Friday, July 12, 2024

Mike Johnson’s Intelligence Committee choices anger some GOP lawmakers

Mike Johnson’s Intelligence Committee choices anger some GOP lawmakers

The quiet announcement that Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) earlier this month tapped two controversial members to serve on the House Intelligence Committee set off alarms among some House Republicans. Lawmakers’ phones were suddenly buzzing with texts from shocked colleagues and calls were made to the highest echelons of leadership asking for an explanation.

One call Johnson received was from former speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who felt it imperative to understand the new speaker’s rationale for appointing Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.) to the critical panel, according to two people familiar with the conversation, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.

The appointment of Rep. Ronny Jackson (R-Tex.) to Intelligence also drew unease from some House Republicans, but not as much as Perry, because he is not a member of the hard-line House Freedom Caucus and does not often buck GOP leadership.

The moves were especially surprising because McCarthy had worked in tandem with Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) and top leaders of the Intelligence Committee — Chairman Michael R. Turner (R-Ohio) and ranking Democrat Jim Himes (Conn.) — to depoliticize the panel after members of both parties contributed to increased partisanship over the years.

In calls with McCarthy and other Republicans last week, Johnson justified his decision by saying he appointed Perry and Jackson partly because former president Donald Trump urged him to do so, according to two other people with direct knowledge of the matter. Trump repeatedly and unusually vilified the intelligence community as president, insisting that it had unfairly targeted him during the 2016 campaign, most recently describing the Justice Department at last week’s gathering with House Republicans as “dirty, no-good bastards.”

“[Johnson] has reversed course on this committee, and has now made it political again. He has reversed all the advances, which could harm America’s preparedness,” one high-ranking Republican said. “This is not a place to play games. This is not a place to appease somebody. This is where you got to do the real work.”

Johnson briefly explained his decision, telling The Washington Post that it is “important to have a broad spectrum of perspectives on that committee” and that he believes both members are “going to do a good job.”

The appointments came before Trump rallied House Republicans on Capitol Hill last week to unite lawmakers behind a political and policy message aimed at establishing a GOP lock on Washington in the November elections. The move demonstrates that Trump’s influence with the House Republican leadership is already being felt in ways that could embolden the far-right to make demands of the speaker, especially as Johnson tries to shore up his support to continue leading the fractious House GOP.

Johnson and Trump are relatively close. The former president has praised the speaker in the last several months and tried to stop hard-liners from ousting him. After Trump became the first former president to be convicted of a crime last month, Johnson said the House would ramp up its oversight of the Justice Department.

“I think we’re letting the executive branch, in this case, compel the speaker of the House and legislative branch to fill two critical spots that we have, frankly, more qualified people for,” one House Republican on the intelligence panel said.

The Intelligence Committee regularly receives highly classified briefings on sensitive national security matters affecting the country. Johnson has said his perspective changed on sending more aid to Ukraine after receiving the highest level of intelligence briefings as speaker, and he has often encouraged skeptical Republicans to do the same. Turner and Himes urged Johnson to pass more aid to Ukraine in April after a classified committee briefing on the war.

“I think we’ve seen decade after decade, even with presidential candidates, once you get down in the [sensitive compartmented information facility] and you read the volume and the seriousness of the threats that face this country, and the ill intent that our adversaries truly have for us and our way of life, it’s often a game-changing experience. So no concerns here,” said Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.), a member of the committee.

Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.), a conservative who says he respects the House as an institution, brought up his worries with Johnson and said the speaker now “knows how I feel” about the decision. After hearing that Rep. David Joyce also had reservations, Johnson tried to assuage the moderate Ohio Republican by telling him that multiple perspectives are necessary on committees and that the former president wanted those lawmakers to be heard.

Joyce wasn’t convinced. “You appease those people, what gives everybody else the reason to do the right thing by encouraging bad behavior?” he said.

Not even Turner knew of Johnson’s decision before the news broke in the media. Republicans on the Intelligence Committee took an extra step, requesting a sit-down meeting with Johnson to voice concerns over how Jackson and Perry could harm efforts to make the committee less partisan. Tensions appear to have cooled since the meeting, according to multiple people in attendance, with Republicans on the committee hoping the seriousness of the job will change new members’ perspectives.

“We have six months left until the end of the year, and then we’ll see what the committee looks like in January,” said Rep. Austin Scott (R-Ga.), another member of the panel. “Both of those members are qualified to be on the Intelligence Committee.”

While the speaker has the ultimate say over who gets appointed to a special or select committee, a decision is often made in consultation with the chairman or ranking minority-party member. Members are assigned to permanent committees based on each party’s steering committee, often filled with allies of leadership.

