How Johnson came to embrace Ukraine aid and defy his right flank

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Watch “Inside Politics Sunday with Manu Raju” at 8 a.m. ET and 11 a.m. ET on Speaker Johnson and the tension in the House GOP.

The day after Iran attacked Israel, House Speaker Mike Johnson was on the phone with a man who suddenly held the keys to his legislative agenda and potentially his own future: House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries.

In a phone call that has not been previously reported, Johnson said he was ready to act on foreign aid, even though that would enrage Republicans who did not support additional assistance to Ukraine and could potentially cost him his job, a source familiar with the conversation told CNN.

Jeffries pressed Johnson on how many Republicans he could deliver to support the aid for Ukraine, knowing House Democrats would have to bring the rest, the source added.

But when Johnson returned to Washington, DC, on Monday plotting his path forward, he was faced with an onslaught of attacks from many of his GOP colleagues.

The Louisiana Republican quickly began hearing an earful from hardline conservatives, coming to realize his risky gambit of holding separate votes on aid for Israel, Ukraine and Taiwan – and later tying those bills together in one package without including conservative demands over stricter border policies – could trigger a snap vote to remove him as speaker.

On Tuesday, Johnson sat in his office as members streamed in to voice their complaints and level their demands. By nighttime, he was wrestling how to proceed. Feeling the weight of his future and knowing history was watching him, Johnson, a devout Christian, turned to prayer.

“He was torn between trying to save his job and do the right thing,” House Foreign Affairs Chairman Michael McCaul, a top Ukraine advocate who was with Johnson the night before the legislation was released, told CNN. “He prayed over it.”

Johnson ultimately emerged Wednesday firm in his convictions that he was on the right path to make the most consequential decision of his political career by moving ahead with billions of dollars in foreign aid. The decision culminated in a tense scene on the House floor as Republican members traded insults and the speaker navigated his warring factions.

“Kick rocks, tubby,” Rep. Derrick Van Orden said to Rep. Matt Gaetz, the Florida Republican trying to derail Johnson’s plans.

In a message to his colleagues ahead of the release of legislative text, Johnson acknowledged the “significant member feedback and discussion.” And publicly, Johnson – who came into the job somewhat accidentally after former Speaker Kevin McCarthy was ousted in October – was even more blunt.

“My philosophy is do the right thing and let the chips fall where they may. If I operated out of fear over motion to vacate, I would never be able to do my job. Look, history judges us for what we do. This is a critical time right now,” Johnson said Wednesday.

“I can make a selfish decision and do something that is different, but I’m doing here what I believe to be the right thing. I think providing aid to Ukraine right now is critically important,” the speaker added.

The $95 billion aid package, which has the backing of President Joe Biden, ultimately passed Saturday with the support of 210 Democrats and 101 Republicans. It now heads to the Senate, which is expected to give final approval this week.

Despite the bipartisan vote, Johnson admonished Democrats who waved Ukrainian flags on the House floor  after the bill’s passage.

“We should only wave one flag on the House floor. And I think we know which flag that is,” Johnson said.

Democratic lawmakers wave Ukrainian flags after the House passed the Ukraine Security Supplemental Appropriations Act. - House TV
Democratic lawmakers wave Ukrainian flags after the House passed the Ukraine Security Supplemental Appropriations Act. - House TV

The speaker’s embrace of Ukraine aid represents a remarkable evolution for Johnson, who voted against funding for the country as a rank-and-file member. But almost immediately after securing the speaker’s gavel, sources say he began to hear directly from critical Republican national security voices – including Donald Trump’s former secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, who impressed upon him the urgent need to approve assistance for Ukraine in its fight against Russia’s invasion.

In March, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky lobbied the speaker directly. Within minutes of the House approving a new military aid package for Ukraine on Saturday, Zelensky offered his thanks to US lawmakers, and in particular to Johnson for his decision that “keeps history on the right track.”

And more recently, Johnson received a key intelligence briefing from CIA Director Bill Burns, who painted a picture of the dire situation on the battlefield in Ukraine and the global consequences of inaction, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the situation. The briefing left a lasting impression, and Johnson became increasingly convinced the fate of Western democracy was on his shoulders, sources close to him said.

