Playbook: Trump throws Mike Johnson a lifeline

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With help from Eli Okun, Garrett Ross and Bethany Irvine

DRIVING THE DAY

NEW JMART COLUMN — “Trump the Front-Runner? Not So Fast,” by Jonathan Martin: “It has been close to an open secret in the diplomatic corps that America’s allies and adversaries are anticipating a [DONALD] TRUMP restoration. Discussing who will fill his second-term Cabinet and White House isn’t just the stuff of parlor games in embassies and overseas capitals — it has taken on a what-will-we-do urgency since Trump sealed the GOP nomination last month. …

“Yet right as major countries have embarked on mollifying Trump over six months before the election, there were reminders that his polling advantage in key states may not last. The fashionable assumption among Trump’s elite critics — perhaps the way of demonstrating this time one is not out of touch — that he’s a lock looks increasingly misguided or at least premature. His most glaring challenge at the end of the week is what it was at the start of the week, when he all but read the stage directions to say he was trying to put abortion behind him.”

‘I STAND WITH THE SPEAKER’ — It was about as good of an end to a bad week as Speaker MIKE JOHNSON could have wished for.

After (1) Rep. MARJORIE TAYLOR GREENE (R-Ga.) escalated her threat to oust him, (2) Trump nearly derailed the FISA reauthorization and (3) conservatives fumed over his handling of one of their prized amendments, Johnson received a much-needed lifeline from the former president.

No, Trump didn’t flat-out tell Greene to put down her sword. But he certainly made clear that he’s no fan of throwing the House into chaos, as we first reported in Playbook Thursday morning.

Some notable lines from Trump at his joint presser with Johnson:

  • “I stand with the speaker.”
  • “He’s doing a really good job under very tough circumstances.”
  • “We have much bigger problems,” he said, dismissing the issues that have led some to want to oust the speaker.
  • “It’s unfortunate that people keep bringing it up,” Trump said about the motion to vacate.

While it’s hard to see how yesterday’s Mar-a-Lago press conference could have gone better for Johnson, the speaker isn’t out of the woods yet. The biggest challenge — passing Ukraine aid, a red line for several Johnson critics — has yet to ripen.

During the press conference, Trump notably didn’t side with Greene in saying not a penny should be used overseas. He also didn’t bash the Ukraine “loan” idea as she has — probably because it was inspired by him in the first place. Instead, he appeared to leave the door open, saying he’d take a look at Johnson’s proposal.

IN OTHER HEADLINES — There were a few other reasons the presser was newsworthy …

1. Trump refused to say whether he calls himself “pro-life.” Days after insisting he wouldn’t sign a nationwide abortion ban if reelected — despite remarks last month signaling his support for a ban after 15 weeks of pregnancy, and despite his support in 2018 for a ban after 20 weeks — Trump continued to try to muddy his position on abortion in the wake of the controversial Arizona court ruling.

Facing questions from ABC’s Rachel Scott, Trump refused to say if he would still consider himself to be one with the anti-abortion movement, even as he stood next to one of the most conservative members in the House — a man who has co-sponsored a nationwide abortion ban when a fetal heartbeat is detected (typically around six weeks).

Scott: “Are you pro-choice or pro-life?”

Trump: “Well, you know exactly which one it is. And when I was in New York and when I was a Democrat — also, just like RONALD REAGAN, you know, Ronald Reagan was a Democrat. We sort of followed a very similar path.”

2. About that “election integrity” pitch: Of course, the stated reason for the presser was so the two leaders could roll out a new proposal to require proof of citizenship to vote. There’s clearly an effort to try to meld two separate issues into one: the migrant crisis — which has appeal across the ideological spectrum — and concerns about elections — which is very much a GOP base issue.

