Speaker Mike Johnson has spoken modestly about his career before Congress, identifying himself as a humble constitutional lawyer for conservative Christian causes.
“I’m so grateful for the ministry and your faithfulness,” Johnson said in August, returning praise from evangelical leader Jim Garlow. “It’s a great encouragement to me and others who are serving in these sometimes rocky corners of the Lord’s vineyard.”
While Johnson may have been speaking derisively of Congress, a review of the new speaker’s old clients reveals just how rocky some of those corners were in his legal career.
Johnson’s ardent religious beliefs and Christian nationalist ideology brought him to serve, often for free, clients affiliated with some of the nation’s most extreme anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ groups in the country—including agitators connected to militant movements with a penchant for violent expression.
The Daily Beast’s review turned up one former Johnson client who said the government “should be a terror” to abortion providers and the LGBTQ community, another who opposed the condemnation of domestic terrorist attacks on abortion clinics, and another client who went on to record himself endorsing the hanging of government officials while in the thick of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
That former client now leads a militant organization tied to one of the darkest chapters in the anti-abortion movement: the 2009 murder of a Kansas abortion doctor. And that plaintiff’s father also turned to Johnson when he wanted to secure a permit in 2003 for an anti-LGBTQ protest—a protest that ended in the attempted stabbing of a gay man.
In that particular case, Johnson’s client—anti-gay activist and former radical Christian preacher Grant E. Storms—later made national news in 2012 when he confessed to masturbating in his van by a playground in Metairie, Louisiana. Storms was convicted of indecent exposure and sentenced to three years probation.
While Johnson didn’t represent Storms in that criminal matter, Storms told The Daily Beast in an interview on Monday that Johnson had done reams of legal work for him in the early to mid-2000s, providing all of his services for free. Storms said he considered Johnson a friend.
“We were brothers on the path,” Storms said. “He always had our back.”
By all accounts, Johnson indeed had their backs. While his caustic anti-abortion and anti-gay stances flew largely under the national radar for years, they have been brought into public view since he clinched the speaker’s gavel in October. Johnson has called abortion “a holocaust” and once wrote in support of criminalizing gay sex. He also has not been shy about burnishing his Christian nationalist credentials, recently telling Fox News that the Bible dictates his beliefs on “any issue under the sun.”
The Daily Beast sent Johnson’s office a detailed comment request, asking about his views on some of his former clients and a number of their specific activities and affiliations. In response, a spokesperson for the speaker’s office provided a statement explaining a fundamental feature of the attorney-client relationship.
“As a practicing attorney for over 20 years, Johnson defended the First Amendment rights of countless clients. As the Daily Beast surely knows, an attorney representing a client in a first amendment dispute does not equate to an endorsement of everything that client has ever said or done prior to or after a case,” the statement said.
Attorneys are, of course, not responsible for their clients’ actions or choices—particularly after their legal relationship ends. But Johnson chose to represent clients and causes—often for free—with a remarkable ideological consistency. While he could argue he took their cases on a First Amendment basis, Johnson was preoccupied with clients who reflected the same anti-gay and anti-abortion stances that he has held openly for decades. His clients’ embrace of violent rhetoric apparently did little to dissuade Johnson from taking their cases at the time, and the speaker did not avail himself of the opportunity now to denounce their actions, words, or involvement with the insurrection.
Asked again if Johnson would comment about the specifics in this report, the spokesperson did not reply.
As this review of Johnson’s legal career shows, there is still more to learn about Johnson’s past and how tightly he was knitted into the fabric of some of the country’s most militant religious movements.
Grant Storms told The Daily Beast that he first connected with Johnson in the early 2000s through Alliance Defending Freedom, an influential activist group that seeks to codify right-wing Christian beliefs into law.
While ADF styles itself as a philanthropic foundation dedicated to protecting religious liberty, the group has engaged in a global crusade to erode LGBTQ and abortion rights around the world. Johnson landed at ADF after law school and worked there for nearly 10 years as an attorney and spokesperson.