Another factor that sources say weighed heavily on his decision-making: Johnson’s oldest son was recently accepted into the Naval Academy.

“To put it bluntly, I would rather send bullets to Ukraine than American boys. My son is going to begin in the Naval Academy this fall. This is a live-fire exercise for me as it is so many American families,” Johnson told reporters. “This is not a game, this is not a joke.”

If Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and her supporters make good on their threat to force a vote on ousting him as speaker, Johnson will almost certainly need to rely on Democrats to bail him out. Johnson maintains that he has not asked any Democrats for their help, but senior Republicans believe they will be able to count on support across the aisle to swiftly kill any motion to vacate the speaker’s chair – a feeling that may have bolstered Johnson’s confidence in pressing ahead with his plans.

It is still unclear whether Democrats will throw him a lifeline. But they have expressed a willingness to save Johnson, especially after he defied his right flank to move ahead with a foreign aid package that closely resembles a Senate-passed version.

“We’ll have to have the conversation before the House caucus. But first thing’s first, we still have to get the national security bills over the finish line,” Jeffries told reporters Friday.

Johnson drags his feet

Johnson did not come to his decision on how to handle foreign aid quickly.

In one of his first acts as speaker, Johnson put on the floor a bill that provided $14.3 billion in aid for Israel. The measure went nowhere in the Democratic-controlled Senate because it did not include money for Ukraine and would have enacted funding cuts to the Internal Revenue Service.

He remained resistant to moving on Ukraine funding, letting the Senate-passed foreign aid package sit idle for months – even when Biden and the other three top congressional leaders, including Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell, pressured him to act in a tense Oval Office meeting in February.

“Slow,” New York Rep. Gregory Meeks, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said when asked how Johnson handled Ukraine aid. “It should have been done months ago; should have just put the Senate bill on the floor. It would have gotten 300 votes.”

Many Republicans believe Johnson could have arrived at his position of supporting Ukraine aid much sooner, as the bipartisan support was inevitable.

“We have walked through broken glass to get a result, all of which could have been done before Christmas, but we’re bringing it out until nearly summer,” GOP Rep. Patrick McHenry of North Carolina told CNN. “That is an active choice that I disagree with.”

Part of Johnson’s reluctance: Trump, who has been critical of Ukraine aid and has the power to make or break any legislation – and his own speakership. In recent weeks, allies counseled Johnson to keep the former president in the loop on his potential foreign aid plans.

So Johnson trekked down to Mar-a-Lago last week for an unrelated news conference, at Johnson’s behest, where Trump expressed support not only for structuring some Ukraine aid as a loan but also for Johnson’s speakership.

“I stand by the speaker,” Trump said at the joint news conference.

The next day, Israel was attacked by Iranian missiles, fueling a new sense of urgency for Congress to act. Johnson knew he could no longer put off a decision, vowing over the weekend to put some form of Israel aid on the floor. But he was still wrestling with how to proceed.

‘The only way to stop a bully is to push back harder’

When Johnson finally announced his plans and the legislative text became public on Wednesday, he was facing an all-out revolt from his right flank.

“It’s tough to defend him right now,” said Arizona Rep. Eli Crane, one of the GOP members who voted to depose McCarthy.

Hardliners were furious that aid for Israel, Ukraine and Taiwan would be voted on separately but ultimately merged into a single package to be sent to the Senate. A separate vote on a border security bill, meant to placate conservatives, was also met with swift opposition.

“I don’t defend the performance of the speaker. I don’t defend the actions that have been taken. … I think this is a terrible mistake,” said GOP Rep. Bob Good of Virginia, who also supported McCarthy’s ouster, adding that Johnson “has failed us.”

Meanwhile, moderate Republicans were lobbying Johnson to raise the threshold required to trigger a motion to vacate the speaker’s chair to make it harder for any single member to use, essentially neutralizing the threat from Greene.

Johnson, a self-described “wartime speaker,” walked into a meeting with center-right Republicans who showed him overwhelming support, giving him multiple standing ovations.