Reps. Laurel Lee (R-Fla.) and Stephanie Bice (R-Okla.) are said to have sought an appointment to the committee after GOP Reps. Chris Stewart (Utah) and Mike Gallagher (Wis.) retired.

Perry, a former chairman of the Freedom Caucus and a chief Trump loyalist, has drawn the most fire from colleagues for his appointment. He was one of about 20 House Republicans who last year refused to support McCarthy for speaker in an effort to extract concessions from him. Some of those demands included putting more hard-liners on Intelligence and removing Turner as chair, which McCarthy avoided as he sought to appoint serious legislators to the panel, according to two people familiar with his thinking. He has voted against rules on the House floor several times since Johnson became speaker.

Perry also played a role in Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election, according to witnesses who testified before the House Jan. 6 panel. The FBI seized Perry’s phone in 2022 as part of the Justice Department’s investigation into the effort to reverse the election results.

Intelligence members consider Perry’s comportment more problematic than his ties to Jan. 6. Three lawmakers pointed to a statement Perry made after Johnson named him to Intelligence: that he looked forward “to providing not only a fresh perspective, but conducting actual oversight — not blind obedience to some facets of our Intel Community that all too often abuse their powers, resources, and authority to spy on the American People.” He added in a video that he thought Johnson “wanted some different viewpoints on the committee.”

“I’m looking forward to seeing what their definition of real oversight looks like compared to what we’ve been doing,” one of those lawmakers said.

In contrast, Jackson’s statement was more complimentary of the committee and he applauded Turner’s role in helping “restore the American people’s complete faith in our intelligence community.”

Jackson, who was White House physician under President Barack Obama and Trump, has not challenged House leadership as Perry has. But the U.S. Navy demoted him in 2022 from retired rear admiral to retired captain after a Pentagon inspector general’s report found he had bullied staff, among other misdeeds.

During the Intelligence Committee’s first meeting with the two new members Tuesday, multiple lawmakers described Perry and Jackson as silent and unengaged. While other lawmakers walked out together, Perry left by himself and described his first meeting as “informative.”

Throughout the week, Perry “had it out with a few people,” one Intelligence member recounted, but has since “tried to make amends and let us yell at him for it, which is good.”

Perry said in a brief interview that he just wants “to do the job” and is “excited to work and to keep the country safe.” He was aware that he was limited in what he could say given the tight-lipped nature of the committee, noting, “I have to be careful what I say here.”

Trump and the congressional MAGA faithful have been seeking greater influence on top committees, including Intelligence, which oversees the CIA, the FBI and other agencies and whose members are briefed on top-secret intelligence matters. Hard-line lawmakers, including Perry, recently voted against reauthorizing a part of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, claiming the intelligence community is actively spying on Americans, though the law forbids it.

Some House Republicans remain cautiously optimistic about the speaker’s decision.

“It’s unquestionable that there’s lawfare being practiced against Donald Trump by the agencies and by the Department of Justice, so I don’t blame him for issuing one of his faithful on the Intelligence Committee,” Rep. John Duarte (R-Calif.) said, suggesting that the legal system and government institutions are being used by the Biden administration to attack Trump. “I think there are many faithful in the party, and that we should be putting the most qualified people in there.”

But the Intelligence appointments, and the naming of Rep. Clay Higgins (R-La.), a Freedom Caucus member, to the House Armed Services Committee, have greatly rankled the faction of Republicans who want the House to function better, known as the governing wing. Many fear that the inclusion of hard-line perspectives could block key legislation from reaching the floor for a vote, causing the House to grind to a halt, as the far-right has done before.

Pragmatic conservatives, many of whom were granted anonymity to speak freely, worry that placing hard-line colleagues on Intelligence will follow a pattern that has played out on other key panels. Freedom Caucus members on the House Appropriations Committee filled funding bills with extreme provisions that moderates could not support on the floor last year, while three hard-liners on the House Rules Committee blocked a border security bill from getting a floor vote in protest of Johnson’s leadership on a foreign aid package earlier this year.

Yet far-right members and many rank-and-file conservatives aren’t concerned.

“My overall reaction to colleagues who are frustrated: So? It’s not your decision,” said Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.), a member of the Freedom Caucus, who noted that Johnson’s decision-making style is deliberative.

For over a decade, Freedom Caucus members have been demanding that their perspective be better reflected on House committees. Their obstructionism and all-or-nothing negotiation style has often influenced GOP leaders to bend their way on multiple fronts, especially as they aligned closer to Trump.

“I feel that I’ll have an important voice within a committee, respectful of every other, but I’m coming from a background that’s not commonly found on that committee,” said Higgins. “I think it will be a beautiful marriage.”

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