Storms recalled that he initially contacted Johnson to help him force the removal of what Storms considered “lewd” imagery from an advertisement he’d seen at a bus station, which he claimed featured an image of men having sex. At the time, Storms was well-known in Louisiana as a bullhorn-wielding Christian zealot. He was a tireless French Quarter gadfly, and he retained Johnson’s pro bono assistance in an array of legal matters—one of which drew national attention and ended in a hate crime.
According to Storms, it was Johnson specifically who persuaded New Orleans officials to grant a permit for his 2003 demonstration against that year’s Southern Decadence festival, the city’s annual Labor Day Bacchanal celebrating gay culture, known locally as “gay Mardi Gras.” Storms, who had just convinced the Louisiana state legislature to pass stricter decency laws—after handing lawmakers videos that he personally recorded of men having sex in public—had attained national notoriety through his activism. He told The Daily Beast that local officials, as well as the Department of Homeland Security, had been opposed to his demonstration.
The Associated Press covered the protest at length. But the event was marred by violence, when an anti-gay assailant attempted to murder a man with a five-inch steak knife. Storms denied that the attacker was a member of his organization, Christian Conservatives for Reform. But Storms himself was charged with battery in a separate event that weekend, after getting into a pushing match with a security guard who refused to let him record video inside a nightclub.
According to police, the stabber made clear in a recorded confession that he had gone to Storms’ event specifically because “he wanted to kill a gay man,” though it wasn’t clear whether the victim he chose was, in fact, gay. The assailant was charged with attempted first-degree murder and a felony hate crime, but he died pending trial.
In an interview with The Daily Beast, Storms repeatedly denounced that attack and all violence against the LGBTQ and abortion rights communities. Still, Storms acknowledged in retrospect that his fiery rhetoric at the time—including on his five-day-per-week radio show, which he said almost certainly featured Johnson several times—may have created an environment that unintentionally activated a bad actor.
“When everything was at the height—everything always on the news and everyone always talking about it—well in the midst of our protest, a gay person got stabbed,” he said, admitting that some of his rhetoric around the event “didn’t come out right.”
“Every person who’s a public figure has to be careful with their rhetoric, and as you get older you have to be more and more careful,” Storms told The Daily Beast, before again calling the LGBTQ lifestyle “a perversion.”
But Johnson did not distance himself from Storms after the violence of the protest. In fact, he got closer to the preacher. Eight months later, Johnson represented Storms in another legal case regarding permits, this time for anti-abortion rallies in Jefferson Parish.
In the meantime, Storms made news again when he appeared to endorse the mass murder of gay people at a religious fundamentalist conference in Wisconsin.
The event—the “International Conference on Homo-Fascism”—was hosted that October in Milwaukee by a group called Wisconsin Christians United, and featured a volcanic, hour-long address from Storms. He spoke at length about his “battle” against the Southern Decadence Festival—where weeks earlier a man was stabbed—saying “the Lord gave us a great breakthrough.” He repeatedly invoked violent imagery, warning his Christian audience that gay people “want to kill you” and “have to eliminate us,” likening his personal crusade to Jonathan’s biblical battle against the Philistine army.
“That first slaughter which Jonathan and his armor bearer made was about 20 men. Wheeeww! Come on. Let’s go. God has delivered them all into our hands. Hallelujah!” Storms said, according to a transcript of the speech. He then made the sounds “boom, boom, boom, boom, boom.”
“There’s 20. Whew. Ca-Ching. Yes. Glory. Glory to God. Let’s go through the drive-thru at McDonald’s and come back and get the rest,” Storms said in the transcript.
After the event, LGBTQ rights group Fair Wisconsin accused Storms of making “sounds like gunfire as if he were shooting gay people” and “apparently advocating the murder” of gay people. Storms then sued Fair Wisconsin for defamation, which the Wisconsin Supreme Court later ruled was frivolous, upholding $87,000 in sanctions against his attorney—who was not Johnson.
