© 2024 Allbritton Journalism Institute
Mike Johnson Columbia University
Stefan Jeremiah/AP

Mike Johnson Seized His Moment at Columbia. Protesters Shrugged.

After weeks of dealing with unhappy conservatives, Johnson took a lap through the university protests. He didn’t speak to anyone in the pro-Palestinian encampment.

NEW YORK — Everyone was messaging wildly on the Columbia University campus on Wednesday, and for the most part, everyone seemed to get what they wanted out of it.

The pro-Palestinian protesters camped out on one of the quad’s lawns presented themselves as orderly and repressed, reeling from reports of Jewish community members feeling bullied and scared. Close by, House Speaker Mike Johnson and a coterie of Republican lawmakers presented themselves as protectors of free speech and a check on elite universities that have spun out of control, a face of shared conservative values after weeks of bitter division in the House GOP caucus.

The two groups held dueling press conferences across the quad of a campus that has been largely closed to outsiders for more than a week, since the first protester tent encampment went up and turned the school into a national political obsession. Protesters sitting in the encampment Wednesday politely deflected questions and directed reporters to the steps outside Butler Library, where the camping students’ media coordinator, Khymani James, held remarks. There was none of the angry shouting and rhetoric you’d expect from the national coverage of the protest movement.

Did James have a message for Speaker Johnson? A reporter asked.

“No, we do not,” he said.

Student protesters were largely not interested in speaking on the record outside of the press conference set up, and some seemed to have no idea Johnson was on campus. Most of the questions for James were about ongoing negotiations between protesters and the school administration, which has threatened to remove them.

On the other side of the quad, on the steps outside Columbia’s oft-photoed Low Library, Johnson’s press corps gathered, waiting for his press conference to begin.

In between the two, against a low stone colonnade looking down on the tents, were taped photos of hostages seized in Israel on Oct. 7, an American flag and an Israeli flag. A few counterprotesters were there. Though some on the pro-Israel side were happy to see Johnson, others sounded more like how students at an elite American university usually sound when it comes to prominent Republican leaders.

Ariana Pinsker-Lehrer went viral in December when she confronted pro-Palestinian protesters at Columbia’s School of Social Work, where she is a student. She is an Israeli citizen and is sharply critical of rhetoric she says she has heard since the protest movement began. But she did not support Johnson’s visit and said she couldn’t bring herself to stand with him.

“I feel like the Republican Party is jumping on the opportunity to, pardon my French, shit on the progressive movement and not necessarily out of genuine concerns for antisemitism when they have people like Marjorie Taylor Greene,” she told NOTUS. “I hope I’m wrong. I hope they do care about it.”

Johnson stepped onto the Low steps with his compatriots; the press squeezed into a narrow passage left by temporary bleachers set up ahead of Columbia’s upcoming commencement. He repeated a call for Columbia President Minouche Shafik to step down and laid into the protesters.

“The madness has to stop,” he said. “Antisemitism has been growing in America, and it’s clear why: Powerful people have refused to condemn it, and some have even peddled it themselves, from university professors to public officials.”

He was booed heartily by students looking on over issues ranging from support for Palestinians to former President Donald Trump and reproductive rights. The boos were scattered and consistent but not sustained, rising and falling through the remarks.

“Who are you?!” was a common jeer after Johnson stepped away from the podium to let the collection of Republican members he brought with him — many of them from New York — speak.

Johnson didn’t speak to his detractors on campus, and most of his day was spent talking to conservatives — he appeared on the Hugh Hewitt radio show in the morning and was scheduled to appear on Fox Wednesday night. It was a victory lap and an election-year messaging moment that would seem normal in normal times.

Sign up for the latest from NOTUS.

Lawmakers typically dedicate much of their time in election years to passing messaging bills, fundraising and campaigning in their districts. But House Republicans have struggled to pass their own party’s bills this year — even bills they know have no chance of becoming law. GOP factions have repeatedly derailed Johnson’s agenda by tanking spending legislation, amendments and procedural votes. When Republicans do seem almost unified around messaging — like when Johnson planned “Appliance Week” earlier this month to debate a slate of bills related to washing machines, refrigerators and dishwashers — the chamber’s schedule is overtaken by outside events.

Johnson decided to set those bills aside after Iran attacked Israel to instead advance a top priority among Democrats and GOP national security hawks: $95 billion in aid to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan. The Republican conference’s internal feuds have reached a fever pitch since that legislation passed. Far-right lawmakers are seeking to oust Johnson, traditional members are ridiculing their isolationist colleagues, and the party’s razor-thin majority is even slimmer now that Rep. Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin has officially resigned.

Johnson’s allies hope his Columbia trip is a sign of things to come: He hasn’t had much time to focus on messaging as he’s dealt with emergencies in the House.

“I love it,” Nebraska Rep. Don Bacon told NOTUS of the trip. “Antisemitism is a huge crisis at our college campuses. We need the speaker to deal with this head-on as the president won’t.”

Johnson’s critics, meanwhile, aren’t impressed.

“Didn’t even know he went,” said Rep. Thomas Massie, a Kentucky Republican who has called for Johnson to step down. “Don’t care.”

Evan McMorris-Santoro is a reporter at NOTUS. Haley Byrd Wilt contributed reporting.