On Friday, October 4, 2019, a little more than a year before the Council for National Policy (CNP) spearheaded efforts to overturn the 2020 Presidential elections on behalf of Donald Trump, the secretive organization gathered for the evening session of their closed-door meeting at the New Orleans Ritz-Carlton. (Videos of the meeting were obtained and published by the research center Documented.)
The featured speaker was Congressman Mike Johnson, a rising star in the CNP firmament. As a Louisiana native son, devout Southern Baptist and recipient of fossil fuel largesse, he had been born to the fold. On this evening he came to pay homage to the men he credited with making his career—as they anointed him for higher things.
Since its founding in 1981 by a group of right-wing fundamentalists and oil barons, the CNP has worked, largely behind the scenes, to reshape America into a country that protects gun rights, counters federal regulation, favors plutocrats, and rolls back the social progress wrought by the New Deal and the Great Society.
The CNP has labored for decades to purge the Republican Party of moderates and replace them with right-wing extremists (see Shadow Network for a detailed history of its ascendancy). But it wasn’t until 2016 that the CNP accrued the influence to play kingmaker. That was the year when CNP strategists rallied a thousand “Mega-Christian Leaders” to New York City on behalf of Donald Trump’s struggling campaign. They had already defined the terms of the deal: the previous March, CNP Board of Governors member Leonard Leo had met with Trump to present him with a list of ultra-conservative candidates for the federal judiciary.
An Oklahoma pastor who attended the New York City gathering reported that Trump told them, “All his judges would be vetted by [Leo’s] Federalist Society.” Trump also emerged from the meeting with a new Evangelical Advisory Board, including CNP members James Dobson, Ralph Reed, Richard Land, and Harry Jackson, with Tony Perkins as an additional advisor.
An additional benefit was revealed a few months later, when the CNP newsletter reported, “CNP President Tony Perkins was instrumental in developing the [Republican Party] platform”—supporting conversion therapy to “cure” homosexuality and the right to denial of service to LGBTQ populations, and seeking to roll back gay marriage and a host of environmental protections. Not coincidentally, Trump shelved his previous ideas for vice president in favor of evangelical Mike Pence, who emerged as a dues-paying member of the CNP in 2021.
In return, the CNP’s key partners—including Tony Perkins’ Family Research Council and the National Rifle Association—rallied fundamentalist and gun-owning voters to the polls on Trump’s behalf, giving him critical margins in key swing states. Trump followed through with Leo’s federal court appointments, who in turn have favored the elements of Perkins’ draconian GOP platform. Over the past year, those handpicked judges have handled a number of cases brought by another key CNP partner, the Alliance Defending Freedom, ruling consistently against abortion and LGBTQ rights and environmental regulations.
But following the 2020 elections, Trump’s liabilities – even for true believers – had become painfully apparent: he’s old, volatile, a convicted fraudster and sex offender, and the defendant in multiple additional lawsuits. It was time to look for a new avatar.
When CNP executive director Bob McEwen, the genial former Ohio Congressman who retired under the cloud of a check-writing scandal, rose to introduce Mike Johnson that night in New Orleans, he indicated that the CNP already favored the relatively obscure Louisiana Congressman as a future Speaker of the House: “As we go through the success of this next election, we can then take the leadership that needs to be done. If we were to choose a person to represent our values, who would be skilled, likeable, loveable, loves his country and loves the Lord, it would be our speaker tonight.”
Mike Johnson returned the CNP’s embrace. “Just being introduced by Bob is such a surreal thing for me.” The inspiration, he said, went back to a McEwen speech twenty years when he was a young lawyer. “That has continued to serve as a model for me.” His wife, he said, often quotes him as saying, “I want to be like Bob when I grow up—and I do my best.”
But he made no mention of McEwen’s past check-writing problems, nor did he mention McEwen’s role , together with Tony Perkins, in the cover-up of the actions of another protegé, Wesley Goodman, who was accused of molesting the 18-year-old stepson of a CNP member during one of its meetings. Goodman ran successfully for the Ohio State House in 2015 on an anti-gay, pro-family values platform; McEwen, Perkins, and the other CNP leaders remained silent over the course of his campaign. But then Goodman was accused of stalking some 30 men and boys on social media platforms, as well as having consensual sex with a male in his Congressional office. In 2017 Goodman was obliged to resign from public office, and is currently working in retail.
