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Mike Johnson’s Insane New Defense of Trump Shows Deep MAGA Desperation

Why aren’t prosecutors going after Joe Biden like Donald Trump? Uh … maybe because Joe Biden isn’t a criminal?

Andrew Harnik/Getty Images
House Speaker Mike Johnson in Washington, D.C., on June 4

Last month, Mike Johnson suffered from a rare outbreak of candor, consistency, and principle. Asked if he was prepared to defund the office of special counsel Jack Smith, who is prosecuting Donald Trump, the House Speaker declared simply: “No.” This tactic, he said, would be an affront to the crucial institutional role of special counsels, which he defended in careful, legalistic language.

That was before Trump was convicted in Manhattan by a jury of his peers. The MAGA rage that this verdict has unleashed is sweeping away any such niceties, requiring all Republicans in good standing to show absolute fealty to the noble cause of keeping Trump above the law at all costs.

The result? This week, Johnson announced a broad new effort to use the House’s institutional power to target the Department of Justice and the prosecutions of Trump, including via the appropriations process. Johnson also expressly declared that the House will “look at” Smith’s “funding streams.”

Meanwhile, at a press conference Tuesday, Johnson offered a wild-eyed, up-is-down defense of Trump, falsely depicting him as the victim of out-of-control law enforcement and declaring the American people are in full-scale revolt about it, which is a shameless lie. Take all this together, and it’s clear Johnson calculates he must at minimum be perceived as maximally wielding the levers of institutional power to negate the application of the law to Trump in every way possible.

So what will this defund-Smith effort look like? It’s hard to say without legislative text, which will be forthcoming soon, but Democratic aides expect it to track closely with recent proposals offered by Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, the Judiciary Committee chair and an influential Trump loyalist.

One of those proposals would restrict federal funding from going to any special counsel to “bring a criminal prosecution of a former or current president.” Two others would restrict federal funding to other federal and state law enforcement officials pursuing such a prosecution.

To put this delicately, these ideas are bonkers. “They would use the power of the purse to immunize current or former presidents from criminal prosecution, no matter what law they broke and no matter how grave their crimes,” legal scholar Matthew Seligman told me. “It’s fundamentally antithetical to the rule of law.”

Troublingly, CNN reports that Johnson presented Jordan’s ideas to the GOP caucus this week. And so, Democrats expect these proposals—or others like them—to be attached as so-called “riders” to an upcoming must-pass appropriations bill. This will be a complete nonstarter for the White House and Democrats who control the Senate. So the question is, when Democrats respond with a hard “no,” how staunchly will House Republicans dig in behind them?

“House Republicans are proposing extreme poison pill riders that will never get the support of Democrats and will never become law,” Representative Rosa DeLauro, the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, told me in a statement. “These tactics only create more chaos and drive us closer to the brink of a shutdown.”

Translation: Right now, if House Republicans continue lurching down their current path, they may attempt to shut down the government to keep Trump above the law.

Will Republicans go through with this? In the end, probably not. The story of the Johnson speakership has been that on must-pass bills—such as aid to Ukraine and government funding—Johnson has ultimately made deals with Democrats. These have triggered splenetic outrage and MAGA calls for his ouster, but Johnson has survived efforts to depose him. These efforts to defund prosecutions of Trump will probably meet the same fate.

This time, though, the price extracted from Johnson for failure could be worse, because MAGA rage over the Trump conviction has gone positively nuclear. MAGA personalities are slamming it as everything from a harbinger of the death of America to a modern-day version of the Salem witch trials. As Matt Gertz shows, a key element of the MAGA dogma that this crossed some kind of Rubicon is a tortured conspiracy theory alleging that President Biden somehow pulled the strings behind a state prosecution of Trump.

That’s sheer nonsense, but the point is, anyone capable of believing this—or capable of pretending to believe this—will demand from Johnson the absolute maximum in corrupt interference for Trump. What happens if and when the efforts to target Smith fizzle?

The dilemma this creates for Johnson was on clear display during his bizarre press conference this week. Johnson insisted that “everybody” believes the charges were bogus. In fact, people who have conducted such prosecutions said it was a clear-cut case, and legal experts who were initially skeptical of it were won over by the force of the factual evidence against him.

Johnson also insisted that Trump is the victim of a “two tiered” legal system. In fact, Trump benefited from the best defense money can buy, he violated his gag order to viciously attack the proceedings with minimal punishment, and generally the courts are bending over backward to enable Trump’s delay strategies.

Perhaps most absurdly, to bolster the Trump-as-victim notion, Johnson actually said this: “No one’s gone after President Biden for his abuses with classified documents.” That’s true, but it’s because a special counsel investigated exactly that and could not find evidence of any Biden criminality! Some Trump allies expressly wanted Biden prosecuted despite the lack of any such evidence!

In short, everything Johnson said was geared toward one single, solitary end: flatly denying the existence of a reality the whole country witnessed—that Trump was convicted by a jury of his peers, in a proceeding that was fair and in keeping with the rule of law, one that saw a volume of evidence of his crimes presented that was absolutely overwhelming. And that by contrast, Biden was subjected to serious, sustained law enforcement scrutiny, and he was cleared.

At the core of all these efforts from Johnson and MAGA propagandists alike is an effort to make that glaring reality, i.e., that Trump is a criminal and Biden is not, magically disappear.

This whole affair stinks of desperation. Not because the convictions will necessarily weaken Trump’s presidential bid—that remains to be seen. Rather, it’s because Trump and his allies are the ones who actively want a two-tiered justice system—to the benefit of Trump and his movement and to the detriment of their designated enemies. And Johnson just doesn’t have the power to bring that about—no matter how incandescent MAGA’s rage grows over it.