US House speaker, who strongly opposed Ukraine aid, ushers it through

Washington — Republican Mike Johnson came out of nowhere six months ago to become speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, before emerging as an ardent defender of military aid to Ukraine, which the chamber approved Saturday.  

The evolution of this 52-year-old Southerner with carefully coiffed hair has been stunning.  

An arch-conservative Christian from Louisiana, he shot to the top leadership position in the House in October after the unprecedented ouster of then-speaker Kevin McCarthy in a rebellion by far-right lawmakers allied with Donald Trump.  

After several candidates were proposed, then discarded, Johnson’s name came up — he was a virtual unknown to the American public — and with the blessing of Trump, Johnson become leader of the House and of a Republican congressional caucus at war with itself.

Johnson had for months blocked a vote on the aid desperately needed by Ukraine’s army as it defends against Russian invasion forces.

But recently his tone began to soften. And then, in a head-spinning shift, Johnson last week emerged as a passionate defender of a long-delayed aid package.  

That culminated in the vote Saturday in which his chamber, by a strong bipartisan majority, passed more than $60 billion of additional military and financial support for Ukraine.  


What was behind Johnson’s metamorphosis?  

“I believe Johnson has been convinced, gradually, that America must support Ukraine in our own interests, and that the far-right Republicans demanding otherwise were simply wrong,” Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, told AFP.  

In December, as previously approved U.S. funding for Kyiv was drying up, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine made a last-ditch visit to Washington to plead for a new aid package.  

Zelenskyy made his way through the halls of Congress accompanied by the Senate’s top Democrat and Republican, both vocal supporters of President Joe Biden’s request for $60 billion.  

But his meeting with Johnson was held behind closed doors.  

Johnson afterward said Biden was asking for “billions of additional dollars with no appropriate oversight, no clear strategy to win, and none of the answers that I think the American people are owed.”

Since then, however, a series of U.S. and world figures — including British Foreign Secretary David Cameron — worked to persuade Johnson of the high stakes, with some warning that Ukraine could fall by year’s end unless the U.S. aid came through.

One concession  

On Monday, Johnson announced the House would, after all, take up separate bills to provide aid to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan, and that he would support them.  

Johnson did make one concession to Trump — who had demanded that aid to Ukraine be at least partly in the form of loans — making a part of the package subject to repayment.  

But the debt can still be forgiven, and the aid package is almost exactly for the amount requested months ago by Biden.

What was behind Johnson’s rethinking?

“He didn’t want the fall of Ukraine on his hands,” Sabato said.

Johnson provided further insight during a news conference Wednesday.  

“To put it bluntly, I would rather send bullets to Ukraine than American boys,” he said, before adding, his voice choking with emotion, that his son is about to enter the U.S. Naval Academy.

“This is a live-fire exercise for me, as it is for so many American families,” Johnson said.

It remains unclear whether some of the far-right legislators behind last year’s ouster of McCarthy might work to unseat Johnson after the perceived betrayal.

The House Democratic leader, Hakeem Jeffries, struck a philosophic tone when describing Johnson’s thorny choices.

“This,” he said, “is a Churchill or Chamberlain moment” — referring first to the wartime British prime minister known for his steely determination and then to Churchill’s predecessor, his name forever linked to a policy of appeasement.

Without quite casting himself in those terms, Johnson said he views himself as “a wartime speaker.”

In a somber tone, he added, “We have to do the right thing — and history will judge us.” 

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