to oust Johnson, Greene and Massie would be enough to make a majority with them and decapitate the House leadership.

Again.

In January I wondered if the best thing Johnson could do to teach his ungovernable conference a lesson about dysfunction would be to resign, as the humiliation of a second leadership vacuum in the span of six months might finally persuade House Republicans to stop organizing coups against their own speakers. I stress: Might. You know how these people are; coup plots and insurrections are sort of their thing.

Johnson made clear on Tuesday that he will not be resigning:

Today I find myself thinking that his resignation isn’t necessary after all. Enough lessons may have been learned already from this rolling disaster that the gavel will remain in Johnson’s hand with everyone involved benefiting from the ordeal—Republicans, Democrats, even the Greene-Massie brigade.


Kevin McCarthy lost his speakership because he alienated three important blocs. One was House Democrats, the second was renegade populists, and the third was Donald Trump, a bloc unto himself.

House Democrats grew to despise McCarthy as the symbol of a pre-Trump establishment Republican who’d sold his soul for favor with his party’s new center of power. He criticized Trump after January 6, then turned around and paid tribute to him at Mar-a-Lago. He offered himself as the smiling, respectable face of the MAGA-led GOP while forming alliances with the likes of Greene. When the time came for him to fulfill his dream of becoming speaker, he made numerous concessions to populists—including, fatefully, allowing any single member to bring a motion to oust him from the job—for the sake of satisfying his ambition.

When given the chance to save him, Democrats declined. He had made his bed by courting the worst elements of his party. Now it was time for him to lie in it.

The House Republicans who voted to oust McCarthy had their own reasons for doing so. Rep. Matt Gaetz seems to have borne him a personal grudge but the other seven saw an opportunity to burnish their populist credentials on the cheap by moving against a leader whom the right’s populist activist class had never trusted. Not only was McCarthy a veteran of the “globalist” Paul Ryan-era House GOP, he had seemed a bit too eager to squander the House GOP’s leverage over matters like the debt ceiling by cutting deals with Joe Biden. Surely the Republican majority could find a speaker with more spine than him.

Trump maintained a love-hate relationship with McCarthy that tipped toward hatred by the end. He opted not to lobby House Republicans on the speaker’s behalf after Gaetz brought his motion to vacate; when McCarthy phoned Trump to ask why, the former president reportedly ticked through a list of grievances. McCarthy hadn’t endorsed him during the Republican presidential primary or moved to “expunge” his two House impeachments, he complained. The fact that McCarthy hadn’t clearly said that Trump was the GOP’s strongest possible nominee bothered him as well.

McCarthy ended up winning the support of nearly all House Republicans on Gaetz’s motion to vacate. But in a closely divided chamber, without the aforementioned three blocs, it wasn’t enough. Too many people were glad to see him go.

Tell me: Who’ll be glad to see Mike Johnson go?

Not Donald Trump. When Johnson paid his own tribute at Mar-a-Lago last week, he received this valuable soundbite as thanks:

Johnson endorsed Trump in November, a few weeks after becoming speaker and in the home stretch of the primary campaign. Trump probably hasn’t forgotten. I suspect he also hasn’t forgotten that Johnson was a loyal soldier for his coup attempt following the 2020 election. In Donald Trump’s moral universe, a Republican’s qualifications to lead have nothing to do with his policy positions and everything to do with his loyalty to Trump himself. Johnson’s given him no reason to doubt his qualifications.

House Republicans, including the type of populists who moved against McCarthy, aren’t keen to see Johnson go either. Timing is everything here.

The 2024 election was still more than a year away when McCarthy was ousted, ample time—in theory—for voters to forget how disruptive and internecine the GOP’s leadership vacuum last year became. A second such crisis six months out from Election Day would refresh their memories, which I assume is also a factor in Trump’s current support for Johnson. He’s keen to ease the minds of centrist voters who worry about the chaos that a second presidential term for him might bring. Another mess in the House would undercut that.

