Updated May 15, 2024 - Politics & Policy

House Democrats might not save Speaker Johnson next time

House Speaker Mike Johnson, wearing a blue suit, white shirt, blue-and-white striped tie and glasses, flanked by Rep. Cory Mills, Vivek Ramaswamy and a police officer.

House Speaker Mike Johnson, Rep. Cory Mills and Vivek Ramaswamy at the Manhattan Criminal Court on May 14, 2024. Photo: Justin Lane/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

House Speaker Mike Johnson's (R-La.) appearance at former President Trump's criminal trial on Tuesday is dismaying the House Democrats who saved his job less than a week ago.

Why it matters: The trip is sending ripples through the Democratic ranks and is already being raised in leadership circles, multiple senior House Democrats told Axios.

Driving the news: At the trial, Johnson defended the former president from charges he paid hush money to cover up an affair with porn star Stormy Daniels ahead of the 2016 election.

  • Johnson called the proceedings a "sham of a trial," adding, "They are doing this intentionally to keep him here and keep him off of the campaign trail. And I think everybody in the country can see that for what it is."
  • Johnson also held a voter fraud press conference last week that led one Democrat who voted to save him to warn his opposition to an ouster "is not open-ended."

The backdrop: After Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) brought a motion to remove Johnson as speaker last week for passing a Ukraine aid package.

  • 163 Democrats joined with 196 Republicans to "table" — kill — her measure.
  • But some Democrats who voted to table quickly warned that it was not a perpetual get-out-of-jail-free card for Johnson, with one saying: "Circumstances can change."

Between the lines: One senior House Democrat told Axios, "It's pretty clear that our preset position is [saving Johnson] was a one-time circumstance because Ukraine funding was so critical."

  • "We didn't want to put him in a position where he paid a price for doing the right thing ... but he could pay a price for doing the wrong thing," the lawmaker said.
  • "Inserting himself into the president's criminal trial, it's unprecedented for a sitting speaker of the House of Representatives."

What they're saying: Rep. Annie Kuster (D-N.H.), the chair of the center-left New Democrat Coalition told Axios that "probably our patience will wear thin if he needs us."

  • Kuster pointed to former Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) "dissing us" before he was removed as speaker last fall, saying of Johnson: "He might want to count his votes before he gets too deep into all of that."
  • "People are just absolutely shocked that this is where we've sunk," said Rep. Becca Balint (D-Vt.), who said the trial visit will "absolutely ... be part of the calculation" on a future motion to table.
  • Rep. Hillary Scholten (D-Mich.) called the trip "frustrating" because "we wanted him here to run the peoples' business. ... This is not that."

The other side: Some moderate Democrats argue that a vote to table is bigger than Mike Johnson.

  • "We want to keep the extremists from running the Republican Party," said Rep. Angie Craig (D-Minn.), adding that "Democrats will take every issue as it comes, but if he continues to work with us on a bipartisan basis, we'll work with him."
  • Rep. Jared Moskowitz (D-Fla.) had a blunter, more political assessment of Johnson's actions: "What choice does he have? I mean come on ... if Donald Trump comes out and says he should go, he'll be gone."

The bottom line: "Every judgment [by Democrats] is structured around trying to minimize the damage that Trump and the MAGA forces are inflicting on America and the world," said Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.).

  • "We will have to make a utilitarian calculation at every juncture."
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