Trump boosts Johnson in ‘pep rally’ with House GOP

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Speaker Mike Johnson’s (R-La.) stock appears to have risen after former President Trump’s “pep rally” meeting with House Republicans on Capitol Hill.

Johnson has come under fire from hardline conservatives for cutting deals with President Biden — which sparked an effort by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) to remove his gavel — fueling questions about his future atop the conference.

But on Thursday, Trump sided with Johnson over those in the right flank, lauding the Speaker’s performance in his still nascent leadership tenure, and joking to Greene that she should “be nice” to the Louisiana Republican. Greene acknowledged the exchange, and said Trump also noted her loyalty to the former president.

Those dynamics bode well for Johnson’s political future, as he faces off against pointed — and public — criticism from hardliners who are vowing to block him from keeping the gavel if Republicans retain control of the lower chamber in November.

“He said he was doing a fantastic job,” said Rep. Keven Hern (R-Okla.), head of the Republican Study Committee, relaying Trump’s message to the conference. 

Rep. Tim Burchett (R-Tenn.) delivered a similar report, saying the former president is “absolutely” standing behind Johnson heading into an election cycle where Republicans are bullish about their chances of winning all levers of power in Washington. 

“Said he’s doing a good job — more than once,” Burchett said.

Johnson, for his part, was quick to spotlight Trump’s praise after the hour-plus huddle, underscoring the need for “continuity of leadership” — an unsubtle pitch to remain at the helm come next year.

“He said very complimentary things about all of us,” Johnson said. “He said I’m doing a very good job. We’re grateful for that. We have to have continuity of leadership, we have to have a plan and it has to be very carefully executed.”

Johnson noted that he spends “a lot of time talking to President Trump about what happens after the election,” and said he was set to meet with the former president at Mar-a-Lago on Monday to discuss 2024 campaign strategy.

Trump’s visit with the House GOP conference — which Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) described as a “pep rally” — was just one part of a swing through the nation’s capital, which also included meetings with Senate Republicans and high-powered business executives.

The huddle with House Republicans, which lasted just over one hour, started off on a jovial note, with GOP lawmakers singing Trump happy birthday — he turns 78 on Friday — and Rep. Roger Williams (R-Texas) presenting the former president with a game ball and bat from the GOP’s decisive win over Democrats at the Congressional baseball game on Wednesday.

But the conversation included policy, too, with Trump touching on the issues of abortion, immigration, the border, taxes and being tough on China — some of which Johnson discussed on Wednesday in a meeting with Senate Republicans. 

“You never put the cart before the horse, but we have to plan to lead because there’s so many problems to fix,” he said. “So we’re working through that right now.”

Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.), echoing other lawmakers, said that he saw the Trump meeting on Thursday as helpful for Johnson, expressing that Trump wanted Republicans to stay united on the big issues rather than battling each other.

Still, Trump did veer into his own political revenge instincts.

The former president expressed pleasure that almost all of the 10 Republicans who voted to impeach him after the Jan. 6 Capitol attack are no longer in office, noting that  Reps. Tom Rice (S.C.) and Liz Cheney (Wyo.) lost re-election to Trump-endorsed primary challengers.

And Trump made a reference to Rep. David Valadao (R-Calif.), one of the two pro-impeachment Republicans left in the House, saying that he had saved the California Republican by not backing an opponent against him, according to a source. Lawmakers leaving the meeting described it as a friendly, joking quip.

Valadao did not attend the Trump meeting. The other one of the two members who voted for impeachment, Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.), was in the room, though he escaped Trump’s ire.

Trump got into some other electoral score-keeping, too. He praised Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.), a Trump critic-turned-supporter who won a primary on Tuesday against a challenger backed by former Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), whom she voted to remove. And he reportedly warned members against working with Jeff Roe, a political strategist who boosted Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s presidential bid.

Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.), who had endorsed DeSantis for president and now faces a primary challenge from a Trump-backed candidate, ignored reporter questions when leaving the meeting.

Trump referenced the number of legal proceedings against him. But Johnson and other lawmakers said that Trump did not make any specific requests of Republicans in that meeting to extract revenge on prosecutors.

Nonetheless, Johnson said that House GOP leadership is working on a bill that is essentially a Trump defense measure. The bill, Sponsored by Rep. Russell Fry (R-S.C.), would allow presidents to push state-level cases to federal court. That could clear the way for federal prosecutors to drop the case, or issue a pardon.

Trump also used Thursday’s meeting to promote a laundry list of policy priorities he hopes to take on in a second term.

He attacked Biden’s border policies and promised to adopt much more stringent measures like those he championed in his first term. 

“We have to secure the border. We have to stop this massive influx,” said Rep. Mike Lawler (R-N.Y.). 

Trump promoted the idea of using tariffs to help U.S. businesses interests in the face of foreign trade policies he deems unfair. 

“He’s a big believer in tariffs, and I think he’s probably done more to impact the thinking of the Republican conference than [anyone else],” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee. 

Trump also vowed to end overseas conflicts, like the one in Ukraine, which Republicans have blamed on Biden.

“As he has mentioned, he had a great working relationship with China and Russia, and we didn’t have wars,” Hern said. “And wars cost lives, and they’re very expensive.” 

On abortion, Trump urged Republicans to be cautious with how they talk about abortion in their elections, urging them to support exceptions and to keep abortion policy legislated at the state — not federal — level, and he advocated for exceptions for the medical procedure, according to two sources in the room.

Rep. Marc Molinaro (R-N.Y.) said that Trump told lawmakers “to show respect for women and the choices that they have to make.”

Trump also volunteered to help Republicans on the campaign trail, including lawmakers in the toughest races. It’s unclear how many of those vulnerable incumbents will accept the offer, particularly those in districts carried by Biden in 2020. But at least some of those Republicans say there are distinct advantages to that strategy. 

“He turns out people that otherwise would not vote. So there is a benefit there,” said Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.). 

Rep. David Schwikert (R-Ariz.), another Biden-district Republican, said he “was pleased that a big chunk of it [Trump’s message] was on economy and inflation.”

Others said Trump is sure to help Republicans down-ballot, even despite his recent felony convictions. 

“He’s got more popularity and support than he’s ever had before,” Mace said. 

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