“They want to turn these [undocumented immigrants] into voters!” Johnson declared of Democrats. Of course, there’s zero evidence to substantiate that. And it’s already illegal to vote if you’re not a citizen. (We’re also curious how other more centrist Hill Republicans feel about Trump and the speaker making this matter a central pitch of election season. Frankly, many of them want Trump to stop talking about “rigged” elections entirely.)

Still, the actual proposal Johnson is putting forward may have some cross-party appeal: A February 2024 Pew Research Center study found that 81 percent of respondents support requiring all voters to show government-issued photo ID to vote. So it will be interesting to see if Johnson and Trump’s inner circle get the ex-president to focus entirely on that — and keep him from going down the Big Lie rabbit hole, which could backfire.

Good Saturday morning. Thanks for reading Playbook. Drop us a line: Rachael Bade, Eugene Daniels, Ryan Lizza.

NEW POLL SHOWS SPARKS FOR BIDEN — President JOE BIDEN’s campaign is waking up with a boost this morning as a new NYT/Siena poll shows that the president has “nearly erased” Trump’s “early polling advantage, amid signs that the Democratic base has begun to coalesce behind the president despite lingering doubts about the direction of the country, the economy and his age,” NYT’s Shane Goldmacher writes.

The details: “Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump are now virtually tied, with Mr. Trump holding a 46 percent to 45 percent edge. That is an improvement for Mr. Biden from late February, when Mr. Trump had a sturdier 48 percent to 43 percent lead just before he became the presumptive Republican nominee.”

Demographic divide: “In the last month, Mr. Biden’s support among white voters remained flat, but it has inched upward among Black and Latino voters, even if it still lags behind traditional levels of Democratic support. Mr. Biden was faring better than he had been a month ago in suburbs and among women, though he was weaker among men. Younger voters remain a persistent weakness, while older voters provide a source of relative strength for the Democratic president.”

The age-old question: “A full 69 percent of voters still see the 81-year-old Democrat as too old to be an effective president.” By comparison, though Trump turns 78 in June, only 41 percent view him as too old.

Interesting gender divide on the hush money trial: “Women were twice as likely as men, 40 percent to 20 percent, to see the charges related to the porn star as very serious; men were twice as likely as women to see the charges as not serious at all, 30 percent to 15 percent.”

WHAT'S HAPPENING TODAY

At the White House

Biden has nothing on his public schedule.

VP KAMALA HARRIS and second gentleman DOUG EMHOFF are in Los Angeles, and have nothing on their public schedules.

PLAYBOOK READS

9 THINGS THAT STUCK WITH US

1. FROM TRIAL TO TRAIL: If you thought the next six weeks would be quiet for Trump’s campaign operation as he heads to court in the hush money case against him, think again. The former president’s aides and allies are “preparing ways to attempt to drive coverage on his own terms throughout the proceedings,” Natalie Allison and Meridith McGraw report.

“During the course of the trial, Trump will make use of his private plane and social media reach, a Trump campaign official said, while taking ‘full advantage’ of having Wednesdays and weekends off from court. But even on some court days, Trump will hold both in-person and virtual events, said the official, who was granted anonymity to speak freely.”

The outside deployment: “Trump’s campaign has sent talking points to surrogates, calling on them to label the proceedings as ‘the Biden trial.’ His team expects conservative allies and elected officials to defend Trump on the airwaves even more frequently while he is tied up in court, while his fundraising machine will be ramped up to rake in donations. An aide to one Trump surrogate, who was granted anonymity to speak freely, said they’re expecting to increase the number of television appearances in the coming weeks.”

Related reads: “Alvin Bragg’s about to become the most famous prosecutor in America (but no questions, please),” by Jeff Coltin … “Protests, Traffic, Crowds: Court Braces for a Trump Trial Like No Other,” by NYT’s Jesse McKinley and Jonathan Swan

2. BATTLE FOR THE SUBURBS: As Trump tries to stake out some kind of middle ground on abortion rights, there’s fresh intel showing that his calculation on the issue may not be a winning formula. “A recent Wall Street Journal poll of seven battleground states found that 39% of suburban women cite abortion as a make-or-break issue for their vote — making it by far the most motivating issue for the group,” WSJ’s Catherine Lucey in Waukesha, Wisconsin, and Ken Thomas in Bloomfield Township, Michigan report. “Nearly three-quarters of them say the procedure should be legal all or most of the time, and a majority thinks Trump’s policies are too restrictive.”

