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Week in politics: New Speaker elected; Biden's foreign policy changes

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

There is a new name in the U.S. presidential line of succession - House speaker Mike Johnson. He is 51 and from Shreveport and has supported Donald Trump. But on Fox News this week, he made reference to another Republican president.

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MIKE JOHNSON: Ronald Reagan used to teach us - I'd rather get 80% of what I want than go over the cliff with a flag waving. I still believe in that idea.

SIMON: NPR senior editor and correspondent Ron Elving joins us. Ron, thanks for being with us.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: What do you make of now-Speaker Johnson? What influence might he have?

ELVING: He may have started by quoting Ronald Reagan, but I think he's going to remind more people of the politics of Donald Trump. Let's just say he's a departure from the usual speaker credentials - not a senior member, not a chairman, not a well-known name. He was first elected in 2016 - same year as Trump. He has been the chair of the Republican Study Conference (ph). That's the largest group of House conservatives. And he's had a lower rung on the leadership ladder of the House Republicans - only No. 5 in their hierarchy. But that's been important because his task was largely to communicate the leadership team's viewpoint to the party's hard core on the right - to reach out on behalf of Speaker Kevin McCarthy's leadership team. And as events have unfolded, that may have been a virtue for his bid for speaker.

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SIMON: And why is the lower profile a virtue?

ELVING: It gave him an opening into both camps in the standoff over the past three weeks. He could talk to the rebels who ousted McCarthy but also present himself as a more conventional Republican to the rest of the party where most of the votes were.

Now, let's be clear - he is not a moderate in his views. He is well-known as an outspoken conservative and evangelical Christian. He has said he looks to the Bible to guide his stance on all issues. And, you know, his first fundraising appeal that went out this week quoted the Bible and cited God three times just in the opening paragraphs. So we should also add he is a staunch opponent of abortion and same-sex marriage. He blames gun violence in schools on the lack of religion in the schools. And, in fact, he's been compared to Jim Jordan, the hard-charging conservative whose own bid for speaker failed a week ago. It's been said Johnson is Jordan with a suit jacket and a smile - Jordan, of course, being known for wearing neither. But while he may be more personable, Johnson is still OK with the Trump faction in the House. In fact, back in 2020, he organized support for a lawsuit attempting to overturn the election results and keep Trump in the white House. And even now, he refuses to acknowledge President Biden was legitimately elected.

SIMON: Ron, will Mr. Johnson's election make President Joe Biden's request for more aid for Israel and Ukraine more difficult to pass? And what about funding the government?

ELVING: Aid to Israel is not at risk here, Scott. Johnson will see to that money, and he will make sure it passes on the floor. But aid to Ukraine is very much in question. That's got to be very chilling to Ukrainians preparing for winter and for Europeans counting on the U.S. in the future. And on the big annual spending bills you mentioned, Johnson is not one of those who relish the idea of a shutdown, but some of those members who do seem to were crucial to Johnson getting this job.

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SIMON: And Ron, we have to ask you because he continues to lead all polls in his party. How do you read this speaker's election as a sign of the influence of Donald Trump?

ELVING: You know, when Jordan's speaker bid went down in flames a week ago, some people thought it meant Trump's influence was on the wane. Turns out that was more about Jordan than Trump. This week, Trump weighed in to trash the candidate who had been chosen by an open process among the House Republicans themselves. That was Minnesotan Tom Emmer. Trump called him a Republican in name only and a globalist, and those are fighting words in today's GOP. So it would seem Trump's stock in the House is as high as ever, and it is mirrored by those polls that you mentioned among Republican primary voters.

At the same time, Trump's legal condition continues to deteriorate. We have seen several of his former lawyers testify against him or agree to testify against him in the future, and even his former chief of staff is reported to be cooperating with prosecutors. And Trump himself incurred yet another, larger fine this week for his defiance of a partial gag order. He's got to be worried that the image of him in the dock is taking the place of the image of him at his triumphant rallies.

SIMON: NPR's Ron Elving, thanks so much for being with us.

ELVING: Thank you, Scott. 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.

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Scott Simon
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Ron Elving
Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.