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House Speaker Johnson Manages the Three-Ring Congressional Circus

Whatever happens, the show must go on.

Speaker of the House Mike Johnson (R-LA) is in the unenviable position of trying to PT Barnum the daily dysfunction of Congress into a show worthy of the nation’s attention, especially as the big act is, once again, former President Donald Trump. With an impeachment that has so far failed to launch, a feisty 45 dominating the media airwaves, and a bevy of GOP House members not seeking re-election in November, Ringmaster Johnson – and perhaps even the party he leads in the House – risk becoming a mere sideshow on the political stage.

Impeachment, congressional shenanigans, partisan politics, and a November election — these have been the dominant stories of the last year. But it is events, not individual members of Congress, that are the stars of the show.

Johnson vs the Impeachment

What was once a dominant headline now seems to have all but disappeared from the front pages of the nation’s newspapers and online discourse. The impeachment of President Joe Biden is off the GOP docket. Or is it?

All has been quiet on the impeachment front since the Republican-led House voted to advance the proceedings back in December 2023. Notably, the GOP caucus did not vote to actually impeach but rather to authorize such an action when the time comes. And that time has apparently not yet arrived. The media and DC Democrats have been pushing the narrative that impeachment is not possible because Republicans lack the smoking-gun proof of high crimes or misdemeanors, but by this late stage, the act of impeachment has become a political symbol – much as it was twice for Trump.

There is, however, a possibility beyond lack of proof and lack of will: that the investigation into Biden’s mishandling of classified documents by Special Counsel Robert Hur report has perhaps provided further fodder.

While the report did not recommend charges, it also did not exonerate the president – much to the chagrin of Democrats who questioned Hur during a committee hearing. In fact, the conclusion was that the only reason not to charge Biden was that a jury might decide that the current president was an “elderly man with a poor memory,” making conviction a high hurdle. But that is a jury, not the House of Representatives, which relies on an entirely different standard.

White House Intervention

Further evidence that impeachment games may be afoot came with a strongly worded letter direct from White House counsel Edward Siskel to Speaker Johnson in March. The letter reads in part:

“I write to you today because it is clear the House Republican impeachment is over … The House Majority ought to work with the President on our economy, national security, and other important priorities on behalf of the American people, not continue to waste time on political stunts like this.”

To clarify, a letter from Biden’s in-house lawyer bears no authority whatsoever and, in fact, was almost certain to be ignored. So why send it? Johnson responded at the time: “They don’t get to call the shots on it,” adding that, “We’re allowing the process to play out as the Constitution anticipates. Our committees of jurisdiction have done their duty. They’ve done an extraordinary job. They’ve revealed some alarming information.”

That Team Biden considers a curt missive necessary implies more than it openly states.

And the congressional dance goes on.

Who Did What?

Today, (March 20), the House Oversight Committee will convene a hearing titled: Influence Peddling: Examining Joe Biden’s Abuse of Public Office. Notable is not who will attend but who will not. The current president’s son, Hunter Biden — who made political hay when he initially refused a congressional subpoena and instead demanded a public hearing — will not be in attendance despite this being the very forum he requested.

GettyImages-1915020336 Hunter Biden (2R) and his lawyer Abbe Lowell

Hunter Biden and his lawyer Abbe Lowell (Photo by Kent Nishimura/Getty Images)

Hunter’s attorney, Abbe Lowell, derided the hearing as a “circus act” and informed the panel that “Mr. Biden declines your invitation to this carnival side show.” Moving the goalposts once again, Lowell wrote that his client would reconsider publicly testifying if the panel also included “relatives of former President Trump.” Presumably, this means Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

There are efforts to conflate the actions of the two sons in the minds of the public. But whereas it appears that Hunter Biden made his millions trading on the Biden name and his father’s political positions, Kushner was the wealthy scion of a multi-billion-dollar real estate empire before he ever got involved with the Trump family.

Don’t Forget the Election

While Johnson attempts to walk the narrow line of his office, there is also a presidential election to consider. Now that Trump has the requisite number of delegates sewn up, his nomination is all but assured. And yet there is some speculation as to whether this coming contest is a battle between parties or between presidents.

Former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) was a one-man fundraising machine for the favored few who sought office under his tenure. How the new Speaker will manage this feat is as yet unknown. With roughly 20 Republicans either not seeking to retain their House seats or gunning for another office, their razor-thin majority is in a precarious position. But the smart money is betting on a coattails victory.

According to the RealClearPolitics reckoning of nationwide polls, Trump is beating Biden by an average of 1.7%; when this is expanded to include others like RFK Jr., Jill Stein, and Cornel West, his lead grows. Consider this: Trump has never led in national polling — not when he won in 2016 and certainly not when he lost in 2020. The fact that he now seems to be advancing across all districts and demographics suggests that he may just drag Congress over the finish line with him. Where does that leave Mike Johnson?

On the Outside Looking In

In a number of primaries, Republicans have been taking on other Republicans in what are increasingly hard-fought contests. This kind of infighting is a gift to the GOP’s political opponents and one that they have encouraged through various funding packages. Johnson appears all too aware that, with Trump’s heady polling, Congress is his party’s to lose. Speaking to CNN, he implored:

“I’ve asked them all to cool it … I am vehemently opposed to member-on-member action in primaries because it’s not productive. And it causes division for obvious reasons, and we should not be engaging in that.

“So, I’m telling everyone who’s doing that to knock it off … And both sides, they’ll say, ‘Well, we didn’t start it, they started it.’”

Speaker Johnson may just end up becoming a successful party leader by forcing his tribe to keep their heads down and wait for Election Day. As Trump continues to dominate the political landscape of the United States, one might wonder just how many roles are available to the other performers.

Read More From Mark Angelides

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