Johnson continued his tributes. “Probably all of my biggest heroes are in this room tonight. I mean, I grew up in the movement…I literally was the bag boy for Matt Staver when I began. And Tony Perkins, I was his bag boy, I’m not kidding. I was a young lawyer, and I just wanted to learn. And Kelly Shackelford is one of my mentors… I was telling Morton Blackwell, I’m in Congress primarily because I called him for help, and he got me here. I owe you all so much, and I can’t speak tonight without saying how much that has meant to me, and so many countless others.”
Johnson had just named a litany of the CNP’s heaviest hitters:
Staver, a member of the CNP Board of Governors, heads the anti-LGBTQ Liberty Council, where Johnson had previously worked as an attorney.
Perkins—president of the CNP from 2016-2018—deploys the Family Research Council’s media and pastors’ networks to mobilize fundamentalist Christians to vote for conservative Republicans.
Kelly Shackelford—VP of the CNP from 2018-2020 – employed Johnson as an attorney at First Liberty, the fundamentalist legal organization that has litigated a number of prominent anti-LGBTQ cases. (For more on Shackelford’s role in helping to pick federal judges in the Trump era, see Spectator, May 2023).
Morton Blackwell was a co-founder and former executive director of the CNP; he also founded and runs the Leadership Institute, which claims to have trained and networked over 230,000 conservative campaign workers and candidates—including current CNP president Tom Fitton, Jim Jordan, and Dan Crenshaw.
Johnson had already been vetted by major CNP allies. The previous night in Washington, he said wryly, “Somehow I found myself invited to a small dinner that Charles Koch was having on the Hill. He has the Stand Together group, now movement, that he’s working with. He had twenty-five of the top conservative philanthropists in the country, and just people doing some amazing work. And they asked me to address to them what I thought was the biggest challenge facing America is.” Needless to say, Koch and his philanthropic guests also shared their perspectives with the congressman. The Center for Media and Democracy’s Connor Gibson estimates that the approximately 25 “charitable” groups in Koch’s fleet collectively hold some $4 billion in assets. And according to OpenSecrets.org, oil and gas companies have contributed more to Johnson’s campaigns than any other industry, for a career total of $338,125; Koch Industries account for $35,000 of the total.
In his 2019 remarks, Johnson jokingly called himself a “disciple of Bob McEwen,” but an examination of his career suggests that he is more aptly described as a creation of the Council for National Policy.
Johnson was born to modest circumstances in Shreveport, Louisiana. In a 2020 interview on Tony Perkins’ program Washington Watch, Johnson said, “I was actually the inception of a teenage pregnancy. My parents were in junior year of high school and they dropped out, decided to have me and keep me, and that’s why I’m so pro-life…. I was baptized in a horse trough out behind our old country church in northwest Louisiana.”
Shreveport is the hometown of the aforementioned James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council, and a key member of the CNP. As a law student at Louisiana State, Johnson volunteered for the Louisiana Family Forum, another Dobson affiliate. Like Morton Blackwell, Tony Perkins, and Woody Jenkins, Johnson launched his political career in Louisiana, an American “petrostate” that is heavily dependent on the fossil fuel industry, to the detriment of impoverished rural Louisianans and those who live in its infamous Cancer Alley.
From 2002 to 2010, Johnson served as an attorney and the spokesman for the Alliance Defending Freedom, an anti-LGBTQ legal organization whose co-founders included the prominent CNP members James Dobson and Alan Sears, and is currently headed by CNP member Kristen Waggoner. Johnson used his position to try to criminalize homosexuality and to oppose marriage equality in Louisiana. In July 2003 he published an editorial stating “States have many legitimate grounds to proscribe [forbid] same-sex deviate sexual intercourse…. Proscriptions against sodomy have deep roots in religion, politics, and law.” In 2005 the Family Research Council gave him an award for his work at the ADF supporting the ban on same-sex marriage; it would honor him again on March 1, 2023 with a “True Blue” award for voting 100 percent of the time in alignment with its lobbying arm, FRC Action.
