PBS 'Washington Week' Gang Hails Speaker Johnson Finding His 'Inner Reagan' on Ukraine

April 21st, 2024 6:23 AM

The latest, foreign-policy-facing episode of Washington Week with The Atlantic found the weekly journalistic roundtable quite comfortable with both American hard and soft power -- as long as President Biden and the Democrats hold the reins.

Jeffrey Goldberg, moderator of Washington Week and editor-in-chief of The Atlantic magazine, was joined by Eugene Daniels of Politico, Seung Min Kim of the Associated Press, Vivian Salama of The Wall Street Journal, and Graeme Wood of The Atlantic.

There was a scattering of hostile labeling, with three “far right” labels foisted on Republicans, including a "very raucous far right." PBS doesn't find "far left" for Ilhan Omar or Rashida Tlaib.

But most striking was the panel’s praise for previously mocked House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) for finding his (yes) “inner Reagan.” Now that the press has decided defending Ukraine against Putin’s Russia is vital, the 40th president’s reputation has shifted from warmonger to responsible internationalist.

Atlantic journalist Graeme Wood particularly loved Speaker Johnson finally “getting a grip on reality” on Ukraine, which in media terms meant Johnson turning away from his “hard-right” flank toward sweet reason – boosted by Democrats in Congress, who saved his speaker position -- by pushing an additional $60 billion in spending for military aid to Ukraine.

Goldberg set up a clip of Johnson arguing for military aid to Ukraine, even mentioning an "axis of evil" (remember those?) consisting of China, Iran, and Russia, but this time to media approval. When asked by host Goldberg whether what we’re seeing is “the true Mike Johnson,” Wood responded thusly.

Wood: I don’t know if it’s the true Mike Johnson. But having just been in Poland about a week ago, it seems to most polls and there are some parts of the world where the stakes are very high with these issues, that it’s a person, Mike Johnson, getting a grip on reality. I mean, Poles are seeing this as, arming Ukraine means stopping Kiev from falling and then stopping Russia from getting to the Polish border, which by the way, it’s been there before.

Knowing how public television has traditionally treated Ronald Reagan’s presidency, this exchange registered as ironic:

Jeffrey Goldberg: ….Vivian, let’s add onto that. Has Johnson found his inner Reagan? And is he strong enough to withstand what might be coming from the isolationist wing?

Vivian Salama: I think he would love to believe that he’s found his inner Reagan.

Goldberg: I mean, every Republican wants to find their inner Reagan, right?

And did the Democrats backing this package show their "inner Reagan" as well?

Later there was “optimism” Israeli’s embattled Netanyahu was listening to the wisdom of the American president and refraining from major countermeasures after Iran fired drones and missiles into Israel.

Goldberg: So, that brings me to this question about President Biden and his relationship with Prime Minister Netanyahu. It seems like there’s been a little bit of a reset in their relationship. And by that, I mean it seems as if Netanyahu is actually listening a bit to Joe Biden now, or is that -- am I over-indexing?

Wood: Yes, you might be a little bit too optimistic. But, you know, the hope was that during these last weeks, so much has changed, so much of the narrative could have changed, and it was a frozen and very bad narrative for a number of reasons in the Gaza War. But what can Netanyahu make of this? I mean, there are many Israelis who wish he would just disappear. But the next best thing would be for something in the frozen conflict, in the frozen situation to move….

Wood later admitted he wasn’t a Netanyahu fan: "We’ve got to understand, too, what type of pressure Netanyahu was under. I’ll speak with a rare note of sympathy with Bibi here, because if your country is attacked with 300 drones and ballistic missiles and you do nothing, I don’t think there’s any country that would allow an attack like that to go completely unanswered…."

Journalists are certainly more confident of projecting American might during Democratic administrations. Exporting United States military might to Ukraine and putting the diplomatic squeeze on an ally are now admirable traits. Strange days!

This sudden new respect for American military power was brought to you in part by Consumer Cellular, and taxpayers like you.

A transcript is available, click “Expand.”

PBS Washington Week with The Atlantic


8:02:01 p.m. (ET)

Jeffrey Goldberg: So, it seems that Mike Johnson, the unlikeliest speaker in recent memory, even Washington reporters who know everything admit that they hadn't heard of him before his selection, might not be falling off the tightrope quite yet. The far right of his party has predictably turned on him, but Donald Trump hasn't, so far at least, and neither have the Democrats.

