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Trump gives support to embattled Speaker Mike Johnson at pivotal Mar-a-Lago meet

Posted at 6:05 AM, Apr 12, 2024

Donald Trump offered a political lifeline Friday to House Speaker Mike Johnson, saying the beleaguered GOP leader is doing a "very good job," and tamping down the far-right forces led by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene trying to oust him from office.

Trump and Johnson appeared side-by-side at the ex-president's Mar-a-Lago club, a rite of passage for the new House leader as he positions himself, and his GOP majority, side-by-side with the indicted Republican Party leader ahead of of the November election.

"I stand with the speaker," Trump said at an evening press conference at his gilded private club.

Trump said he thinks Johnson, of Louisiana, is "doing a very good job – he's doing about as good as you're going to do."

"We're getting along very well with the speaker — and I get along very well with Marjorie," Trump said. But he also the efforts to oust the speaker "unfortunate,” saying there are "much bigger problems" right now.

The two appeared for a joint announcement on new legislation to require proof of citizenship for voting, but the trip itself is significant for both. Johnson needed Trump to temper hard-line threats to evict him from office. And Trump benefits from the imprimatur of official Washington dashing to Florida to embrace his comeback bid for the White House and his tangled election lies.

"It is the symbolism," said Charlie Sykes, a conservative commentator and frequent Trump critic.

"There was a time when the Speaker of the House of Representatives was a dominant figure in American politics," he said. "Look where we are now, where he comes hat in hand to Mar-a-Lago."

The trip shows the fragility of the speaker’s grip on the gavel, just six months on the job, but also his evolving grasp of the politics of the Trump era as the Republicans in Congress align with the "Make America Great Again" movement powering the former president's reelection bid.

Trump and Johnson discussed a topic both have embraced as a priority campaign strategy — pummeling President Joe Biden with alarmist language over what Republicans claim is a "migrant invasion."

By linking the surge of migrants coming to the U.S. with the upcoming election, Trump and Johnson want to prevent noncitizens from voting — even though it’s already a federal felony for a noncitizen to cast a ballot in a federal election.

In a background paper sent ahead of the meeting, they echoed language from the racist great replacement conspiracy theory to suggest that Biden and Democrats are engaging in what Trump's campaign called "a willful and brazen attempt to import millions of new voters.”

Johnson said the House Republicans would present new legislation requiring proof of citizenship for elections.

Having the House speaker and the presidential contender align for the campaign season is not in itself surprising or even unexpected.

But in the Trump era, the sojourns by Republican leaders to his private club in Palm Beach, Florida, have become defining moments, underscoring the lopsided partnership as the former president commandeers the party in sometimes humiliating displays of power.

Such was the case when Kevin McCarthy, then the House GOP leader, trekked to Mar-a-Lago after having been critical of the defeated president after the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol. A cheery photo was posted afterward, a sign of their mending relationship.

Johnson proposed the idea of coming to Mar-a-Lago weeks before Greene filed her motion to vacate him from the speaker's office, just as another group of hardliners had ousted McCarthy. The visit comes just days before the former president’s criminal trial on hush money charges gets underway next week in New York City.

The speaker's own political livelihood depends on support — or at least not opposition — from the "Make America Great Again" Republicans who are aligned with Trump but creating much of the House dysfunction that has ground work to a halt.

Johnson of Louisiana commands the narrowest majority in modern times and a single quip from the former president can derail legislation. He was once a Trump skeptic, but the two men now talk frequently, including earlier this week.

"I think it's an emerging relationship," said Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont., who served as interior secretary in the Trump administration.

Even still, Trump urged Republicans to "kill" a national security surveillance bill that Johnson had personally worked to pass, contributing to a sudden defeat that sent the House spiraling this week into crisis. The legislation was approved Friday in a do-over but only after Johnson provided his own vote — a rarity for speakers who rarely vote in the chamber — before the speaker departed for Florida.

"I can't imagine President Trump being very happy about that," said Greene.

Johnson understands he needs Trump's backing to conduct almost any business in the House — including his next big priority, providing U.S. aid to Ukraine to fight Russia’s invasion.

In a daring move, the speaker is working both sides to help Ukraine, talking directly to the White House on the national security package that is at risk of collapse with Trump's opposition. Greene is warning of a snap vote to oust Johnson from leadership if he allows any U.S. assistance to flow to the overseas ally.

On the issue of election integrity, though, Johnson, who led one of the main legal challenges to the 2020 election won by Joe Biden, appears to be more aligned with Trump.

Trump continues to insist the 2020 election was marred by fraud, even though no evidence has emerged in the last four years to support his claims and every state in the nation certified their results as valid.

As he runs to reclaim the White House, Trump has essentially taken over the Republican National Committee, turning the campaign apparatus toward his priorities. He supported Michael Whatley to lead the RNC, which created a new “Election Integrity Division” and says it is working to hire thousands of lawyers across the country.

At Friday's event, they are expected to promote ideas to prevent noncitizens from voting, even though it’s already a federal felony and there’s no evidence of significant numbers of immigrants violating that law by casting illegal ballots.

Some liberal cities like San Francisco have begun to allow noncitizens to vote in a few local elections, leading Republicans to argue there need to be even more laws forbidding it in federal elections.

With his majority shrinking due to early retirements and departures, Johnson is operating as a speaker in name only. But the more he depends on Democrats to provide the votes needed to pass substantial legislation, including last month's bills to keep the government from shutting down, the deeper trouble he courts from the MAGA Republicans.

Tired of the infighting and wary of another dragged-out brawl like the monthlong slugfest to replace McCarthy, few Republicans are backing Greene's effort to remove Johnson, for now.

"Marjorie's actions are horrific," said Rep. Max Miller, R-Ohio, a former Trump administration official. "They are childish. They are petulant. They have no place here in this body."

But if Trump signals otherwise, that could all change.

Democratic Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the speaker emeritus, said this week on "The Axe Files" podcast: "The Republicans wanted Donald Trump for speaker. And they got him."