Inside US House speaker Mike Johnson’s conversion on aid for Ukraine

Breakthrough move to hold vote followed campaign by evangelical Christians and intelligence chiefs

In the last week of February, a large billboard appeared across the street from Mike Johnson’s home church in Benton, Louisiana.

“For such a time as this,” it read, quoting a Bible verse alongside an image of a damaged Baptist church in Berdyansk, Ukraine. It addressed Johnson by name.

The advertisement was paid for by Razom, a Ukrainian human rights group, and appealed to Johnson’s deep Christian faith – and his power as speaker of the US House of Representatives to secure billions of dollars in US funding for Ukraine’s defence against Russia’s full-scale invasion.

The campaign paid off last week, when Johnson shocked Washington and US allies around the world by allowing the House to vote for that aid, unblocking $95 billion (€89 billion) in funds for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan.


The Senate also passed the package on Tuesday night. President Joe Biden signed it into law on Wednesday and said shipments of weapons to Ukraine would start “right away” – crucial support just as Russian forces threaten to overwhelm Ukrainian defences.

It marks a huge U-turn for Johnson, who had previously voted repeatedly against Ukraine aid, and for months used his power as speaker to block a vote on new support. And it culminates a months-long, behind-the-scenes campaign by intelligence chiefs, White House officials, European diplomats and evangelical Christians from Ukraine to persuade him.

People close to Johnson insist that he has long been sympathetic to the Ukrainian people’s plight and spent recent months trying to find a way forward to satisfy feuding factions within the Republican Party, including isolationists who have threatened to oust him over his support for Ukraine.

“He has never had a lack of clarity about who is right and wrong in this conflict,” said one person close to Johnson.

The White House first reached out to Johnson just days after he became speaker in October, according to administration officials who said he was initially briefed on Ukraine by US national security adviser Jake Sullivan.

Yet by February of this year, it was Biden himself who applied pressure, summoning Johnson to the Oval Office and urging him to stop stalling over a funding bill for Kyiv and Israel that had passed the Senate weeks earlier.

Chuck Schumer, the Senate majority leader, described the encounter as among the “most intense” he had participated in. But when Johnson emerged, he gave little indication that he had been won over.

European nations, fearing new US support for Ukraine was dead, rushed to find alternative funds for Kyiv. Ukrainian military leaders warned they were running out of ammunition.

In retrospect, people familiar with the Oval Office meeting now argue it was pivotal to Johnson’s willingness to negotiate. The attendees, who also included Democratic House leader Hakeem Jeffries and Republican Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, were briefed on Ukraine by Sullivan and CIA director Bill Burns.

Johnson was briefed again more recently by Burns, who hosted the speaker’s staff at CIA headquarters to talk about Ukraine on March 29th, according to administration officials.

Johnson also received briefings from top Pentagon officials, including those from United States European Command. The intelligence was persuasive.

“I really do believe the intel and the briefings that we’ve gotten,” Johnson said last week as he explained his decision to call a vote. “I believe Xi [Jinping] and Vladimir Putin and Iran really are an axis of evil ... I think Vladimir Putin would continue to march through Europe if he were allowed.”

Razom, the Ukrainian group behind the billboard in Louisiana, was meanwhile trying other personal ways to appeal to the speaker.

It organised a speaking tour for Roman Rubchenko, a Ukrainian basketball star who had played for the state’s university, to tell voters in Louisiana about the war. Razom also arranged for a helmet and letter from Ukrainian firefighters on the front line with Russia to be sent to Johnson, whose late father had served as a firefighter in Shreveport, Louisiana.

Private meetings between Johnson, a devout Baptist, and persecuted Ukrainian Christians were also a “big factor”, said Melinda Haring, a senior adviser at Razom.

Pavlo Unguryan, a Ukrainian evangelical leader who met Johnson after Biden’s State of the Union address in March, helped set up a meeting last week, before the House voted, with Serhii Gaidarzhi, a fellow Baptist whose wife and four-month-old son had been killed by a Russian drone attack in Odesa in early March.

In back-channel negotiations with the White House, Johnson emphasised the need for accountability over how the Ukraine money would be spent – a big concern of some Republican aid sceptics – and called for more sanctions on Russian businesses and entities.

He also pushed for White House assurances that Kyiv would receive more ATACMS, a US tactical missile system, but with a longer range than those already in Ukraine, as well as ammunition and other weapons systems.

Johnson’s demands on the weaponry reflected requests from Ukrainians – including President Volodymyr Zelenskiy during a December meeting with Johnson, according to the people involved.

Johnson also moved to shore up support for his position within the party.

On April 12th, he travelled to Mar-a-Lago for a meeting with Donald Trump. The former president, an avowed isolationist, had already come under pressure from several pro-Ukraine foreign leaders, including UK foreign secretary David Cameron, who made the case for more support for Kyiv to Trump over dinner on April 9th.

Johnson used the meeting to tell Trump he would hold a vote on Ukraine aid, according to a person familiar with the discussions. Trump voiced his approval for the speaker in a news conference after the meeting. His reaction days later, when Johnson announced his plan, was muted.

But by then, Iran had launched a massive aerial assault on Israel on April 13th, putting a US ally under attack and altering the mood in Washington.

Johnson laid out his plans for the four-part national security package two days later, when Congress returned from a weekend of urgent discussions over foreign policy. Later that evening, he spoke by phone with Biden, who had also called him the day before.

“The Iranian attack on Israel was a big piece that added urgency, in his perspective,” said one person familiar with Johnson’s thinking. “The world needs to see the US standing behind Israel.” The legislation passed on Saturday included an additional $26 billion in US aid for Israel, as well as the money for Kyiv.

“This is a live-fire exercise for me, as it is for so many families,” Johnson told reporters last week, referring to his son, who will start at the US Naval Academy in the autumn. “To put it bluntly, I would rather send bullets to Ukraine, than American boys ... We have to do the right thing, and history will judge us.”

Unguryan, the evangelical leader, declined to comment on the specifics of his private conversations with Johnson, saying only that his “brother in Christ” had prayed for the Ukrainian people.

“Speaker Johnson was staying on his knees and praying for Almighty God to give him the wisdom to do this very important decision to make a right decision,” he said. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2024

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