The data: “Interviews with roughly two dozen women in key suburban areas in recent weeks found that many were motivated by abortion, naming it as a leading reason to back Biden. Still, the interviews showed that Biden faced the risk of having other issues crowd out abortion as areas of concern, including the war in Gaza and inflation. And some of the women said they planned to stick with Trump.”

Blow-for-blow: “Harris hits Trump on abortion from Arizona,” by Kierra Frazier and Eugene Daniels: “For years, Harris’ abortion events have been from her official side. Friday’s appearance marked a shift to campaign events that allowed the vice president to attack Trump more directly, calling him ‘the architect of this health care crisis.’ … At the heart of the shift: the campaign’s concern that Trump’s attempt to moderate his position is going to work. ‘We’d be crazy not to be worried about that,’ the Harris aide added.”

Related read: “Republican Women Are Divided on Abortion as Bans Spread,” by NYT’s Elizabeth Dias and Lisa Lerer

3. MIDDLE EAST LATEST: “U.S. Moves Warships to Defend Israel in Case of Iranian Attack,” by WSJ’s Gordon Lubold, Benoit Faucon and Dov Lieber: “The moves by the U.S. that are part of an effort to avoid a wider conflict in the Middle East came after a warning from a person familiar with the matter about the timing and location of the potential Iranian attack. A person briefed by the Iranian leadership, however, said that while plans to attack are being discussed, no final decision has been made.”

4. HOW IT’S PLAYING: “The economy, and inflation, are revving up at a terrible time for Biden,” by WaPo’s Abha Bhattarai and Tyler Pager: “The higher inflation reading makes it more likely that the Federal Reserve will keep interest rates — and mortgage rates — elevated until late in the year, possibly until days after the election, eluding much political gain for Biden. … The president and his aides have been frustrated that they have not received more credit for avoiding a recession and passing massive legislation, specifically the infrastructure law and the CHIPS Act, which will transform the United States’ roads and bridges and turbocharge a domestic semiconductor industry. Aides have been divided over how to sell Biden’s legislative accomplishments while many Americans say they are having trouble affording groceries and other household items.”

Related read: “3 Facts That Help Explain a Confusing Economic Moment,” by NYT’s Ben Casselman

5. THE PUSHBACK: “Mike Pence pushes a post-Trump path for conservatives and GOP,” by WaPo’s Michael Scherer, Ashley Parker and Josh Dawsey: “Since dropping out as a 2024 presidential candidate last fall, [former VP MIKE] PENCE is again touting his brand of religious, hawkish and fiscal conservatism — pushing for changes to entitlement programs and more funding for Ukraine, among other issues. His argument, according to advisers, is that Pence knows better than most that Trump will do what he says.”

6. SEEING IT FOR THEMSELVES: “Back From Ukraine, a House Republican Makes the Case for More Aid,” by NYT’s Catie Edmondson: “Knowing a vote on another aid package for Ukraine loomed in his future, Representative CHUCK EDWARDS, a freshman Republican, spent part of last week traveling across the country to see for himself how American dollars would be used in the nation’s fight to fend off Russian invaders.

“What he witnessed as he and a bipartisan group of lawmakers traveled across Ukraine over four days — a dozen air raids, an onslaught of drone attacks, and the sites of gruesome atrocities against civilians — left Mr. Edwards and his colleagues vowing to press Speaker Mike Johnson to push forward on a measure to provide more aid for the war effort. They told President VOLODYMYR ZELENSKY that their visit had given them a ‘new appreciation’ of what his country was facing, Mr. Edwards said, and that they would lobby Mr. Johnson to make sure that American aid did not dry up.”