In an interview with The Daily Beast, Storms initially recalled these events as “hilarious,” saying that “obviously it was symbolic of not literally killing” gay people, but “killing the agenda” through legal means, such as protests.
When The Daily Beast quoted some of his passages—for example, “It's us or them. There’s no in between. There’s no having this peaceful co-existence”—Storms allowed that he might have been “a little bit over-the-top.” Eventually, Storms said he could understand why an outside group would have “misinterpreted” his remarks as advocating mass murder.
“I gotta live with what I said, live with the way people interpret it,” Storms said. “But I’ll fight for everyone’s right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
But if Storms’ rhetoric was beyond the pale, it didn't stop Johnson from representing him.
Months after Storms sued Action Wisconsin, Johnson helped him sue Jefferson Parish. The same month he filed that lawsuit, Johnson likened another religious case he was working on to “spiritual warfare.”
“The ultimate goal of the enemy is silencing the gospel,” Johnson told the Shreveport Times in April 2004. “This is spiritual warfare.”
Storms told The Daily Beast that the two men lost contact sometime after Hurricane Katrina, in 2005—several years before the playground masturbation incident that propelled him again into national ignominy.
While Storms confessed, he still tried to fight the witness account of the exposure charge—which he disputed again in his interview with The Daily Beast. But the judge sentenced him to three years probation, and cited his confession that it was the third time he’d masturbated in the park that week.
If Johnson did lose touch with Storms in 2005, however, he somehow still stumbled on a path to Storms’ son, Jason Storms, who Johnson and the ADF represented in another Milwaukee case in 2009.
In that case, Johnson argued that his plaintiffs—a cadre of anti-abortion extremists—had been “intimidated and impeded and chilled” in the exercise of their free speech rights by a federal court injunction in the Eastern District of Wisconsin against protests at abortion clinics.
The suit pointed to interactions the plaintiffs had with law enforcement, including arrests. A number of those charges were dismissed, but Johnson argued that because they were dismissed “without prejudice,” prosecutors could bring them again if they wished—which Johnson characterized as intimidation.
That ominous word—intimidation—is a concept Johnson’s clients may understand well.
Jason Storms is the leader of Operation Save America, formerly Operation Rescue, which has been called the nation’s largest militant anti-abortion group. Jason Storms also partook in the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, posting a social media video of himself on the building’s scaffolding shortly after the breach.
Operation Rescue shot to infamy when it was tied to the slaying of a Kansas abortion provider in 2009—the same year Johnson filed the lawsuit. Today, OSA and its militant allies still believe women who get abortions should be charged with murder—a step up from more mainstream anti-abortionists who would only place that burden on the doctor.
This summer, Storms said abortion might only be ended in the U.S. through civil war. He routinely draws widespread media coverage for camping outside of abortion clinics and urging women against ending their pregnancies, frequently alongside his wife and their 10 children.
Earlier this year, a member of OSA was charged in connection with a bomb scare at a Milwaukee-area Pride event, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported. In October, the Sixth Circuit of Federal Appeals upheld a 2022 restraining order against the group, after unruly demonstrations in Tennessee.
But in 2009, Johnson—on behalf of the ADF—represented Jason Storms alongside a group of virulent anti-abortion extremists when they sued the city of Milwaukee over a court injunction at abortion protests. That crew included anti-LGBTQ activist Robert Breaud and Jim Soderna, both of whom have their own storied past.
In 1999, Soderna entered his name in the public record as opposing a Milwaukee city council resolution “against domestic terrorism in the form of violence against health-care providers, especially those providing family planning services.” Meanwhile, Breaud—a self-described former “homosexual”—ran a 1999 failed campaign for the Louisiana state House as a Republican. Per an article from The Times-Picayune, which is not publicly available online but accessible through the Lexis Nexis publication database, Breaud said the government “should be a terror to the evildoer”—quoting the apostle Paul in the Bible—further specifying, as Paul did not, that the evildoers were gay men, lesbians, and abortion providers.