Is Marjorie Taylor Greene inadvertently bringing back bipartisanship? I'll talk about this and the consequences for Ukraine and Israel funding with Eugene Daniels, a White House correspondent and co-author of Politico's playbook, Seung Min Kim is a White House reporter with the Associated Press, Vivian Salama is a national politics reporter for The Wall Street Journal, and Graeme Wood is my colleague and a staff writer at The Atlantic. Welcome, all.

Seung Min, you're in the hot seat. Just came from the White House. So, the House is poised to pass this $95 billion foreign aid package finally, and if the speaker gets this done, it's going to be with the help of the Democrats obviously, and his right most members, including Marjorie Taylor Greene, who may or may not be, for further discussion, the most powerful person on the Hill. They're pretty livid. So, what are the chances that Johnson gets this done, and in so doing, also subverts his speakership?

Seung Min Kim, White House Reporter, The Associated Press: The chances, on the one hand, the chances are good that the foreign aid package will pass the House tomorrow. On a procedural vote earlier today, you had 316 votes. That is far past the majority, helped with a lot of Democrats, like you said, and a significant portion of Republicans as well. And, you know, that will have to go back to the Senate, and then to the president's desk for it to be signed.

But the real question is what happens to Speaker Mike Johnson and his leadership position. What's been really interesting over the last couple of days is that it's not just Marjorie Taylor Greene anymore who's threatening to oust him from his speakership. The numbers, slowly, they are growing. You have two more House Republicans now on the record saying they would support him that what we call a motion to vacate, that maneuver, that mechanism that allows one person to oust a speaker. And why that matters --

Jeffrey Goldberg: The mechanism that was fatal to Kevin McCarthy.

Seung Min Kim: Definitely, yes, that mechanism.

And what's critical here is that the margins in the House are so narrow after there's one person leaving the house after this week and he will have just a one seat majority. That is almost untenable for any speaker to navigate, much less someone who is inexperienced and has a very raucous far right portion of the conference like Mike Johnson does.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Right. But I want to show you a chart from -- just to look at this. These are the last Republican speakers, and you see that it's not a job that lasts forever these days. Mike Johnson is at 178 days and counting.

I'm not asking Eugene for you to predict the future, although can you predict the future?

Daniels, White House Correspondent, Politico: No, not yet. I'm learning.

Jeffrey Goldberg: All right. I mean, what are the chances that he finds himself in really dire straits? And what are the chances that Hakeem Jeffries, the Democratic leader, comes in to save him?

Eugene Daniels: That's the key to this, right? That the chances of whether or not he gets saved, it's all up to Hakeem Jeffries. If Hakeem Jeffries signals either in front of cameras or behind the scenes to Democrats that, hey, I will let you not come, you can leave, we want you to protect and defend him, Mike Johnson, in any kind of vote, then they will do that.

Jeffrey Goldberg: What's the Democratic interest in keeping Johnson in power?

Eugene Daniels: The reason that they are, the people that are interested in it, is, one, they're worried about who would come next, right? If Marjorie Taylor Greene, if you're not far right enough for her, people are worried about who's coming next.

And also, he's doing something that Kevin McCarthy did not do. He's acting in good faith with the Democrats at this point, right? The way that he's negotiating and trying to get these bills to the floor is something that they wanted from Kevin McCarthy. He would not do. Also, Kevin McCarthy was kind of bad mouthing Democrats on air a day after. They saved his bill, and so they were upset about that. They said, you know, we're not saving you, you're on your own.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Right.

Eugene Daniels: So, they're not getting that from Johnson.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Johnson is kind of cool, understated approach is working.

Eugene Daniels: It's working. It's working.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Yes. Vivian, do you have any thoughts on, on whether he can maneuver this Ukraine bill to passage and maintain his job?

Vivian Salama, National Politics Reporter, The Wall Street Journal: It's looking increasingly likely that he will get the Ukraine bill over the finish line. Now, whether or not he maintains his job is another story.

Remember, Ukraine was at one point a largely bipartisan issue. Most people in Congress on both sides of the aisle supported some sort of U.S. aid package. However, it has become increasingly a political flashpoint. And there is one person that has driven a lot of that rhetoric, and that is Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, where he made it increasingly become a political issue, where he would say, why are we giving billions of dollars to Ukraine? You know, the country is falling apart. We have problems at the border. And so that has grown.