On his program Washington Watch, Tony Perkins reminded Johnson that their relationship went back some twenty years, “when he was a young law student and I was a young state legislator.” Johnson warmly responded, “Honestly, my friend, you were a great influence on my life… I saw that you could do it, and people like Woody Jenkins [the founding director of the CNP], who was kind of a mentor of yours. There were a handful of legislators who were people that I knew who did it right, and did it well, and they followed the Lord first…. My study of scripture and my understanding is the same as yours.”
Johnson’s next CNP connection came about in 2010, when he was tapped to head a new “Christian” law school in Shreveport, which was named after Paul Pressler, a Houston-based Judge of the Texas Court of Appeals, and included Tony Perkins as a trustee. The curriculum of the anticipated Pressler School of Law promised to uphold “the Judeo-Christian foundations and moral traditions of the American legal system.”
Pressler occupied a prominent place in the CNP, where he served as president from 1988-1990 and received its Ronald Reagan Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2009. The son and grandson of attorneys for Humble Oil (now ExxonMobil), Pressler, along with Southern Baptist pastor Paige Patterson, led the Conservative Resurgence of the Southern Baptist Convention that resulted in the purge of moderate theologians and the buttressing of hardline positions on abortion and homosexuality.
In 2004 Pressler, like Johnson an energetic opponent of LGBTQ rights, had been confronted with a lawsuit charging him with assault. Pressler’s church investigated additional claims that year, and found his behavior “morally and spiritually” inappropriate. The plaintiff, Duane Rollins, later accused Pressler of recruiting him as a 14-year-old student in his Sunday school class and raping him repeatedly over the following decades. Rollins’ lawsuit against Pressler is slated to go to trial toward the end of this year.
Over the years, more young men came forward. The number of Pressler’s accusers has swelled to 6, and it was revealed in depositions taken in 2019 that prominent Republicans, Pressler’s law partners, and the leadership of his church had been aware of the sexual content of the assault charges as early as 2004.
Knowledge of these accusations was apparently not enough to deter the founders of the Pressler School of Law. It has not been established whether Mike Johnson was apprised of Pressler’s legal history at the time he accepted the appointment. The law school, beset by administrative and financial mismanagement, was never able to open its doors and the project was abandoned in 2013. Johnson omits his aborted deanship – and by extension his tie to Pressler – from his Congressional bio.
But Johnson—aided by his friends—had a Plan B. In 2014 he was elected to the Louisiana legislature. After a single term, he successfully ran for the House of Representatives—the office he credited to Morton Blackwell. Over his three terms in Congress, Johnson’s voting record reflected his origins. He has received an A+ rating from Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, a core CNP organization that recruits armies of anti-abortion canvassers for state-level elections, as well as his perfect record with FRC Action.
Johnson’s record on the environment is the polar opposite, so to speak—also in keeping with the values of the CNP and its fossil fuel allies. He is an outspoken climate denier; the first legislation passed by the House under his speakership seeks to cut billions of dollars in rebates for energy efficiency. The Sierra Club released a statement describing him as “a champion of the fossil fuel industry.” The League of Conservation Voters awarded him a lifetime rating of 2 percent. Johnson has taken the lead in election denial as well, as the only named representative on the 126 Republicans’ amicus brief to the Supreme Court seeking to overturn the 2020 election.
How did this boyish 51-year-old lawyer—the least experienced Speaker in 140 years—rise to a position only two steps away from the White House? First, Johnson was groomed for high office for decades by mentors associated with the CNP and its affiliates. Beyond that, his super-powers lie in his affability and his gift for brown-nosing his elders. Even some LGBTQ activists have acknowledged his winning ways, as he undermines their very right to exist. After the prolonged, acrimonious process of selecting a Speaker, his humorous, aw-shucks manner may have come as a relief to his weary colleagues. Those qualities were on full display in his talk at the CNP, as he promoted his initiative called the “Honor and Civility Caucus,” urging Congressmen—engaged in a life-and-death battle over the future of the republic—to attack each other politely.
Johnson’s stated values are an exercise in platitudes: human dignity, religious freedom, and what he calls a “common sense of decency.” As always, the devil’s in the details. Johnson’s “human dignity” deprives LGBTQ citizens of civil and political rights; his “religious freedom” allows fundamentalists to impose their unpopular practices on others.
