It was his first day again in Washington after a protracted winter break, and Speaker Mike Johnson was underneath strain to cross a short-term funding invoice to keep away from a authorities shutdown inside days.
With hard-right Republicans in full revolt over the plan, everybody within the Capitol was desirous to know what the inexperienced chief would do subsequent, and whether or not it would result in his ouster.
After spending lower than six minutes answering questions at a information convention, Mr. Johnson shut down reporters’ shouted questions with a silent cue, like a cab gentle switched off, signaling he was not obtainable: He held his smartphone telephone to his ear and speed-walked out of sight.
It’s a ploy that Mr. Johnson has used ceaselessly to dodge questions for the reason that fall when he gained the place of speaker, and with it the tough job of governing with a deeply divided and shrinking Republican majority within the Home.
Earlier than he was elected in October, Mr. Johnson, a Louisiana Republican in his fourth time period, routinely stopped for hallway interviews. They’re a staple of a lawmaker’s life on Capitol Hill, the place credentialed reporters roam freely in all however a couple of safe areas, buttonholing members of Congress wherever they will discover them. Mr. Johnson would typically cease and speak within the marble corridors surrounding the Home ground, submitting to impromptu and typically prolonged question-and-answer periods with reporters earlier than and after votes.
However since profitable the gavel, Mr. Johnson has taken to avoiding that ritual, using one of the vital frequent ways in a member of Congress’s playbook to take action: speaking, or pretending to speak, on the telephone. As of late, as he strides by way of the Capitol from his workplace to the Home ground and again, Mr. Johnson’s most well-liked posture is inaccessible. And it most frequently entails utilizing his iPhone as his buffer.
The “on the telephone” gesture serves as a protect in opposition to the undesirable hallway interrogation, an all-purpose nonverbal rebuff that conveys busyness with out seeming to stonewall, and carries with it the opportunity of excessive awkwardness if ignored. (Is it a faux telephone name, a sick child or the president of america? It’s arduous for journalists to inform who, if anybody, is on the opposite finish of the road — and that’s the level.)
On the events when he’s not holding his telephone to his ear whereas strolling, Mr. Johnson is typically taking notes or reviewing papers. Photographers have complained that it’s tough to seize an image of Mr. Johnson trying up.
And if he’s not busying himself with one other job, Mr. Johnson nonetheless solely not often engages in questions concerning the work earlier than the Home, or the rest. What was he doing to rejoice his birthday, a reporter requested him on Tuesday morning, his 52nd birthday, as he made his method by way of the Capitol.
“Working,” Mr. Johnson replied brusquely. He answered no different questions.
His distant method is a putting change from the way in which Mr. Johnson’s two instant predecessors dealt with the public-facing portion of probably the most highly effective job in Congress. Kevin McCarthy, a chatty extrovert, couldn’t resist talking with reporters a number of instances a day as he made his method across the Capitol, participating in walk-and-talks and holding impromptu information conferences in Statuary Corridor.
As he turned extra embattled, Mr. McCarthy appeared to have interaction with the press much more, typically holding a number of spur-of-the-moment gaggles a day and coming into unexpectedly into tv reporters’ dwell pictures, the place he was sport to speak extra. Even on his worst days, Mr. McCarthy at all times appeared to find time for the media, even when his typically garbled utterances wanted to be cleaned up with yet one more back-and-forth with the press.
Former Speaker Nancy Pelosi additionally ceaselessly answered questions as reporters trailed her across the constructing. She held a solo weekly information convention as properly, usually taking questions for about half-hour.
Senator Mitch McConnell, the longtime Republican chief from Kentucky, additionally holds weekly question-and-answer periods with reporters outdoors the Senate chamber. However outdoors his formal information convention, the taciturn Mr. McConnell has a extra direct and chillier method of deflecting hallway queries he desires to keep away from: He merely stares straight forward and retains strolling, as if the questioner doesn’t exist.
Some observers speculate that Mr. Johnson’s comparatively skittish posture stems from his inexperience in his new publish. His aides insist it’s strategic; he doesn’t wish to muddy the message of the day. Conscious that every one of his feedback are actually scrutinized underneath a microscope, Mr. Johnson’s method assumes that much less is extra. His aides additionally observe that he provides to his slim media footprint underneath the Capitol dome with an even bigger presence in tv interviews.
Commuting by way of the Capitol could be a conversational minefield for lawmakers. Journalists and photographers, who lurk in each hallway and stairwell, are an accepted a part of the ecosystem of Capitol Hill, and answering their questions concerning the information of the day is an anticipated a part of the job for elected officers.
For individuals who love consideration, the media scrutiny is a perk.
“My motto is, ‘Virtually all press is nice press,’” stated Consultant Ro Khanna, Democrat of California, who has a status for occasionally being unavoidable for remark. Mr. Khanna stated it had by no means occurred to him to make use of his telephone to keep away from questions. He stated he’d be extra more likely to grasp up if a reporter approached him to talk.
However for lawmakers much less keen on answering questions, the “on the telephone” technique is a useful approach to sign that journalists looking for feedback and quips ought to hunt elsewhere.
“I might really do it as a joke,” stated Al Franken, the previous Minnesota senator and comic. “I might simply do this factor with my hand, thumb in ear, like, ‘I’m on the telephone.’ Generally I’d say I’m on the telephone with the president.”
Mr. Franken stated it may very well be an efficient approach to dodge reporters, however he admitted it hasn’t been a very plausible technique for navigating the Capitol for the reason that Blackberry went out of trend. “He doesn’t wish to be accessible,” he stated of Mr. Johnson. “That’s type of as much as him. Then he has to simply dwell with the implications, which is your writing a chunk about it.”
For some, the implications embody being caught in a lie. Senator Ron Johnson, Republican of Wisconsin, pretended to be on a name as he left the Capitol in June 2022, as reporters pressed him to elucidate his position in making an attempt to ship a slate of faux electors to an aide to former Vice President Mike Pence.
“I’m on the telephone,” Mr. Johnson stated. Besides he wasn’t.
“No, you’re not — I can see your telephone; I can see your display,” Frank Thorp V, a reporter for NBC Information, responded.
Mr. Johnson finally gave up the ruse, placing his telephone again in his pocket and responding to the reporters trailing him. (“That’s an entire nonstory,” he lastly stated, including, “I don’t know what you’re even involved about right here.”)
Consultant Marjorie Taylor Greene, Republican of Georgia, who has been threatening to oust Mr. Johnson from the speakership if he brings up any invoice that features extra funding to Ukraine, stated the telephone trick simply isn’t her fashion.
“I don’t assume you’ll see me strolling round on the telephone,” stated Ms. Greene, who in recent times has taken a friendlier method with the mainstream media she used to make use of as a foil. “However I’ll look to see if Mike Johnson tries to keep away from me like that.”