Related read: “U.S. intelligence finding shows China surging equipment sales to Russia to help war effort in Ukraine,” by AP’s Aamer Madhani

7. DATA DEARTH: “Election Data Is Vital to Voting Rights. So Why Is It So Hard to Track Down?” by Bolts’ Dara Gold: “There is no entity in the United States that records election returns or maintains boundary maps for the country’s 180,000 precincts. Many states don’t even provide this data for the full collection of precincts within their borders. Instead, universities, newsrooms, nonprofits and volunteers collectively spend thousands of hours after every major election gathering it themselves.”

8. SMART READ: “‘The 401(k) industry owns Congress’: How lawmakers quietly passed a $300 billion windfall to the wealthy,” by Benjamin Guggenheim: “Tax-advantaged savings has become a staple of the American retirement system, with 60 million savers squirreling away $6.6 trillion in their 401(k)s, alone. But a yearlong POLITICO investigation found that Secure 2.0 and its predecessor bills have expanded the system well beyond its goal of helping the middle class. Today, wealthy taxpayers can protect up to $452,500 per year in tax-advantaged accounts in a single year, saving up to $203,600 on their taxes. And they can keep their money in tax-advantaged accounts far longer.”

9. FOR YOUR RADAR: “US ex-diplomat sentenced to 15 years for spying for Cuba over decades,” by Reuters’ Andrew Goudsward: “VICTOR MANUEL ROCHA, who served as U.S. ambassador to Bolivia from 2000 to 2002, pleaded guilty to two charges including acting as an illegal foreign agent.” Prosecutors allege that Rocha, 73, aided Cuba’s Communist Party for more than four decades, including 20 years at the State Department.

CLICKER — “The nation’s cartoonists on the week in politics,” edited by Matt Wuerker — 18 funnies

GREAT WEEKEND READS, curated by Ryan Lizza:

“How’d You Make That?” by Adam Moss for Vulture: “Three masterpieces from glimmer through struggle to breakthrough.”

“Where Kamala Harris Lives, a Little-Known History of Enslavement,” by NYT Magazine’s Robert Draper: “The vice president’s official residence is in a quiet Washington enclave once home to 34 enslaved people. Ms. Harris has sought to reconnect the property to its Black heritage.”

“The Club of Cape-Wearing Activists Who Helped Elect Lincoln — and Spark the Civil War,” by Jon Grinspan for Smithsonian Magazine: “The untold story of the Wide Awakes, the young Americans who took up the torch for their antislavery cause and stirred the nation.”

“The Mayor of London Enters the Bullshit Cinematic Universe,” by Peter Guest for Wired: “It all started with an asthma attack. Now Sadiq Khan finds himself at the center of a global conspiracy.”

“America’s Next Soldiers Will Be Machines,” by Foreign Policy’s Jack Detsch: “In future wars, U.S. generals want to send robots to face the enemy’s first bullets.”

“I’ve Been at NPR for 25 Years. Here’s How We Lost America’s Trust,” by Uri Berliner for The Free Press: “Uri Berliner, a veteran at the public radio institution, says the network lost its way when it started telling listeners how to think.”

“Britain Is Leaving the U.S. Gender-Medicine Debate Behind,” by The Atlantic’s Helen Lewis: “The Cass report challenges the scientific basis of medical transition for minors.”

“Alone in a bathroom,” by WaPo’s Caroline Kitchener: “The fear and uncertainty of a post-Roe medication abortion.”

“In the Path of Totality,” by Andrew Katzenstein, Willa Glickman, Daniel Drake, and Lucy Jakub for The New York Review of Books: “Dispatches from the 2024 solar eclipse.”

PLAYBOOKERS

Jesse Watters has offered to deliver Jessica Tarlov’s baby.

