Trump conviction and Biden tapes put new pressure on Mike Johnson

Rep. Mike Johnson, a Louisiana Republican, survived an attempt to oust him as House speaker. PHOTO: AL DRAGO/BLOOMBERG NEWS
Rep. Mike Johnson, a Louisiana Republican, survived an attempt to oust him as House speaker. PHOTO: AL DRAGO/BLOOMBERG NEWS


The House speaker must decide whether to schedule a vote on a measure that seeks to hold Attorney General Merrick Garland in contempt of Congress.

WASHINGTON—House Speaker Mike Johnson (R., La.) wants to put the GOP on a calmer, more unified track to set up the party for a strong showing in the fall. But first he has another big decision on a contentious vote that could test his narrow majority once again.

Many Republicans have been clamoring to hold Attorney General Merrick Garland in contempt of Congress for refusing to turn over audiotapes of President Biden. The felony conviction of Donald Trump last week has further fueled GOP anger at Democratic law-enforcement figures. Now Johnson, who survived an attempt to oust him a month ago, must decide whether to schedule the contempt vote amid uncertainty over whether it would pass.

The matter was referred to the full House by two committees several weeks ago. Johnson said recently that the bill will “be coming to the floor soon" but hasn’t set a date, and there was no signal it would take place in coming days, as the House returns from a weeklong break. While most Republicans are on board with the Garland resolution, Republicans’ slim majority means they can’t afford more than one or two defections.

The uncertainty underscores the narrow path Johnson is walking as he tries to satisfy an energized pro-Trump base while also wooing swing voters by showing Republicans can govern. Johnson, who has teed up votes on potent issues such as border security and Israel, has emphasized the need to expand Republicans’ House majority, as well as to win back the White House and Senate, to advance a conservative agenda.

Rep. Tim Burchett (R., Tenn.) said at least two Republican lawmakers have been on the fence about the contempt vote but that Trump’s guilty verdict could give the effort new momentum. He said Republicans are likely to return to Congress fired up after hearing from constituents.

“They’re totally frustrated," he said of voters on Friday.

Bringing a contempt vote without rock-solid Republican support carries risks, as shown in February when the House voted on the impeachment of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. It wasn’t the triumphant political slam dunk that proponents had sought. It took two votes and the return of House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R., La.) from cancer treatments for Republicans to secure enough support for the measure to pass, after three Republicans joined Democrats in declining to back the effort.

Johnson backs the contempt push and has been outspoken in denouncing Trump’s conviction last week by a New York jury on charges related to hush-money payments to cover up an alleged sexual encounter with a porn star.

In media interviews in the past week, Johnson has emphasized oversight rather than votes. He pointed to an effort by Rep. Jim Jordan (R., Ohio), the chairman of the House select committee on the weaponization of the federal government, to call Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg in for questioning about his decision to prosecute Trump.

“These rogue prosecutors, we’re going to have them come in and try to explain to us how this is fair," he said on the “Mark Levin Show," a talk-radio program.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R., Ga.), who led the failed effort to oust Johnson over not taking a harder line on the border and other complaints, said not holding a contempt vote would be the latest in a series of strikes against the leader.

“Not just me but pretty much the whole Republican base" wants a vote, she said. “If he can’t bring the contempt of Congress for Merrick Garland to the floor…yeah, I think that would tell everybody what I’ve been saying all along."

Greene sits on the House Oversight Committee, one of the two panels that advanced the contempt resolution. At one point during the panel’s hearing on the matter, Greene told Rep. Jasmine Crockett (D., Texas): “I think your fake eyelashes are messing up what you’re reading," setting off a raucous war of words with Democrats.

Rep. Jamie Raskin (D., Md.), the committee’s top Democrat, said the spectacle undercut the contempt push, and that one GOP lawmaker privately told him he saw the effort fizzling out as a result.

“You know, the whole country was looking at Marjorie Taylor Greene talking about fake eyelashes, but nobody was focused at all on their outlandish claim that the Attorney General of the United States is in contempt of Congress," Raskin said.

The GOP’s majority is expected to grow on Monday night to 218-213 with the swearing in of Rep. Vince Fong (R., Calif.), elected to fill the seat of former Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who quit Congress last December.

Garland faces the contempt resolution for withholding the audiotapes of Biden’s two-day interview in October with a special counsel investigating his handling of classified documents. Republicans expect the tapes would show evidence to the public regarding Biden’s mental competency.

The White House has asserted executive privilege on the tapes, and Garland said releasing them would harm investigators’ ability to successfully pursue sensitive probes. The impact is expected to be entirely political, as a successful vote would send the matter to the Justice Department run by Garland, which would be unlikely to take any action.

House Oversight Committee Chairman James Comer (R., Ky.) said Johnson hadn’t promised a full House floor vote but that he expected it to happen. He said leaders are checking in with individual lawmakers on how they would vote, a chance for them to suss out resistance from Republicans, including members who are in competitive districts where independent or moderate voters could be turned off by a divisive vote.

Rep. Chip Roy (R., Texas) said he trusts party leaders to figure out the best path forward on the contempt vote while focusing on the November election.

“We have seats we need to go win, and so that’s what we should focus on," he said. “What gets put on the floor over the next couple of months will influence how people are feeling about the speaker."

Natalie Andrews contributed to this article.

Write to Katy Stech Ferek at

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