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Speaker Mike Johnson’s Past Holds Many Unanswered Questions
And the Johnsons are busily trying to scrub it all
When the Republican conference in the House went to their fifth in line, Rep. Mike Johnson, and decided, in collective utter exhaustion, that they would unanimously back him for Speaker, my first reaction was, “Who?”
And this is from someone who follows politics quite closely.
After hearing that he was a Christo-Nationalist extremist, whose wife, as he claimed, had been on her knees in prayer for the last weeks—hoo, boy—my second reaction was “I’ll bet there are tons of skeletons in that closet.” After all, it has been my experience that the most devoutly Christian, virulently homophobic and sexually repressed people often have something pretty deep they desperately want to cover for.
When I next heard that Speaker Johnson has a black “son” he had taken in at age 14, whose name he has trotted out when convenient but who is nowhere in recent family photos or even in Johnson’s official bio, I thought, “Well, this gives a new twist on The Blind Side.”
Then I learned that Johnson’s wife runs a Christian “counseling” service that equates homosexuality with bestiality and pedophilia, and that she has been busy scrubbing traces of this and of her podcast with her husband from the internet. And I thought, “Good luck with that.”
Oh wow, then there’s the fact that Johnson was named dean of a law school that never opened, whose namesake Judge Paul Pressler was (surprise, surprise) sued over sexual abuse by multiple men, and whose president was credibly accused of misappropriating funds. Huh.
The icing on this Christcake came from a scoop on Wednesday from Roger Sollenberger of The Daily Beast, who helped pave the George Santos financial trail leading ultimately to federal charges against Santos. Sollenberger’s dogged sleuthing revealed that the Johnsons appear not to own a bank account or any other valuable asset—or at least not one that they ought to have disclosed by law. I thought, “Well, that’s shady.”
It’s only been just over one week, and there are already lots of questions and myriad leads for reporters to start tracking down. I should caution that there may be perfectly good explanations for all of this. But given how questions are multiplying, we shouldn’t take the Johnson’s word on any of it, and they are being so very cagey. We need the truth.
Let’s look at each of these stories a bit more carefully.
Wait, he has a Black son?
In 1997, or perhaps 1999, a 25- or 27-year old Mike Johnson “took custody” of a 14-year old teenager named Michael. There isn’t a clear record, at least not yet, of whether this was an adoption or a fostering arrangement, although the latter seems more likely. Johnson claims that his wife Kelly and he took in Michael as newlyweds, but again the timeline isn’t clear.
As Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo noted, in 2019 during a hearing covered by The Advocate, Johnson said he and his wife took custody of Michael “22 years ago when we were just newlyweds”—which would have been 1997. But that doesn’t quite add up, because the Johnsons were married in 1999, according to People Magazine.
If this seems like a quibble, it still raises a real question: What agency would give a single 25-year old man custody of a 14-year old teenager?
Marshall’s piece ends with a curious stonewalling by Johnson on the question:
When The Advocate asked Johnson’s spokeswoman Ainsley Holyfield to elaborate on the relationship between Michael and Johnson’s family back in 2019 she told the paper: “The congressman will not be commenting further than what was said today in committee out of respect for Michael, his privacy and their relationship.”
Although Johnson has mentioned his Black son Michael when he wants to make a point about race—for example, he stated in that same hearing in 2019 that Michael was opposed to reparations—Michael does not appear in any recent family photos, nor in Johnson’s official biography.
Johnson explains the absence by citing Michael’s desire for privacy. Johnson has also been attacked by the right for speaking up about the racial inequality he has witnessed in Michael’s life compared to his natural born son, which could also explain why Johnson would rather not put a target on his family now.
In a statement to Newsweek, which inquired about his son’s absence from the website and from his biography, Johnson’s communications director said, “When Speaker Johnson first ran for Congress in 2016, he and his wife, Kelly, spoke to their son Michael—who they took in as newlyweds when Michael was 14 years old.”
She continued, “At the time of the Speaker’s election to Congress, Michael was an adult with a family of his own. He asked not to be involved in their new public life. The Speaker has respected that sentiment throughout his career and maintains a close relationship with Michael to this day.”
Out, out, damned hate
Family photos and official biographies aren’t the only things that the Johnsons are busy scrubbing. Kelly Johnson runs a “Christian counseling” service and a website called “Onward Christian Counseling Services”—one that she recently took down as soon as inquiries began.
The Huffington Post drew attention to an operating agreement from 2017, which was posted on the site, which enumerated biblical principles over sexual morality. The document stated,
We believe, and the Bible teaches that any form of sexual immorality, such as adultery, fornication, homosexuality, bisexual conduct, bestiality, incest, pornography or any attempt to change one’s sex, or disagreement with one’s biological sex, is sinful and offensive to God.
While Kelly Johnson had hoped taking the site down would turn down the heat, the act itself has prompted further inquiry, and the site remains viewable in the archives on Wayback Machine.