And we've seen then the hardliners in the Republican Party pushing back on Ukraine aid. And that's where we are. It is not a substantive issue here. It is a political issue. And now you see Donald Trump coming along and saying, well, okay, we can give them aid in the form of a loan and everything has changed suddenly.

Jeffrey Goldberg: I want to get to Trump. Before we get to Trump, I want to -- so NewsHour's Amna Nawaz earlier this week interviewed President Zelenskyy in Kyiv, and he made his feelings about all of this quite clear. Listen to this one segment.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Ukrainian President: We wanted another way to get this money last year, but for today, it doesn't matter. We need to survive and we need to defend our people. And that's why your decision, the ball is on your field, yes? Please, just make decision.

Jeffrey Goldberg: So, I'm not, I'm not saying that what I'm going to play you now is a direct consequence of PBS' global reach, but, Speaker Johnson causation, correlation, we can have that debate later, but Zelenskyy's plea, it seems as if, you know, that kind of thinking that Zelenskyy is talking about there kind of moved Speaker Johnson.

Listen to this. This is kind of an extended riff by Johnson on Ukraine, in which he sounds like an old style Reagan Republican.

Listen, listen to this.

Rep. Mike Johnson (R-LA): I think providing lethal aid to Ukraine right now is critically important. I really do. I really do believe the intel and the briefings that we've gotten.

I believe Xi and Vladimir Putin and Iran really are an axis of evil. I think they're in coordination on this. I think that Vladimir Putin would continue to march through Europe if he were allowed.

To put it bluntly, I would rather send bullets to Ukraine than American boys. My son is going to begin in the Naval Academy this fall. This is a live fire exercise for me, as it is so many American families. This is not a game. It's not a joke. We can't play politics with this.

And I'm willing to take personal risk for that, because we have to do the right thing, and history will judge us.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Graeme, this is pretty remarkable given where Johnson was in the sort of Trumpian quasi isolationist framework. Are we seeing something very unusual? Is this the true Mike Johnson?

Graeme Wood, Staff Writer, The Atlantic: I don't know if it's the true Mike Johnson. But having just been in Poland about a week ago, it seems to most Poles and there're some parts of the world where the stakes are very high with these issues, that it's a person, Mike Johnson, getting a grip on reality.

I mean, polls are seeing this as arming Ukraine means stopping Kyiv from falling, and then stopping Russia from getting to the Polish border, which, by the way, it's been there before. So it's a matter of someone who -- you know, maybe he has to satisfy Marjorie Taylor Greene, maybe not. These are political questions that are, that are unfamiliar to parts of the world where they're wondering about their future independence and prosperity.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Right. I would love as an exercise to try to explain Marjorie Taylor Greene's politics to the prime minister of Poland, but that we'll do that on another show.

But, Vivian, come, come, let's add onto that. Has Johnson found his inner Reagan? And is he strong enough to withstand what might be coming from the isolationist wing?

Vivian Salama: I think he would love to believe that he's found his inner Reagan.

Jeffrey Goldberg: I mean, every Republican wants to find their inner Reagan, right? Yes.

Vivian Salama: And one of the things that I've heard a lot from folks on the Hill is that a lot of this is he's driven by faith, that he believes because of his faith that it is imperative upon the United States, it's incumbent upon the United States to help allies, including the Ukrainians who are on the frontline of this war, whether or not --

Jeffrey Goldberg: So, why did we wait so long?

Vivian Salama: Well, that's just the issue. There's so much political headwind and it's taken so much time for the party to sort of coalesce around this concept that we have to do this. And it was -- as a standalone issue, I don't know if Ukraine aid would have passed, but we're lumping it in with other issues, support for Israel, support for Taiwan. And so it pads it with those issues that do have more bipartisan support at the moment and can sort of get through the house a lot quicker.

Also remember there was a lot of pushback on border security that Republicans wanted to basically get a win by adding border security and linking it to Ukraine aid. And that is largely what slowed down the passage of this. And so this has been a major issue.

Eugene Daniels: It's his faith, but there's also like a practical aspect of this. He said, I believe the intel, he gets a lot more access to information as speaker than he did as a kind of a rank and file backbencher in the House.

So, he is getting information that he wasn't getting before. This is not the Mike Johnson that many of us did not know when you -- a few months ago, right?