It also matters, of course, that this would be the second defenestration of a Republican leader in a six-month span when there had been zero such ousters in all of American history before. As Oscar Wilde might have said, to lose one speaker may be regarded as a misfortune but to lose two looks like carelessness. “Carelessness” is a bad brand for a narrow majority whose entire membership is set to face voters in November.

Tell ‘em, governor:

Even Republican voters might be tiring of the dysfunction. We underestimate at our peril the ability of populist media to turn any given GOP official into a villain and “traitor,” but as of the end of March the GOP base seemed to like Mike Johnson just fine. His favorable rating among Republicans stood at 38-16, according to Morning Consult, a slight improvement over his initial ratings as speaker last November. Contrast that with Matt Gaetz’s approval among Florida Republicans after McCarthy’s removal last year, barely breaking even at 36.6-36.3. The right’s appetite for chaos is vast, but maybe not quite insatiable.

No wonder Massie was booed at Tuesday morning’s conference meeting when he announced he would support Greene’s motion to oust Johnson.

What about House Democrats, though? Shouldn’t they want to see Johnson go, if only for the lulz?

It’s complicated.


There is a strong “lulz” argument for Democrats to join Greene and Massie in dumping Johnson. If the House majority is so stupid as to hand the minority not one but two invitations to embarrass them by removing their leader, it’s political malpractice for that minority not to accept, no?

For the same reason that most House Republicans don’t want to see Johnson go, House Democrats should want to make it happen. The speaker’s departure would be tantamount to erecting a 50-foot blazing neon sign that reads “THE GOP CAN’T GOVERN.”

Besides, if Democrats disliked Kevin McCarthy for being too comfortable with Donald Trump and his brand of politics, they should detest Mike Johnson for scheming to stop the certification of Joe Biden’s victory on January 6, 2021. They owe him for that; now’s their chance to repay him.

But.

As disgraceful as Johnson’s actions after the last election were, in some ways his political trajectory is the opposite of McCarthy’s. McCarthy was the establishmentarian who repositioned opportunistically as a populist, Johnson is a populist who, as speaker, has repositioned as a proto-establishmentarian. (Or, to borrow a term, a MAGA “pragmatist.”) He made a deal with Joe Biden and Chuck Schumer to avert a government shutdown; he successfully lobbied his conference to renew federal authority to conduct warrantless surveillance overseas; now he’s pushing a funding bill for Ukraine despite opposition from right-wing nationalists.

And it’s not just that he’s done those things. It’s how he’s done them.

Over and over, more than 10 times in his first five months as speaker, Johnson opted to diminish the power of his own Republican majority by moving bills under the procedural tactic known as “suspension of the rules.” Knowing that the House’s populist-dominated Rules Committee would block certain legislation before it reached the floor, Johnson chose to bypass the committee and advance that legislation by invoking “suspension,” which requires the support of two-thirds of the House for passage. Massie is a member of the Rules Committee; each use of “suspension” nullifies his power to obstruct bills he opposes, which explains some of his antipathy to Johnson.

An extraordinary number of major bills have passed this year via suspension—with Democrats providing most of the two-thirds majority needed. If Ukraine aid passes, it too might rely on “suspension” (or unusual Democratic support within the Rules Committee), again with most of the votes on the floor destined to come from Hakeem Jeffries’ caucus.

Forced to choose between letting MAGA Republicans derail important legislation and passing that legislation with a bipartisan supermajority composed mostly of Democrats, Johnson has consistently and remarkably chosen the latter. So why would House Democrats want to oust him, especially given the risk that he’d be replaced by a Steve Scalise or Jim Jordan?

Go figure that some of them don’t:

Moskowitz is a Democrat from Florida. Tom Suozzi, a Democrat from New York, is also prepared to vote to keep Johnson as speaker. Many other members of the party may follow suit, especially if the Ukraine package Johnson is preparing is to liberals’ liking.