Breaud, a nurse and musician, spread his homophobic message via an original song called “It’s Not OK to be Gay.” A 2007 video of Breaud shows him strumming a guitar and singing, “It’s not OK to be gay. It’s not OK to be perverted. It’s not in your DNA. What you need is to be converted.” A spoken-word interlude describes Breaud’s former lifestyle as “unholy, unnatural, unsatisfying, unfulfilling.”
But in the 2009 abortion case, Johnson represented Breaud regarding a different piece: an anti-abortion composition called “Baby Song,” which Breaud had rendered at a “disturbing” volume outside of a clinic, drawing a police citation.
Breaud also went on to publicly boycott Starbucks over CEO Howard Schultz’ 2013 support of gay marriage, saying in a Christian News Network interview that he would tell Schultz, “You’re promoting sin. You’re helping destroy young people’s lives.”
Johnson’s Milwaukee lawsuit was bolstered by affidavits from Jason Storms’ father-in-law, militant anti-abortionist Rev. Matthew Trewhella. Trewhella—who two years prior was represented by ADF in a separate matter in Ohio—previously defended the murder of abortion doctors as “justifiable homicide.” And in 1994, Trewhella was recorded urging parents to give their children firearms training and advocating for religious congregations to launch militias, The New York Times reported.
By 2009, Trewhella had served 14 months in prison for obstructing clinics. He ran an Operation Rescue splinter group, called Missionaries to the Pre-Born, which also featured Jason Storms. Missionaries to the Pre-Born has been described as “one of the most dangerous and violent of the direct action anti-abortion groups active in the United States.”
The city settled the Milwaukee suit. Johnson’s co-counsel, Fintan Dooley, told The Daily Beast that he was happy with the settlement at the time, though they didn’t win fees. Dooley, a Democrat, also pleaded ignorance about any ties to violent groups among the plaintiffs and Trewhella.
But the year of that lawsuit, Operation Rescue was tied to the murder of Kansas abortion provider Dr. George Tiller. The killer had been in touch with a group official about Tiller’s whereabouts, and claimed to be a member. While the group denounced the slaying and the attacker’s claims to membership, Tiller was a top target of Operation Rescue’s ire for years—in 2002, they relocated their headquarters to Wichita specifically to pressure his clinic—and its leader at the time had previously called the murder of abortion providers a “justifiable defensive action.”
Twelve years later, Jason Storms was part of another siege. On Jan. 6, 2021, Storms and two other OSA members “set up the Lord’s beachhead” at Trump’s rally in Washington, D.C., according to an OSA blog post two days after the attack. The post marveled that “many saints were encouraged by the bold and plain declarations of the Law/Word of God,” declaring that it was “a great and exhausting time.”
What the post did not mention, however, was that Storms participated in the sacking of the Capitol. He posted a social media video of himself on the scaffolding shortly after the building was breached, admiring the insurrection as “Revolution 2.0” and crowing, “Yeah, baby!” in reply to a bullhorned call to “Hang ’em high!”
Dooley, Johnson’s co-counsel, told The Daily Beast that he was “disappointed but not surprised” to learn about Jason Storms’ involvement in the attack.
Grant Storms told The Daily Beast that he “supported” his son attending the rally, but, like Dooley, he condemned Trump and the Republicans who still support him—specifically including Johnson.
“Trump went nuts,” Grant Storms told The Daily Beast. “Anyone can see he tried to overturn the election. He belongs in jail.”
Like Grant Storms, Dooley spoke admirably about Johnson, noting his intellect and the influence he had on his own legal work.
But asked what he would say to Johnson regarding the speaker’s own unrepentant efforts to overturn the 2020 election and his continued support of Trump, Dooley soured.
“Pardon me while I puke, Mr. Johnson,” he said.