The spy’s mission was simple: Gain their trust, become one of them, and eventually take them over.
In Rep. Mike Johnson (R-LA), the House Freedom Caucus (HFC) found a perfect mole. To members of the Republican Study Committee (RSC), the freshman lawmaker seemed like one of them—conservative, clean-cut, and hungry for power and influence.
But under the conservative veneer, he was, well, a conservative—but more than that, he’s the key player in a larger scheme by the rival group to co-opt its influence over House GOP leaders and consolidate the conservative factions within the party, a dozen Republican lawmakers and aides told The Daily Beast.
So, for two years he was groomed and positioned, never denouncing but never formally affiliating with the Freedom Caucus and all the while getting closer and closer to his goal of total control over conservative Republicans in the House.
And it worked.
On Nov. 16, Johnson was elected as the chairman of the RSC, the House’s largest bloc of conservatives, while successfully shielding the full extent of his involvement in the smaller, ultra-conservative HFC, which is estimated to include just 40 members.
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), the chairman of the Freedom Caucus, declined to comment on the record, but several Republican sources told The Daily Beast that Johnson is, for all intents and purposes, a member of the HFC because he regularly attends meetings and is included in the internal vote-counting operations. Johnson told The Daily Beast that he does not pay dues to the group, but the financial relationship between the Louisiana Republican and the Freedom Caucus runs deep.
The House Freedom Fund, the political action committee that helps HFC members get re-elected, contributed five figures to Johnson’s 2016 and 2018 efforts, according to Federal Election Commission filings. Johnson’s campaign paid the PAC $6,142 to fundraise on his behalf in 2017 and 2018, according to FEC records.
He acknowledged to Roll Call earlier this month that he is “in close alignment” with the Freedom Caucus.
Despite his denials of formal membership, Johnson—a short, thin, soft-spoken yet defiant 46-year-old southerner who wears frame-less eyeglasses—defended his involvement with the HFC, arguing that it was important to unify the GOP conference as it heads into the minority.
“My driving force is to get the Republicans to work together, to bring the family together so to speak. I think we’re going to have a great opportunity to do that in the next Congress,” Johnson told The Daily Beast.
Johnson’s victory was a major coup for the HFC, which has for at least three years tried to commandeer the RSC as part of its quest for heightened influence within the House GOP conference and the party’s leadership. Tensions between the RSC and HFC have often spilled into the public, and several Freedom Caucus members have since left the RSC.
“If Mike Johnson is a secret member, the House Freedom Caucus pulled one of the greatest political heists in modern history and nobody even noticed,” a Republican aide, granted anonymity to give a candid assessment, told The Daily Beast. “Instead of trying to take over their conservative rival in the chamber head-on and falling like they have in the past, they quietly took it over creating another institution in the House Freedom Caucus network. Truly, a spectacular move that nobody saw coming.”
In the RSC chairman’s race, Johnson defeated Rep. Tom McClintock (R-CA)—who, ironically, left the HFC over disagreements with the group’s tactics. Johnson successfully hid his affiliation from most of the RSC membership, and McClintock made his criticisms of the HFC known to RSC members when he was running against Johnson.
“The Freedom Caucus’ tactics have been counterproductive to enacting conservative policy. And I said so on many occasions, including during the forum at the RSC,” McClintock told The Daily Beast. When asked if he believed Johnson was a member of the Freedom Caucus, McClintock responded with an emphatic “yes.”
Inside the RSC ranks there was confusion as to where Johnson’s loyalty stood.
Rep. Mike Conaway (R-TX), an RSC member, told The Daily Beast that he thought Johnson was a former HFC member, while Rep. Bill Flores (R-TX), a former RSC chairman himself, said he believed Johnson was not a member. McClintock and Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK), said they both knew that Johnson was part of the Freedom Caucus in some capacity, but they added that it never came up during the candidate forums, and therefore it was unlikely that the rest of the RSC was aware.
“I don’t think Mike ever tried to keep any secrets or be disingenuous to anybody. We had two good candidates. The choice was made,” Cole told The Daily Beast. “Mike is a really good guy. He’s really impressed a lot of people.”
The HFC’s full membership list is secret, although most of the dues-paying members are publicly known. Since its inception in 2015, the caucus has had an outsized influence on the House GOP conference, often frustrating Republican leaders when they were pushing legislation that conservatives viewed as too liberal or centrist.
While members of both groups generally share the same conservative ideology, they differ in tactics and strategy. The Freedom Caucus has been at the center of nearly every legislative battle in the House since its creation, from immigration to health care to tax cuts. Its members often vote as a bloc and demand concessions from Republican leaders in exchange for their votes.
Former Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-SC), who is now the White House budget chief, helped found the Freedom Caucus after he lost his bid to chair the RSC in 2014. At the time, Mulvaney complained that the RSC had become too close to House GOP leaders at a time when conservatives were frustrated with then-Speaker John Boehner (R-OH). By 2016, several Freedom Caucus members weren’t renewing their RSC memberships.
After the 2016 election, Meadows did not re-up his membership in the RSC after Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD), a Freedom Caucus member, lost to Rep. Mark Walker (R-NC), the current RSC chairman. Walker’s candidacy—and subsequent win—was fueled by anti-HFC sentiment within the group’s existing membership.
Johnson said he is aiming to have Freedom Caucus members re-join the RSC and “draw all of the various factions” within the GOP back together. Such a move would have the effect of boosting the HFC’s influence over the party.
“When I came into Congress, I had close relationships with a lot of Freedom Caucus guys. On the other hand, I had close relationships with leadership … so I was one of those unique and unusual circumstances where I had close friendships and trusted relationships on all sides of the conference,” Johnson said.
If history is any indication, Johnson, who was first elected in 2016, could soon become a household name. Past chairmen of the RSC have gone on to serve in more senior leadership positions, including House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) and Vice President Mike Pence, who was an Indiana congressman from 2001 to 2013.