Inside the Joe Biden-Mike Johnson relationship: Greetings, briefings and clashes over foreign aid

Inside the White House Situation Room, new House Speaker Mike Johnson made clear to Biden administration officials his demands when it came to foreign assistance: Aid to Israel for its war against Hamas would have to be separated out from support for Ukraine, defending itself from a Russian invasion now more than 20 months long.

Immediately, Johnson faced pushback, according to people with knowledge of the Oct. 26 briefing. Democratic lawmakers in attendance, as well as national security adviser Jake Sullivan and White House budget director Shalanda Young — spelled out to Johnson their deep opposition to splitting up the aid, said the people, who were granted anonymity to discuss a private meeting.

Even some House Republicans in the room signaled they disagreed with the new speaker’s stance.

“He was listening to a degree, but he was also bringing forth many of the MAGA Republican viewpoints and not from a perspective of bringing Congress together to move us forward in a better direction,” said Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., referring to former President Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan. Meeks attended the White House briefing.

That confrontation, just 24 hours after Johnson catapulted into the speakership, showed the Republican leader’s willingness to challenge well-established White House expectations and even defy members of his own party, both in public and in private. It also started to telegraph to the administration and congressional Democrats how he might govern.

Johnson’s early moves have confounded administration officials, particularly his strategy on aid to Israel. Inside the White House, aides took particular notice of Johnson’s decision to insist that emergency foreign assistance be coupled with offsetting cuts — a step rarely taken, if ever. On top on that, in a sharply partisan move, he chose to pay for aid using IRS resources intended to rein in tax cheats.

That legislation passed the House this past week on a 226-196 vote, with 12 Democrats joining Republicans. Senior White House aides had furiously worked the phones in the final hours leading up to the vote, particularly with Jewish Democrats, outlining not only President Joe Biden’s policy objections to the bill but also the political need to limit Democratic defections, according to people familiar with the administration’s message.

Johnson was unapologetic.

“If Democrats in the Senate or the House or anyone else … want to argue that hiring more IRS agents is more important than standing with Israel in this moment, I’m ready to have that debate,” Johnson, R-La., said at the Capitol in his first formal news conference as speaker. “I did not attach that for political purposes, OK?”

Still, White House officials continue to approach him with a sense of curiosity, despite their early skepticism. They even found some reasons for encouragement, primarily Johnson’s surprisingly warm remarks about the need to aid Ukraine, considering his past votes opposing the funding.

Though Democrats believe Johnson is a more useful political foil than his predecessor as speaker, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., the White House itself has been careful to not overtly antagonize Johnson, deliberately deferring most of the campaign-style attacks on his background and positions to the party’s political committees.

During the drawn-out speakership spectacle, the White House avoided any public involvement. Once Johnson was formally elected, administration officials, like much of Washington and the political world, scrambled to learn about Johnson, whose interactions with the White House during the Biden presidency have been essentially nonexistent.

That means the White House’s get-to-know-you process is continuing.

Jeff Zients, the White House chief of staff, and presidential counselor Steve Ricchetti spoke cordially with Johnson as Biden met with him for the first time. When the White House invited Johnson to the Situation Room, officials made sure he knew he could bring a national security aide into the classified session — a prerogative that he gets as speaker of the House.

Biden “wants to work in good faith with whoever they … chose to be speaker — it happens to be Speaker Johnson — and he wants to deliver for the American people,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said shortly after Johnson’s elevation to the speakership. “That is something that the president has said himself over the last couple of weeks.”

A low-profile conservative who was first elected to Congress in 2016, Johnson, 51, had come into the post with scant political leadership experience and was never known for bipartisan bona fides. That could not be a starker contrast with Biden, 80, a decadeslong veteran of Washington who puts a high value on personal relationships and bipartisanship.

As Johnson began his improbable rise to the top of the House Republican ranks, the White House also privately took note of his hard-right positions and his similarities, at least in substance, to Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, the House Judiciary Committee chairman and one of the administration’s chief antagonists who is leading an impeachment inquiry into Biden.

Johnson had taken a proactive role in former President Donald Trump’s efforts to remain in office despite losing to Democrat Biden in 2020, rallying other lawmakers to sign a letter of support for an unsuccessful case by several states to throw out some election results. Before entering politics, Johnson was a lawyer specializing in constitutional issues.

When Johnson outlined his rationale for his speaker candidacy last month, he argued that “the president is clearly incapable of leading and the Senate is unwilling.” Even though Johnson described his meeting with Biden as cordial, the speaker said in a Fox News interview that he noticed a cognitive decline.

Biden has spoken little publicly about Johnson himself, but he has continued to use the House GOP’s speakership mess as he makes his case to remain in office and not put Trump back in the White House.

“Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans are determined to destroy this democracy,” Biden said at a fundraiser in Minneapolis this past week. “And while the MAGA Republicans in the House have been fighting among themselves, struggling to elect a speaker, trying to shut down the government, sowing seeds of destruction at every turn, Kamala and I are always going to defend, protect, and fight for that democracy,” he said, referring to Vice President Kamala Harris.

Johnson’s allies say his direct demeanor will serve him well as a counterpoint to the administration.

“He’s a straight shooter, so he’s not going to play games with them. They’ll know what he’s thinking,” said Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., who knows Johnson well and is one of the handful of GOP lawmakers who have worked closely with the Biden White House. “Mike will have his eyes wide open. He’s not naïve.”

Other Republicans have said Johnson’s biggest strength is that he has yet to burn bridges with anyone on either side of the aisle. Rep. Clay Higgins, R-La., said the same qualities that helped Johnson get elected speaker are what will help him negotiate with the president.

“It will be hard for me because I’m stubborn, you understand and I have rough edges,” Higgins said of Johnson’s contrasting and smoother style. “But Mike is such a, a kind and compassionate and polite gentleman.”

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