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Trump's influence was clear in the Speaker race — and Mike Johnson's appointment


Twenty-two days - that's how long it took the House GOP to settle the battle for the gavel. And if the chaos surrounding the process made anything clear, it's the influence of a certain former president.


DONALD TRUMP: I said there's only one person that can do it all the way. You know who that is? Jesus Christ. Jesus came down, said, I want to be speaker, he would do it. Other than that, I haven't seen anybody that can guarantee it. But at some point, I think we're going to have somebody pretty soon.

RASCOE: That somebody, of course, turned out to be Louisiana Congressman Mike Johnson, a big Trump supporter. We wanted to check back in with two journalists who have reported extensively on Trump and his influence - Peter Baker of The New York Times and Susan Glasser of The New Yorker. Their book about him is called "The Divider." Welcome to both of you.

PETER BAKER: Thanks for having us.

SUSAN GLASSER: Great to be with you.

RASCOE: As you watched this House GOP battle play out these last few weeks, what struck you about Trump's role in this? Susan, let's start with you.

GLASSER: Well, I do think, in the end, the Trump factor was really the reason that Johnson is the speaker right now. He was - according to a piece in The Times after the fact, he was one of the most important architects of the legal fight to block Joe Biden's certification in Congress. In other words, he was a key participant in Trump's lies about the 2020 election. And that's the reason that Trump and others are now calling him MAGA Mike Johnson.

RASCOE: And, Peter, what do you think about that? Because it does seem like Trump absolutely played a role, but he wasn't able to just say, this is the person because, of course, he endorsed Congressman Jim Jordan, but Jordan didn't make it.

BAKER: Well, that's exactly right. And it's important to remember that, obviously, Trump is the most decisive factor still in the Republican Party, but he doesn't always get his way. The real defining factor in the House is that they're all Trumpists on some level or another, whether they're, you know, more active or not, like Jim Jordan. But Mike Johnson's a pretty active Trumpist. And so while it wasn't his first choice, President Trump certainly got his way.

RASCOE: Well, let's talk policy because Congressman Tom Emmer - he's considered to be somewhat of a more moderate Republican. He failed to become speaker. He had to give up pretty quickly. Trump called him a, quote, "globalist RINO" - i.e., Republican in name only. And there's - so much of the House's attention is going to be on foreign policy. So you're looking at aid to Israel, aid to Ukraine. These are the things that Congress could do. How could Trump's influence play out on that front, Susan?

GLASSER: Well, a couple points. First of all, it's interesting. Tom Emmer - he is the No. 3 right now, the House majority whip. And while Trump criticized him as a globalist, his real beef with Emmer was that he didn't pass the most important litmus test for Donald Trump, and that was going along with his efforts to block Biden in the House of Representatives on January 6.

But this new speaker does differ from the mainstream, I would say, of the Republican Party and is more in the kind of Trump, America First vein. The new speaker, Mike Johnson, voted against aid for Ukraine, for example, including even last year's big package of $40 billion that came in the months after the Russian invasion. Johnson has already signaled strong support, as with the rest of his conference, for aid to Israel. But Biden is trying to package these all together right now, and we don't know what the fate of that will be under this unknown new speaker.

RASCOE: You know, Trump is clearly very influential when - in the political arena. He is on trial. There have been guilty pleas for three of his lawyers in Fulton County, Ga. Trump, this week, did storm out of a courtroom in New York after the judge fined him for violating a gag order. What do you think about this? Because he kind of threw around his weight politically, but it's not working as well in the courtroom.

BAKER: No. What's amazing is the trial you just referenced in New York is a civil trial. We haven't even gotten to the four criminal trials yet, right? He's on civil trial for defrauding banks by making up numbers and valuating his assets to get loans. And the judge has already basically said he's guilty of it, and the only real question is, how much damage is he going to have to pay? He is going to be stuck in a courtroom, either physically or otherwise, for basically the next year, even as he's trying to campaign for office.

His campaign, in some ways, will be the most - well, it definitely will be the most unusual campaign, I think, in history. But one way it will be unusual is it will be weighed, to some extent, on the courthouse steps, right? He won't be able to do as many rallies. He won't be able to travel the country as much. He'll be doing it in front of cameras on courthouse steps, talking about how this is the latest in a witch hunt against him and so forth. And the question is, how long is that what voters who support him want to talk about?

RASCOE: I want to ask you, what are you watching next for Trump? But then, also, I want to ask you, what are you thinking for House Republicans? Because - do you think that the current speaker will be able to stay, stick around longer because they don't want to go through this again, or do you think that we are in for a wild ride?

BAKER: Well, they could both be true, right? In other words, I think that - I think you're right that they don't want to go through that again. And the people who made it happen last time are more sympathetic and ideologically attuned to Mike Johnson than they were to Kevin McCarthy. So they're not likely to pull the same trick, necessarily. But, like you say, it's going to be a wild ride. This is a guy who's never been in leadership. He's only been in the House for six years. By some measure, he is the least experienced House speaker in 104 years. So, you know, this would be a challenge for anybody, regardless of ideology or party, to run a place with such a narrow majority, facing a government shutdown, with foreign policy crises all over the place and a very restive caucus. So he's - he has a great deal of challenge ahead of him. We'll see if he rises to the occasion. But I think you're right. It is going to be a wild ride.

RASCOE: And, Susan, what do you think about - what are you watching for from Trump?

GLASSER: I'm exhausted already thinking about 2024, to be honest (laughter). Look, you know, this is - it's one of those things where all the outcomes seem impossible, and yet, one way or the other, there will be an outcome. You know, the guy is facing an extraordinary amount of legal jeopardy. And how does that square with a Republican primary electorate that seems determined to keep cheering on for this man? I just don't know. These are incompatible ends. And yet, one way or the other, we're going to know at least a big part of the story of how it ends next year.

RASCOE: That's Susan Glasser and Peter Baker. Their book about Trump was published last year. It's called "The Divider." Thank you so much for joining us.

BAKER: Oh, thanks for having us.

GLASSER: Great to be with you.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRUIT BATS SONG, "ABSOLUTE LOSER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.