Friday, July 12, 2024

Years before he played a lead role in trying to help President Donald J. Trump stay in office after the 2020 election or defended him in two separate Senate impeachment trials, Speaker Mike Johnson bluntly asserted that Mr. Trump was unfit to serve and could be a danger as president.

“The thing about Donald Trump is that he lacks the character and the moral center we desperately need again in the White House,” Mr. Johnson wrote in a lengthy post on Facebook on Aug. 7, 2015, before he was elected to Congress and a day after the first Republican primary debate of the campaign cycle.

Challenged in the comments by someone defending Mr. Trump, Mr. Johnson responded: “I am afraid he would break more things than he fixes. He is a hot head by nature, and that is a dangerous trait to have in a Commander in Chief.”

Mr. Johnson, then a state lawmaker in Louisiana, also questioned what would happen if “he decided to bomb another head of state merely disrespecting him? I am only halfway kidding about this. I just don’t think he has the demeanor to be President.”

The comments came at a time when many Republicans who would later become loyalists of Mr. Trump were disparaging him and declaring him unfit to hold the nation’s highest office. Only later did they fall in line and serve as the first-line defenders of his most extreme words and actions.

But Mr. Johnson’s anti-Trump screed has, until now, flown under the radar, in a large part because Mr. Johnson himself did, too, before his unlikely election as speaker last month put him second in line to the presidency.

These days, Mr. Johnson only praises Mr. Trump and defends him against what he dismisses as politically motivated indictments and criminal charges. Mr. Trump has lauded Mr. Johnson as someone who has acted as a loyal soldier since the beginning of his political rise.

In a lengthy statement to The New York Times on Monday night, Mr. Johnson said his comments were made before he personally knew Mr. Trump, and attributed them to the fact that “his style was very different than mine.”

He continued: “During his 2016 campaign, President Trump quickly won me and millions of my fellow Republicans over. When I got to know him personally shortly after we both arrived in Washington in 2017, I grew to appreciate the person that he is and the qualities about him that made him the extraordinary president that he was.”

Mr. Johnson, who campaigned for Mr. Trump in 2020 and has endorsed his 2024 bid, added: “Since we met, we have always had a very good and friendly relationship. The president and I enjoy working together, and I look forward to doing so again when he returns to the White House.”

A spokesman for Mr. Trump declined to comment on the posts.

In 2015, Mr. Johnson, who would announce his first run for Congress the next year, wrote that he was horrified as he watched Mr. Trump’s debate performance with his wife and children.

“What bothered me most was watching the face of my exceptional 10 yr old son, Jack, at one point when he looked over at me with a sort of confused disappointment, as the leader of all polls boasted about calling a woman a ‘fat pig.’”

In one of the most famous exchanges from that debate, Megyn Kelly, a moderator and then a Fox News host, asked Mr. Trump about his history of referring to women as “fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals.”

“Only Rosie O’Donnell,” Mr. Trump responded. He added that the country’s problem was political correctness, something he didn’t have time for.

Mr. Johnson was horrified.

“Can you imagine the noble, selfless characters of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Lincoln or Reagan carrying on like Trump did last night?” wrote Mr. Johnson, an evangelical Christian. He noted that voters needed to demand a “much higher level of virtue and decency” than what he had just witnessed.

During the Trump administration, Mr. Johnson enjoyed a friendly relationship with the president. In 2020, he accompanied him, along with other House Republicans, to the college football national championship game between Louisiana State University and Clemson.

After the election that year, he played a leading role in recruiting House Republicans to sign a legal brief, rooted in baseless claims of widespread election irregularities, supporting a lawsuit seeking to overturn the results. On Nov. 8, 2020, Mr. Johnson was onstage at a northwest Louisiana church speaking about Christianity in America when Mr. Trump called him to discuss legal challenges to the election results.

In recent years, Mr. Johnson, a constitutional lawyer, has used a podcast he hosted with his wife to defend Mr. Trump against four different indictments and the criminal charges against him.

“I think every single one of these bogus prosecutions is overtly weaponized political prosecutions of Donald Trump,” Mr. Johnson said on one episode.

On another, Mr. Johnson proclaimed, “No one did it better in the White House than President Trump.”

In last month’s speaker’s race, Mr. Trump praised Mr. Johnson, noting that he was someone who had “supported me, in both mind and spirit, from the very beginning of our GREAT 2016 Victory.”

Mr. Johnson is far from alone in having expressed deep concerns about Mr. Trump, only to go on to later embrace him and his agenda.

In 2015, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina called Mr. Trump a “race-baiting, xenophobic, religious bigot,” as well as a “kook,” “crazy” and a man who was “unfit for office.” He went on to serve as Mr. Trump’s most loyal defender in the Senate.

Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, the second-to-last man left standing in the 2016 Republican primary race, called Mr. Trump a “pathological liar” who was “utterly amoral,” a “serial philanderer” and a “narcissist at a level I don’t think this country’s ever seen.” Mr. Cruz has explained his decision to become a loyal defender of Mr. Trump as something that was a “responsibility” to his constituents.

Mick Mulvaney, the former Republican congressman who went on to serve as the president’s acting chief of staff, in 2016 called his future boss a “terrible human being” who had made “disgusting and indefensible” comments about women.

Unlike the other lawmakers who fell in line, however, Mr. Johnson has pitched himself as someone of deep religious convictions, whose worldview is driven by his faith.

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