Kelly and Mike Johnson also co-hosted a podcast recently called “Truth Be Told,” which someone also has been trying to take down off of the mikeandkellyjohnson.com site so that the episodes are not readily accessible. But Capitol Hunters noticed the removal and quickly downloaded the episodes to make them available to reporters. It further noted that the episodes are still up on Apple Podcasts, apparently because whoever is attempting to scrub the content doesn’t get how all this works.
Again, there may be valid reasons why the Johnsons don’t want their past statements on their podcasts readily available to reporters. I just can’t think of any off the top of my head, other than that they contain extremist rhetoric that would look quite bad if widely known and circulated.
What’s with right-wing leaders and male sexual abuse?
The Associated Press did a little digging and found another Mike Johnson rabbit hole that might need some excavating. I should start by saying, there’s no accusation here that Johnson did anything improper or illegal. But the folks around him sure seemed to have, and that says a lot about the company he is keeping.
In 2010, Johnson was named dean of a small Baptist law school that never opened its doors to students. The Judge Paul Pressler School of Law was imagined as a new era for Louisiana College, now Louisiana Christian University. It was going to embrace a “biblical worldview” of the law, whatever that scary sounding thing is. But after ten years of failed fundraising, infighting, and multiple allegations of sexual abuse against its namesake, the law school never opened.
The college’s Board of Trustees, who brought Johnson in as the law school dean, included his longtime mentor, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, a virulently anti-gay hate group. Johnson set out to fundraise for the new school and met with GOP powerhouses like Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, and Judge Pressler, who had been a major figure in the Southern Baptist Convention and helped turn the church to the far-right in the 1980s.
The college’s president, Joe Aguillard, came under scrutiny for financial malfeasance, including a whistleblower complaint from a vice president and, according to an independent investigation, diverting funds for his own personal expenses. Two years later, after the school failed to gain accreditation to issue J.D. degrees, Johnson resigned.
The scandal over Pressler erupted five years after that, with a civil case against him that now includes multiple allegations by men of sexual assault, including while they were children. That case is now part of a much larger reckoning by the church of serious sexual abuse, which leadership covered up for decades.
It’s entirely possible that Johnson had never heard any claims or even rumors of Pressler’s abuses during the two years he was dean of the school. It’s also possible that he knew nothing about Aguillard’s financial misdeeds.
But as someone who is now second in line to the presidency, and who was selected over another extremist, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), who is credibly accused of looking the other way in the face of abuses and scandal, the public has the right to know what if anything Johnson knew while he was dean. As the leader of a new institution rocked by allegations and investigations, it would be negligent at best for Johnson not to have at least made inquiries given the stakes to the institution, to donors and to the victims.
This really needs a Mike check
A disappearing Black son, scrubbed website and podcast, and scandal-plagued school aside, this last story really has my head cocked.
The public is learning a lot about financial disclosures and what they do and do not require after multiple stories emerged about Justice Clarence Thomas’s extravagant donor gifts. Congressmembers also have to make financial disclosures, and Roger Sollenberger of The Daily Beast wisely knew that we should start there with Johnson.
What he found was very off. Like, way off.
As Sollenberger noted,
Over the course of seven years, Johnson has never reported a checking or savings account in his name, nor in the name of his wife or any of his children, disclosures show. In fact, he doesn’t appear to have money stashed in any investments, with his latest filing—covering 2022—showing no assets whatsoever.
Now, before we get over our skis, it’s possible that the account limit requirements for reporting were never met by either Johnson or his wife, and that’s why nothing appears on the disclosures. Those reporting requirements state that reporting is required if any account holds at least $1,000 and the combined value of all accounts, including family members, is greater than $5,000.
Are we to believe that the Johnsons have no asset accounts worth at least $1K and that the rest doesn’t add up to $5K? Johnson worked for years as senior counsel to the Alliance Defending Freedom, a far-right advocacy group responsible for killing Roe v. Wade. That group is flush with money.
And according to Sollenberger, Johnson’s income puts him in the top 12 percent of earners. He made over $200,000 last year. Yet he has zero assets that qualify? He has a mortgage, a home equity line of credit and a personal loan. If he’s in financial trouble, and he actually has zero dollars to his name, the public has the right to know this as well. It could affect his behavior and decisions, after all.
What may be going on here is an utter failure to disclose assets. That alone is a serious matter, especially for someone who was just elected Speaker. Did he hide his assets on purpose, or just not take his disclosures seriously? Neither would be a satisfactory answer.
Once again, there is opacity when there should be transparency. Will the Johnsons go back and “scrub” their financial disclosures? Are they doing fine, or are they near bankruptcy, living paycheck to paycheck? What ties do they have to others, including multiple religious nonprofits from which Johnson draws income? We don’t know because he revealed nothing about his assets.
One thing is pretty certain: The more the press digs, the more curious things they find out about “MAGA Mike” Johnson. We already know that things with him are not as they appear, and that the past is not something the Johnsons want us to know about. The thing is, the more they try to hide things, the more suspicious things seem.
As they keep scrubbing, reporters will keep digging.
Correction: The Advocate mentioned here is a local LA paper, not the national LGBTQ+ publication of the same name. The article has been corrected.