‘Who’s Mike Johnson?’: Diplomats scratch their heads at new speaker

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As the votes for Rep. Mike Johnson to become House speaker piled up, diplomats who work closely with Washington were left scratching their heads … and Googling. And Googling some more.

“Mike Johnson?” replied one member of the British shadow Cabinet, blankly, before a long pause. “Who’s Mike Johnson?”

Johnson’s election as House speaker Wednesday afternoon put him on the track to becoming a household name in Washington. And the new position is guaranteed to bolster the Louisiana Republican’s international profile — though it will likely take time.

Another U.K. diplomat, who works on U.S. policy, was slightly more informed or at least, well, diplomatic. The individual said they were “aware” of Johnson, “but let’s say he certainly wasn’t an obvious candidate a week ago.”

Since entering Congress in 2016, Johnson has been relatively quiet on foreign policy issues. Still, he’s a member of the House Armed Services Committee and took a strong stance on Ukraine by voting against sending Kyiv a $40 billion package last year. He’s also something of a China hawk, having introduced at least two bills targeting China: one that would bar ex-members of Congress from lobbying on behalf of communist entities, and another that would prevent foreign governments from funding litigation in U.S. courts.

Yet in Dublin, where politicians frequently cross the Atlantic to cultivate political ties with American counterparts, POLITICO couldn’t identify any lawmakers who’d ever met Johnson.

When asked if he’d heard of the lawmaker, a senior Irish government adviser said he hadn’t — and turned to Wikipedia to find out. “Just a minute, don’t tell me, I’m curious how blood-red his state might be.”

But it turns out the world has produced many Mike Johnsons. After a few minutes of typing on his smartphone, the Irish adviser — “Hold on! Don’t spoil the suspense,” he pleaded — had found listings for a half-dozen politicians named Mike Johnson, many more professional athletes, a serial killer and an Oregon punk rocker.

“It says this Mike Johnson used to front a band called Snakepit. That sounds perfect to be the next speaker,” he said.

The official and others were granted anonymity to speak freely about U.S. internal affairs.

Johnson represents a district that exports at least a quarter billion dollars in goods to Canada. Yet, in Ottawa, news of his victory generated zero buzz on Parliament Hill.

POLITICO talked to five MPs from various parties and none recognized Johnson’s name.

When asked for comment on Johnson’s foreign policy priorities or his interactions with foreign counterparts, Griffin Neal, Johnson’s press secretary, had an understandable response: “Things are a bit hectic right now.”

It’s unclear whether the lack of international profile will be a boon or a stumbling block for Johnson as he tries to pull together a consensus among a divided party about how to handle issues from Ukraine, to the weeks-old Israel-Hamas war to how to rein in China.

Despite Johnson’s record, Ukrainian politicians, at least publicly, don’t seem too worried about the new speaker.

“Whoever the American people or their representatives choose, we will work with them and look forward to fruitful cooperation,” said Yehor Cherniev, deputy chair of Ukraine’s parliamentary committee on national security, defense and intelligence, before the speakership vote.

Cherniev added that he had heard “not too much” of Johnson before Wednesday.

President Joe Biden linked Israeli and Ukrainian aid together in his $106 billion request to Congress last week, a matter Johnson will have to navigate as several Republicans staunchly opposed the measure.

The Louisiana Republican appeared to agree with Biden’s Oval Office speech announcing the aid package, tweeting that the president’s remarks “only confirms the urgent need for the U.S. to act in support of our great ally, Israel, as they fight against Hamas terrorists.”

He continued: “We must elect a Speaker so the House can take all necessary action to end Hamas forever.”

But Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) said Johnson won’t be allowed to bring up a bill linking the two wars because “more than half the conference opposes it,” according to NBC News.

One leading European diplomat in Washington shrugged off the news of Johnson’s ascendance as just the usual political grind.

“We’ll now obviously send a congratulatory message. We’re obviously keen to know how he’s going to handle the supplemental and the other bits of legislation needed to get through, but we’re not going to do anything out of the ordinary,” said the diplomat, adding, for good measure: “It’s a very important job.”

In a text message, a former longtime diplomat in Washington admitted he hadn’t heard about the speaker results until POLITICO reached out. And he had to do more research.

“This is funny,” he said. “I only found out who you’re talking about by Googling his name.” He was granted anonymity because it isn’t a good look — to say the least — in D.C. not to have heard of the person who’s about to take on one of the most powerful jobs in Washington.

Zi-Ann Lum, Nahal Toosi, Connor O’Brien and Joe Gould contributed to this report.

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