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Trump and Speaker Johnson stand side-by-side at press conference amid GOP infighting

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

House Speaker Mike Johnson is steering through another week of chaotic infighting within his party. He capped it off with an announcement alongside former President Trump about new legislation - legislation that he plans to introduce to require proof of citizenship before registering to vote in federal elections.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKE JOHNSON: I'm going to announce to you today, here standing alongside President Trump, that we will do everything within our power to ensure that we do have free and fair elections in this country. If we don't have that in a constitutional republic, we have nothing.

CHANG: Non-U.S. citizens voting in federal elections is already illegal, but the appearance gave the two Republican leaders the opportunity to stand side by side, literally and legislatively aligned, as their party continues to battle internally. Joining us now to talk about all of this is White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez and congressional reporter Barbara Spunt. Hey to both of you.

BARBARA SPRUNT, BYLINE: Hello.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: OK, so let's start with why or what they're trying to achieve with this appearance. Barbara, explain the timing of this. Why this event now?

SPRUNT: Well, this is an issue that unites the GOP. And it comes after a week on the Hill where unity was not on display for House Republicans. A group of conservatives revolted once again against GOP leadership, this time on a foreign surveillance bill that Johnson supported. Trump had gone on social media and called for House Republicans to kill the bill. It caused days of uncertainty up here. It ultimately got resolved today, but it demonstrates this enormous pressure and the constant threats that Johnson faces from within his own party. I think, with this appearance, he wants to remind members who aren't, say, fond of him but are big Trump allies that he has this longstanding relationship with Trump. Remember; he supported Trump through both impeachments and authored a legal defense challenging the 2020 election results on his behalf.

CHANG: Right. OK, so it seems pretty clear that Johnson does need Trump right now. But, Franco, what does Trump get out of embracing the speaker right now? - because Trump's polling really well. He's already had - has major support within his party. So what's in it for him?

ORDOÑEZ: I mean, Ailsa, it's another chance for him to put his stamp on the Republican Party. It's a way to say to voters, look how all these senior lawmakers are coming to me for policymaking, such as this election integrity proposal, which, you know, likely - unlikely to go anywhere. You know, and while there is little question that House Republicans support Trump, you're not likely to see Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell head down there or other mainstream Republicans. And Trump's calling for unity of the party. So this is also a message to moderates, to more establishment Republicans, who may still be a little bit on the fence about his nomination, that it's time to get on board.

CHANG: But how does all of the disarray on Capitol Hill affect Trump, you think?

ORDOÑEZ: I mean, it hurts him politically for the most part. You know, the House Republicans are so tied to Trump. You know, and it plays into Biden's messaging. Alex Conant, who helped lead Senator Marco Rubio's 2016 presidential campaign, says Biden wants to run on a message that Republicans are incompetent and incapable of governing. But that doesn't mean there are some benefits for Trump.

ALEX CONANT: On the other hand, you know, to the extent that the House blocks bipartisan legislation that would help Biden's reelection campaign, that clearly helps Trump.

ORDOÑEZ: And he's talking about Ukraine funding and immigration - issues that have received bipartisan support that Trump helped scuttle. You know, it all just stops Biden from getting a political win at a really critical time. But Conant points out that what Trump really wants is loyalty, and he warns that it's not a two-way street. Trump is showing up for Johnson now, but that doesn't mean he will in a few months if the political winds change.

CHANG: Right. OK, so Barbara, it's pretty clear that Speaker Johnson has a lot to gain from showing up with Trump to talk about an issue that energizes the base. What are the specific challenges Johnson has in front of him at the moment?

SPRUNT: You know, Johnson is in a tough position. He has pretty much the narrowest majority you can have as a House speaker. His conference is often deeply at odds, and Trump himself is stoking those divisions.

CHANG: Yeah.

SPRUNT: And on top of all of that, there's a motion to vacate that's still hanging over his head. Georgia Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene filed this motion in March to remove him as speaker. She said it's not personal. She said she respects him, but she feels he handed over way too much negotiating power to the Democrats over spending deals and wants new leadership. That motion is not privileged, so that means it's unclear when it will be brought to the floor for a vote. But Johnson is facing other pressure to bring another bill forward on aid for Ukraine - something that Trump opposes, something that Greene opposes. And she said that if he were to do that, it may cause her to bring up this vote to remove him as speaker.

CHANG: But Franco, I mean, Greene is a close ally of Trump. So how significant is it that this threat to Johnson is coming from such a close ally of Trump?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, yeah. I mean, we're not talking about moderates here. I mean, these threats are coming from Trump's most loyal supporters, like Greene. So for Johnson, you know, getting that embrace from Trump - that picture together - can go a real long way as the speaker tries to kind of push back against calls for his removal.

CHANG: That is NPR's Franco Ordoñez and Barbara Sprunt. Thank you to both of you.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.

SPRUNT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Barbara Sprunt is a producer on NPR's Washington desk, where she reports and produces breaking news and feature political content. She formerly produced the NPR Politics Podcast and got her start in radio at as an intern on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered and Tell Me More with Michel Martin. She is an alumnus of the Paul Miller Reporting Fellowship at the National Press Foundation. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Pennsylvania native.
Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.
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