Non-believers need not apply. In the 2010 interview with Tony Perkins, Johnson stated, “You have to have a common sense of decency – and the only seedbed of that, the only seedbed of virtue is in religious faith. Men have to understand that they owe an office to a higher power, and they have a judge that is above all others, and that is what has guided our country since its founding, and that’s going to continue to guide it.”
Inasmuch as public office is the gift of a “higher power,” majority rule, he suggested, is of little interest. “I had a mentor tell me, ‘Always remember, what is popular isn’t always right, and what’s right isn’t always popular.’” Johnson likes to campaign from the pulpit, through the “God and Government” seminars he and his wife Kelly give on Sunday nights in churches around his district. The seminars are organized under the auspices of Kelly Johnson’s non-profit, Onward Christian Education Services, and advertised by her business, Onward Christian Counseling LLC.
For the CNP, Mike Johnson’s Speakership comes as manna from heaven, and at a critical moment. The organization and its allies fought hard to prolong Trump’s time in the White House; having lost after many bitter rounds, its leadership turned to their wins. The first was the series of appointments of conservative judges to the federal bench, including a conservative majority on the Supreme Court. This pushed the network’s meshing gears into overdrive: in 2022 the Alliance Defending Freedom wrote the model law overturning Roe v. Wade for the Mississippi legislature, and the Supreme Court upheld it. In 2023, district judge Matthew Kacsmaryk—formerly an attorney with Kelly Shackelford’s First Liberty and appointed from a CNP shortlist of judicial candidates—ruled for a ban of the abortion medication mifepristone, in a case argued by the Alliance Defending Freedom.
In the 303 Creative, LLC v. Elenis case in 2023, the Supreme Court supported the ADF’s argument that a web designer could deny service to gay couples—even though her standing was challenged when it was later discovered that the man named in the ruling had never made a request from the web designer. Many related lawsuits have advanced or are pending in various courts.
But those rulings remain unfinished or vulnerable to reversal if Joe Biden and the Democrats maintain their control of the Presidency and the Senate. So Johnson’s ascendency corresponds to the CNP’s second big win: the right-wing control of the Republican majority in the House. They will be led by a man who credits his career to the CNP leadership, and supports its mission to dismantle the federal government and impose Christian fundamentalist values on an unwilling society.
When Johnson was elected Speaker, his supporters celebrated publicly. CNP member Charlie Kirk, head of Turning Point USA, tweeted “Congrats to the new Speaker of the House Mike Johnson,” with a picture of Johnson and colleagues kneeling in prayer on the House floor. Current CNP president Tom Fitton tweeted “Leftists furious at @RepMikeJohnson’s acknowledgement of the active presence of God in our lives, history, and nation…”
But it was Washington Stand, published by Tony Perkins’ Family Research Council, that rejoiced the loudest. In a piece headlined, “House Speaker Radiates the Love of Jesus, Conservatives Laud” the article reported, “House Republicans have selected ‘a tremendous man of God,’ ‘a strong Christian,’ a ‘servant leader,’ and a ‘genuinely nice guy’ by elevating Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.) to the position of Speaker of the House, according to those closest to the legislator.” The article catalogued Johnson’s long list of positions: opposing sex education, and denouncing gender-affirming care, and opposing all US support for the defense of Ukraine.
It went on to quote Johnson’s statement when he first ran for Congress: “Some people are called to the pastoral ministry and others to music ministry, etc. I was called to legal ministry, and I’ve been out on the front lines of the ‘culture war’ defending religious freedom, the sanctity of life, and biblical values.”
In 2020, the CNP acted as the convenor for national and state-level attempts to overturn the election of Joe Biden as President. In the ensuing weeks, Johnson led the House Republicans’ legal action, ultimately failing to convince the Supreme Court to nullify the Biden victory.
Now one of the major figures in the campaign to stop the certification of the 2020 elections is Speaker of the House, just a year ahead of the likely Biden-Trump rematch in 2024. He is currently number three in the line of succession to the Presidency itself, and will wield substantial influence as the nation faces another contested race.
Anne Nelson is the author of Shadow Network: Money, Media, and the Secret Hub of the Radical Right. Nelson is the recipient of the Livingston Award for journalism and a Guggenheim Fellowship for historical research.