The fact that a figure as loathsome as Greene is his chief antagonist in this standoff might give him a boost among Democrats as well. So neck-deep in Russian propaganda is she that she recently described the prospect of more U.S. military aid to Kyiv as “the most repulsive, disgusting thing happening” in Washington. To hand her a win by backing her motion to vacate at a moment when Johnson is struggling to do the right thing would be unconscionable for liberal Ukraine supporters despite the partisan benefit to Democrats in seeing Johnson toppled. 

As for the neon sign I described earlier, Democrats already put up a version of it when they helped Gaetz get rid of McCarthy. It might not have been 50 feet tall, as toppling one speaker isn’t as screamingly dysfunctional as toppling two would be. But removing McCarthy and attempting to remove Johnson will nonetheless be an impressive signal from Republicans to swing voters that they still can’t get their act together in the public interest.

If that’s not enough to persuade Democrats to protect Johnson as speaker, there’s also the fact that his continued tenure is destined to cause further Republican infighting. If he’s ousted, there’s a chance the conference will replace him with someone like Scalise, whom all factions of the GOP might grudgingly tolerate for the rest of the year. Whereas if Johnson stays thanks to Democratic help, the bipartisan nature of his support will create a rift on the right that bedevils the majority for the rest of the term. Each time going forward that he disappoints populists by playing to the center on an important vote, the Greenes and Massies and their enablers in right-wing media will screech that he’s “the Democrats’ speaker,” a man who holds the gavel only at the sufferance of hated liberals.

If you like the idea of House Republicans brawling with each other for the next eight months over whether the head of the conference is a well-meaning guy in an impossible job or a “uniparty” sellout in hock to globalists, then Mike Johnson is the speaker for you. Democrats should like that idea.

They wouldn’t even have to vote for him as speaker, technically. They could simply join with the majority of House Republicans in voting to table Greene’s motion to vacate after it’s introduced. Or, if the motion reaches the floor, they could vote “present” and allow the large majority of pro-Johnson Republicans to outvote the Greene/Massie contingent.


In short, everyone wins if Mike Johnson hangs on as speaker. But Democrats win even if he doesn’t.

Trump wins because he has a toady in charge of the House who’s doing his best to stay on the right side of the American majority and whose survival as speaker Trump can claim credit for, per his recent “endorsement” at Mar-a-Lago.

Normie House Republicans win because they desperately want to avoid further leadership chaos in an election year and because Johnson’s moves to sideline the populist wing are advancing traditional Republican priorities, like foreign military aid and the FISA rule’s reauthorization.

The populists win because Johnson’s continued survival gives them a hate object against whom to rally their grassroots supporters. Figures like Greene and Massie aren’t built to govern, they’re built to rail against the corruption of the establishment. So long as an enemy like Johnson is in charge, they get to fight that establishment despite the fact that a member of their own party is running it.

And Democrats win for all sorts of reasons. Under Johnson, rule-by-suspension would continue and probably grow more normalized than it already is, with the left and normie right forging a de facto governing House majority while the MAGA faction cultivates its ideological purity by opposing everything. Ukraine aid will pass, at long last. And tensions within the GOP will grow more toxic—eventually, perhaps, to the point where a few more Republicans end up resigning in disgust, creating a (probably temporary) House majority for Democrats and making Jeffries speaker.

On the other hand, if Johnson is ousted with Democratic help and another leadership vacuum opens, then … Democrats also win, as Republican dysfunction would collapse into total disrepair.

The only potential loser I can see in all this is, er, the nation of Ukraine. If Democrats refuse to support Johnson against Greene’s coup plot, forcing him to survive with Republican votes alone, he may decide he has no choice but to appease the Greenes and Massies by yanking the Ukraine aid bill. Normie Republicans could theoretically apply counterpressure at that point by threatening to bring their own motion to vacate if he doesn’t put Ukraine aid on the floor, but that’s not the way mainstream Republicans operate. They refuse to take hostages the way populists do.

And because they refuse, it’s the populists who ultimately have the leverage.

So let’s hope Johnson delivers a Ukraine package that hawks can be excited about and that those hawks—right and left—deliver the votes he needs to defeat Greene’s challenge. That’s the only way in which this fiasco doesn’t end up as a debacle for America abroad.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.