Jeffrey Goldberg: Wait, I want to study that sentence. This is not the Mike Johnson that they didn't know.

Eugene Daniels: He's somebody we used to know. We know someone else.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Right.

Eugene Daniels: But like that is such a bit of integral part of understanding this change in him. He's in leadership. And there's a different way that you have to operate. His kind of dragging his feet, in my estimation, has always been -- he does have to make it look like he's not being pushed by Democrats to do anything. And a lot has changed in the months leading up to this.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Talk about that from the White House perspective. I mean, obviously, he's in leadership. He's getting intel. Now, obviously, if you're in the paranoid nether regions of American politics, you think, oh, then he's like being influenced by the deep state. But what he's getting is real time intelligence about the Ukrainian struggles, right?

Is this part of -- I mean, obviously, statutorily, you know, the speaker has to be involved in a lot of this, but is the White House cultivating Mike Johnson in a kind of way.

Seung Min Kim: Right. I mean, that was a huge part of the White House's strategy when it came to persuading Mike Johnson on the need for additional Ukraine aid. If you recall literally the day after he was elected speaker, they brought him to the situation room right away. This is where he met Jake Sullivan. He met other national security officials. He met President Biden and spoke to him briefly for the first time. And he was exposed to the kind of information that he did not have as a rank and file member.

He was then brought up for multiple meetings. He and National Security Committee chairman had regular briefings recently, obviously had multiple conversations. And that was part of the administration's strategy to convince him and give them real time, concrete information to try to persuade him that this is real, that his is a problem.

And what's been fascinating to watch when it comes to Mike Johnson is that you do see an evolution of someone understanding that you can't behave the way as a rank and file member than you would as a leader, and not only as a leader of a House Republican conference, but a leader as a Speaker of the House. Which is why you can go from someone who voted against Ukraine aid like Mike Johnson did to someone who was shepherding it through at the risk of his own job.

Vivian Salama: It wasn't just, by the way, the administration who's been lobbying him. Foreign leaders have been lining up to see Mike Johnson. I interviewed the Polish president just this week who had been in to see him a few weeks ago. And one by one, they'd all been going in saying, you do not understand what this threat means. Europe could fall. The Ukrainians have no more ammunition. We are literally at the brink.

And I think over time they have managed to get to him, especially people like President Duda of Poland, who's very persuasive. He's also an ally of Trump's and then speaks sort of that language.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Right. He's a kind of a populist.

Vivian Salama: He's considered right wing. And he appeals both to Trump. He did see Trump as well this week. But he also met with Mike Johnson. Others have as well.

And so, progressively, over time, I think those European leaders and parliamentarians, you know, foreign ministers, you name it, they have managed to really get to him and make him understand the stakes here.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Right. Graeme, this is the actual sort of largest question or most important question. What does this -- if this aid, and, obviously, it's a big package, Israel, Taiwan, but if this aid is freed up for Ukraine, tell us what that means on the battlefield.

Graeme Wood: Yes. So, these briefings are very sobering for one reason, which is anything could happen between now and the end of the year. And that could mean the collapse of the Ukrainian frontline. The collapse of the Ukrainian frontline could mean the end of Ukraine as the state that we know it as. And once that happens, then that line starts moving and the political calculations of Europe change completely.

So, I think some of the conversations that can happen in Washington can be about, okay, maybe we lose Ukraine. But a complete geo strategic reset that could happen with the collapse of a frontline in Ukraine is an extremely sobering thought. And that's why I think it's been so urgent that these conversations happen with --

Jeffrey Goldberg: So, you think it's plausible that it's not just that Russia will solidify its position in Crimea and in the east. You think that without U.S. resupply, the frontline could actually collapse and Russia could do what it couldn't do two years ago?

Graeme Wood: Yes, that is plausible. It seems like right now the line could be frozen. But, you know, the way these things happen is slowly, slowly than all at once.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Like Afghanistan.

Graeme Wood: Yes. Things can happen so quickly that it would be pretty urgent to at least keep the line where it is.

Now, having a plan for it to actually resolve the war, of course, is what everyone would want. But the disaster, the catastrophe that would happen, if the line really collapsed, would be unthinkable.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Part of that catastrophe would be that Russia would then be in a better position to threaten actual NATO allies, and then we are required, by treaty, to come to their defense, as opposed to Ukraine, which is not in NATO.