IN MEMORIAM — “Robert MacNeil, creator and first anchor of PBS ‘NewsHour’ nightly newscast, dies at 93,” by AP’s Dave Bryan: “MacNeil first gained prominence for his coverage of the Senate Watergate hearings for the public broadcasting service and began his half-hour ‘Robert MacNeil Report’ on PBS in 1975 with his friend Lehrer as Washington correspondent. The broadcast became the ‘MacNeil-Lehrer Report’ and then, in 1983, was expanded to an hour and renamed the ‘MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour.’”

“Richard Leibner, Saavy Agent for Top Broadcast Journalists, Dies at 85,” by NYT’s Richard Sandomir: “Mr. Leibner’s firm, N.S. Bienstock … represented hundreds of anchors, reporters, producers and others in network and local television news. The negotiation that grabbed the biggest headlines was for [Dan] Rather, then one of the star correspondents of the CBS News program ‘60 Minutes.’ Between late 1979 and early 1980, Mr. Leibner … parlayed interest in Mr. Rather as the evening anchor from all three network news divisions.”

TRANSITION — Rakim Brooks is stepping down as president of the Alliance for Justice to become SVP of risk and legal strategies for the JPB Foundation.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) … Rep. Jim Costa (D-Calif.) … Celinda LakeDoug CouttsBrian BartlettTaylor Gross of the Herald Group … POLITICO’s Jack Smith, Amy Carlile, Colleen Luccioli, Matthew Grabis and Jeffrey Tomich … CNN’s Nathaniel MeyersohnWill Davis of the OECD Washington Center … Edelman’s Sujata Mitra … Velocity Partners’s Kate MeissnerMaggie Feldman-Piltch … C-SPAN’s Jeremy Art Alex YostJohn Barsa … Engage’s Nick Schaper Sally Larson … Treasury’s Rachel McCleery … NBC’s Justice Gilpin-Green … Bloomberg’s Jeannie Baumann … AP’s Ayanna AlexanderJulia BrunnerJonah Cunningham … WaPo’s Lateshia BeachumDean HingsonRebecca Pearcey … SKDK’s Mia MotleyEmily LoebDeena Tauster of Rep. Andrew Garbarino’s (R-N.Y.) office … former Reps. Marie Newman (D-Ill.) (6-0), Susan Davis (D-Calif.) (8-0) and Ted Yoho (R-Fla.) … David Carmen of the Carmen Group … Meredith Stasa … former Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.) (91) … Steve Ayscue Geoff EmblerKevin Warsh … American Conservation Coalition’s Will Galloway … Morning Consult’s Jeff CartwrightAmy GoodmanKasey O’Brien of Middle Seat

THE SHOWS (Full Sunday show listings here):

ABC “This Week”: New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu … Fareed Zakaria. Trump legal panel: Dan Abrams, Norm Eisen and Melissa Murray. Panel: Donna Brazile, Reince Priebus, Julie Pace and Marianna Sotomayor.

CBS “Face the Nation”: Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) … Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) … John Kirby … Gen. Kenneth McKenzie Jr. … Kristalina Georgieva … David Sanger.

CNN “State of the Union”: Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.) … Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio). Panel: Scott Brown, Paul Begala, Alyssa Farah Griffin and Karen Finney.

FOX “Fox News Sunday”: Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) … Will Scharf. Panel: Harold Ford Jr., Dana Perino, Karl Rove and Shelby Talcott. Sunday special: Senate Pickleball Caucus.

NBC “Meet the Press”: Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer … Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio) … Maryland Gov. Wes Moore. Panel: Carol Lee, Peggy Noonan and Eugene Robinson.

Fox News “Sunday Morning Futures”: Speaker Mike Johnson … Rep. Jason Smith (R-Mo.) … Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) … John Ratcliffe … Jonathan Turley.

NewsNation “The Hill Sunday”: Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.). Panel: Sabrina Siddiqui, Daniella Diaz, Bob Cusack and Noah Rothman.

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