When Mike Johnson, the new House speaker, discusses race in America, he often shares a personal story about how he and his wife, Kelly, “took custody” of a Black teenager 24 years ago and raised him as their son.
“I have personally witnessed the discrimination he has faced and the challenges he has overcome,” he testified before a House committee in 2019, opposing reparations for slavery. “I know this because I’ve been there with him.”
Since being elected House speaker, there has been increased attention on Mr. Johnson’s relationship with his son, along with other aspects of his personal and political life. His son, who is now an adult and resides in California with his own family, is not mentioned in Mr. Johnson’s official biography and is absent from family photos on the congressman’s website. Mr. Johnson has four biological children, two daughters, and two sons.
On Friday, Mr. Johnson explained the absence, stating that it was out of respect for his son Michael’s request for privacy.
“At the time of the speaker’s election to Congress, Michael was already an adult with his own family,” said Corinne Day, the speaker’s communications director, according to a statement reported by Newsweek. “He asked not to be involved in their new public life. The speaker has always respected his wishes and maintains a close relationship with Michael to this day.”
The attention surrounding Mr. Johnson and Michael reflects the new world they have entered with Mr. Johnson’s sudden ascent to a position that places him second in line to the presidency. Prior to this, Mr. Johnson was a relatively unknown southern Republican, with little known about his background beyond his home state. Even less was known about Michael, who joined the Johnson family at the age of 14.
In previous public statements, Mr. Johnson has referred to Michael as his son and did not correct an interviewer who described Michael as “adopted.” According to Ms. Day, the Johnsons did not formally adopt Michael due to the lengthy adoption process. She declined to comment on whether Michael uses “Johnson” as his surname.
Efforts to reach Michael for comment were unsuccessful.
Mr. Johnson has primarily spoken about Michael when discussing race. He has described Michael as a “success story” and compared the experience of a white couple adopting a Black teenager to the film “The Blind Side,” which portrays a wealthy white family taking in an impoverished Black teenager who becomes a football star.
During his testimony on racial reparations, Mr. Johnson mentioned that Michael also opposes reparations, citing a tradition of self-reliance. His comments were met with boos from reparations supporters at the hearing.
Mr. Johnson’s rise to House speaker has not been welcomed by Black lawmakers in Congress, who are predominantly Democratic. The Congressional Black Caucus issued a statement criticizing Mr. Johnson, describing him as a “Trump-backed extremist” who seeks to criminalize abortion and cut social programs like Social Security and Medicare.
Mr. Johnson’s remarks on race have also faced criticism from the right. In a 2020 interview, he discussed racial tensions in America following the killing of George Floyd by a white police officer. Mr. Johnson referred to the killing as “an act of murder” and spoke about his firsthand awareness of racial disparities through raising a Black son.
These remarks drew rare criticism from the right, who viewed them as an acknowledgment of systemic racism.
Laura Loomer, a far-right ally of Donald J. Trump, accused Mr. Johnson of being an “undercover Democrat” in a post on X. She questioned the compatibility of his statements with being a MAGA Republican.
In a recent interview with Fox News, Mr. Johnson downplayed the role of race in the lives of his two sons, Jack and Michael, both of whom were 14 years old at different times. He stated that their experiences were influenced more by culture and society rather than skin color.
Ken Bensinger contributed reporting.