New US House speaker tried to help overturn the 2020 election, raising concerns about the next one

Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., holds up an article while questioning Attorney General William Barr during a House Judiciary Committee hearing in 2020 on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Chip Somodevilla/Pool via AP, File)

The new leader of one of the chambers of Congress that will certify the winner of next year’s presidential election helped spearhead the attempt to overturn the last one, raising alarms that Republicans could try to subvert the will of the voters if they remain in power despite safeguards enacted after the 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Mike Johnson, the Louisiana congressman who was elected speaker of the House of Representatives on Wednesday after a three-week standoff among Republicans, took the lead in filing a brief in a lawsuit that sought to overturn Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential election win. That claim, widely panned by legal scholars of all ideologies, was quickly thrown out by the U.S. Supreme Court.

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After the 2020 election, Johnson also echoed some of the wilder conspiracy theories pushed by then-President Donald Trump to explain away his loss. Then Johnson voted against certifying Biden’s win even after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

Johnson’s role three years ago is relevant now not only because the speaker is second in the line of presidential succession, after the vice president.

The House Johnson now leads also will have to certify the winner of the 2024 presidential election.

“You don’t want people who falsely claim the last election was stolen to be in a position of deciding who won the next one,” said Rick Hasen, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. On Wednesday, he flagged another worry about Johnson, who is a constitutional lawyer.

“Johnson is more dangerous because he wrapped up his attempt to subvert the election outcomes in lawyerly and technical language,” Hasen said.

Last year, Congress revamped the procedures for how a presidential win is certified, making it far harder to object in the way that Johnson and 146 other House Republicans did on Jan. 6, 2021. But there is a conservative school of thought that no legislation can control how Congress oversees the certification of a president’s win — all that counts is the Constitution’s broad granting of power to ratify the electoral college’s votes.

The House in January 2025 will be filled with the winners of the previous November’s election, so there’s no guarantee a Speaker Johnson would remain in power.

To be sure, it would be difficult for the speaker to change any of the results. The vice president — who would be Democrat Kamala Harris at the time — presides over the joint House and Senate session in a ceremonial role and calls votes if there are enough objections to do so.

Still, the goal of Trump supporters in 2020 was to advance any legal argument against Biden’s win to a Supreme Court where conservative justices have a 6-3 edge, three of whom were nominated by Trump. A speaker who supported Trump’s last effort to stay in power would be well-positioned to do so again if the former president is the GOP nominee next year and loses the election.

On Tuesday night, after Johnson was nominated to his new post by the House GOP caucus, he smiled and shook his head as the rest of the caucus laughed and booed at a reporter’s question about his role in trying to halt certification of the 2020 results. “Next question,” Johnson said. “Next question.”

Democrats kept the issue center stage as the speaker vote on the floor proceeded Wednesday.

“This has been about one thing,” Rep. Pete Aguilar said. “This has been about who can appease Donald Trump. House Republicans have put their names behind someone who has been called the most important architect of the electoral college objections.”

“Damn right,” someone called from the Republican side of the House.

Later, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., noted that Biden had won the 2020 election. Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor-Greene yelled, “No, he didn’t.”

Johnson’s ascension came after Trump on Tuesday torpedoed the candidacy of Rep. Tom Emmer, who signed onto Johnson’s brief in the lawsuit to overturn Trump’s loss but ended up voting to certify Biden’s win after the attack on the Capitol. The former president called Emmer a “RINO” — or Republican In Name Only — on his social media platform, Truth Social, and said Emmer “wasn’t MAGA,” a reference to his Make America Great Again slogan.

Johnson is a former attorney for the religious rights group Alliance Defending Freedom who was first elected to the House in 2016, the year Trump won the presidency. An active member of the House Judiciary Committee, he gained notice as one of the leading Republican questioners of witnesses during Trump’s first impeachment in 2019.

He remained one of Trump’s chief defenders through the 2020 election. On Nov. 7, 2020, four days after Election Day, he posted on Twitter that he had told Trump, “Stay strong and keep fighting, sir!” In an interview on a Shreveport, Louisiana, radio station 10 days later, he repeated a debunked claim about an international conspiracy to hack voting machines so Trump would lose.

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