Soon after the House Republican Conference voted to make Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.) the party’s nominee for speaker and some 12 hours before he would win that position on the House floor, a reporter asked Johnson about his efforts to subvert the 2020 election results.
Johnson shook his head; his colleagues enthusiastically booed the questioner. But this question of Johnson’s efforts to block Joe Biden’s 2021 inauguration quickly became a central part of discussions about his political career. In part, this was a function of Johnson’s remarkably short Hill résumé; there weren’t that many things to talk about. But, in part, it’s because there were obvious moments at which Johnson had been unusually vocal in bolstering Donald Trump’s push to retain power.
This attention on Johnson’s role in that push, though, risks overstating his importance, centering on one person a sweeping, pervasive set of arguments and tactics that Johnson may have simply advocated rather than initiated. By making Johnson the poster child for efforts to overturn the 2020 election, we run the risk of minimizing that pervasiveness and the important roles played by other people.
Politico and NBC News presented reports this week walking through Johnson’s role in the effort. They offer a useful timeline of Johnson’s actions — and a useful mechanism for affixing his actions in the broader universe of election denialism.
Johnson had embraced the idea that there was significant fraud from the outset. On Nov. 10, 2020, three days after the election was called for Biden, a radio host named Moon Griffon published an interview with Johnson in which the pair discussed the idea that illegal votes were cast. Asked to respond to an allegation about the Georgia results from the conspiracy-theory website Gateway Pundit, for example, Johnson said that there was “a lot of what we believe to be credible allegations of fraud and irregularity there.” He predicted that they would “uncover a lot of things that would raise a lot of eyebrows.”
A week later, Johnson was interviewed by another pair of radio hosts, at which point he embraced the idea that voting machines made by Dominion Voting Systems were dubious. Those machines, he said, used “a software system that is used all around the country that is suspect because it came from Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela.”
This idea would be elevated nationally when Trump attorney Sidney Powell made an expanded version of the allegation during a news conference hosted by the Republican National Committee on Nov. 19, 2020. But it was already out in the ether. Within days of the election being called for Biden, there was rampant discussion on social media of an alleged (and nonexistent) connection between Dominion and Venezuela.
This idea that Dominion was suspect was also rumbling around in top-level right-wing media circles at the time. On Nov. 7, 2020, Fox Business and Fox News host Maria Bartiromo documented a conversation she’d apparently had with Powell in which the Trump lawyer elevated allegations about Dominion.
Johnson’s willingness to embrace baseless allegations of fraud or claims about the voting machines is indicative of his eagerness to support Trump’s position. It may also — given how often he described speaking to Trump in that interview with Griffon — be an echo of rhetoric he heard from Trump or Trump’s team. There’s no reason to think, though, that Johnson was a central driver of this argument.
On Dec. 7, 2020, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton filed a federal lawsuit aimed at blocking the electors submitted by a number of states that backed Biden over Trump.
Paxton’s filing argued that those states “violate[d] the Electors Clause (or, in the alternative, the Fourteenth Amendment) by taking—or allowing—non-legislative actions to change the election rules that would govern the appointment of presidential electors.” In other words, despite the Constitution stating that state legislatures could determine the means of choosing electors to the electoral college, some states had election bureaus of secretaries of state that made it easier to cast a remote ballot during the coronavirus pandemic. This, Paxton argued, was a usurpation of the legislature’s power.
A number of other lawsuits filed at the state level had made related arguments, that, for example, changes to the process for voting in 2020 were violations of state constitutions.
Today I made arrangements to file an amicus brief in the Texas case now pending at the Supreme Court on behalf of House Republicans who are all deeply concerned about the integrity of our election system… pic.twitter.com/JQYg6Q9dgl
— Speaker Mike Johnson (@SpeakerJohnson) December 9, 2020
Johnson seized on the opportunity. He quickly mobilized his colleagues to sign an amicus brief, a document indicating outside support for the lawsuit. More than 120 House Republicans signed it, but it bears Johnson’s name and his signature is the first to appear.
He later described the effort to the New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner.
“The key point is that so much of it was done by other kinds of officials — governors, secretaries of state, judges—not the legislatures themselves,” he insisted. “The Framers were very careful about making that safeguard in the Constitution. And, when you deviate from that, it opens a Pandora’s box to this kind of chaos.”
This framing of the question as being about the constitutional power of legislatures in presidential elections, he insisted, was the question that “hangs over the election cycle this year.” (“It didn’t come up in the debates, but it was the underlying issue,” Chotiner replied, pretty clearly being sarcastic. “It was the underlying issue,” Johnson agreed.)
The Supreme Court didn’t buy Paxton’s argument; the suit was DOA. Later reporting suggested that Paxton had picked up a document and argument that originated with Trump’s own legal team. Trump attorney John Eastman would later make a similar argument the centerpiece of his memo advocating the flat rejection of electors on Jan. 6, 2021.
Johnson’s organizing effort was successful. His legal effort — tangential to the case even if the lawsuit had been taken up by the court — was not.
Politico’s review of Johnson’s efforts on Trump’s behalf begins with a Jan. 5, 2021, meeting of members of the House. There, Johnson offered his constitutional argument and managed to corral three dozen colleagues into signing a statement framing their objections to Biden electors in that way. This prompted the New York Times to describe Johnson as “the most important architect of the Electoral College objections.”
Perhaps. But he was by no means the only architect.
More than a month before the Jan. 5, 2021, meeting, Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) had announced his intent to object to Biden electors on Jan. 6. The Pennsylvania Republican Party began advocating a similar strategy soon afterward. (Pennsylvania’s electors would be one of two states that were a focus of Republican objections.) By Dec. 10, 2020, The Washington Post reported that Trump’s allies were pressuring legislators to offer objections. Johnson is mentioned in the article — for his simultaneous push to get signatories on his amicus brief.
“We should still try to figure out exactly what took place here,” Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) told CNN in an article published Dec. 7, 2020. “And as I said that includes, I think, debates on the House floor — potentially on January 6.”
By the end of December, it was already clear that a number of representatives would object to the electors submitted Jan. 6. The question turned to the other side of Capitol Hill; without a senator joining the objection, the effort to derail electors would fail. Then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) struggled to ensure that no one did. But on Dec. 30, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) released a statement announcing that he would object to the electors from Pennsylvania.
One reason? Because the state had changed its rules for voting. (They’d done so before the pandemic and through the Republican-led legislature.)
In the end, well over 100 Republicans objected to electors from Arizona, Pennsylvania or both. Those aligning with Johnson’s effort represented a relatively modest minority of the total. The Times reported that “about three-quarters relied on [Johnson’s] arguments” in defending their opposition. But those arguments were also Paxton’s, and it seems likely that the arguments were the rationalization for their votes to object rather than the reason for those votes.
None of this is to say that Johnson wasn’t a fervent actor in the post-2020 moment, or that he wasn’t closely aligned or working in concert with Trump and his team. It certainly isn’t to suggest that having someone second in line to the presidency who is willing to embrace baseless claims — or, worse, to throw out valid votes on a technicality — doesn’t raise problematic questions.
It is, instead, to say that Johnson was not a linchpin of the effort to block the will of voters in the 2020 election. He is in a position of power and prominence now, but, back then, he was simply part of a wide-ranging and ceaseless effort involving a huge number of people — many of whom presented more danger to democracy than the new speaker of the House.