“I think he needed it,” a GOP lawmaker in the closed-door meeting told CNN. “He certainly said that.”

But news of Johnson weighing a rule change on the motion to vacate sparked a fury on his right.

Thursday morning, Johnson found himself essentially pinned against the wall of the House floor as he was swarmed by right-wing lawmakers pressing him for assurances that he would not change the rules on the motion to vacate and making last-ditch efforts to change his course on foreign aid.

In one particularly bizarre moment, as the intense huddle was taking place, Democratic Rep. Al Green of Texas stood at the microphones at the front of the chamber for a floor speech and began citing the Pledge of Allegiance. Johnson and the group of hardliners stopped their conversation, turned to the American flag at the front of the room, put their hands over their hearts, and recited the pledge along with Green, according to a GOP member who witnessed the moment. They then turned back around and resumed arguing.

The huddle grew so heated, that at one point, Van Orden – a Johnson ally who decided to step in and provide backup for the speaker – told Gaetz to “kick rocks, tubby.”

“I’m a retired Navy Seal, and Navy Seals only go places with a swim buddy, and the speaker didn’t have a swim buddy,” Van Orden told CNN, recounting the exchange. “So he didn’t ask me to come over there. I went and was his swim buddy.”

“Matt Gaetz is a bully, Chip Roy’s a bully, Bob Good’s a bully, and the only way to stop a bully is to push back harder,” the Wisconsin Republican added.

Gaetz told reporters Van Orden was acting “unhinged” and called him “not particularly intelligent.”

Rep. Matt Gaetz speaks to reporters at the Capitol on April 18, 2024. - Kent Nishimura/Getty Images
Rep. Matt Gaetz speaks to reporters at the Capitol on April 18, 2024. - Kent Nishimura/Getty Images

But Democrats, too, were leery of rules changes to make it harder to kick out the speaker, according to multiple congressional sources. Jeffries had been supportive of making other rules changes to empower Democrats – something Republicans opposed. It was clear Johnson couldn’t get a deal with Democrats or the votes to change the threshold to call for such a vote.

Hours later, Johnson announced he would not move ahead with changing the motion to vacate tool, declaring there was not enough support in the House.

Democrats to the rescue

Late Thursday night, Democrats joined Republicans to deliver the votes needed to move the foreign aid package out of the House Rules Committee and onto the floor, a rare bipartisan move and something a minority party has never done in recent history.

That bipartisan spirit carried into Friday, when Democrats again crossed party lines to help Republicans clear another key legislative hurdle on the House floor.

But then Greene’s effort to oust Johnson grew by one, with GOP Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona announcing shortly after the vote that he was co-sponsoring the motion to vacate, becoming the third member to do so.

Still, Johnson’s foreign aid plan sailed over the finish line Saturday, leaning heavily on Democratic support – with less than half of the Republican conference voting for aid for Ukraine. Johnson has relied on a bipartisan coalition to pass every bill that has become law under his watch, and Democrats will likely be needed for other must-pass bills this year – and potentially, to save Johnson’s speakership.

Johnson has forcefully defended his plans, arguing his foreign aid package is a better product than the Senate-passed version, which some Republicans had been threatening to join with Democrats in forcing a floor vote on if the speaker didn’t act.

“I know there are critics of the legislation. I understand that. It is not a perfect piece of legislation. We’re not ensured that in a time of divided government and in a time where there are lots of different opinions,” Johnson said after the bills passed Saturday. “But there’s no question whatsoever that the House has made many strong improvements to the Senate bill, and the product that we’ve sent over there is much better.”

Veteran GOP Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma also argued Johnson’s dependence on Democrats is the reality of governing in a razor-thin majority.

“This place is probably operating right now more like the founders thought it would,” Cole told reporters.

But even if Johnson keeps his job, some hardliners are warning it’s politically untenable if he is propped up by Democrats.

“There’s probably a clear consensus that next Congress, he won’t be speaker,” said Rep. Warren Davidson, a Freedom Caucus member from Ohio.

CNN’s Haley Talbot and Morgan Rimmer contributed to this report.

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