It was his first day again in Washington after an extended winter break, and Speaker Mike Johnson was beneath stress to move 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 wanting 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 accessible: He held his smartphone cellphone to his ear and speed-walked out of sight.
It’s a ploy that Mr. Johnson has used incessantly to dodge questions because the fall when he gained the place of speaker, and with it the difficult 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 number of safe areas, buttonholing members of Congress wherever they will discover them. Mr. Johnson would usually cease and speak within the marble corridors surrounding the Home flooring, submitting to impromptu and generally prolonged question-and-answer classes with reporters earlier than and after votes.
However since successful the gavel, Mr. Johnson has taken to avoiding that ritual, using one of the vital frequent techniques in a member of Congress’s playbook to take action: speaking, or pretending to speak, on the cellphone. Today, as he strides by means of the Capitol from his workplace to the Home flooring and again, Mr. Johnson’s most popular posture is inaccessible. And it most frequently includes utilizing his iPhone as his buffer.
The “on the cellphone” gesture serves as a defend towards the undesirable hallway interrogation, an all-purpose nonverbal rebuff that conveys busyness with out seeming to stonewall, and carries with it the potential for excessive awkwardness if ignored. (Is it a pretend cellphone name, a sick child or the president of the USA? It’s exhausting 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 cellphone to his ear whereas strolling, Mr. Johnson is typically taking notes or reviewing papers. Photographers have complained that it’s troublesome to seize an image of Mr. Johnson wanting 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 manner by means of the Capitol.
“Working,” Mr. Johnson replied brusquely. He answered no different questions.
His distant method is a placing change from the way in which Mr. Johnson’s two quick predecessors dealt with the public-facing portion of essentially the most highly effective job in Congress. Kevin McCarthy, a chatty extrovert, couldn’t resist talking with reporters a number of occasions a day as he made his manner across the Capitol, partaking in walk-and-talks and holding impromptu information conferences in Statuary Corridor.
As he turned extra embattled, Mr. McCarthy appeared to interact with the press much more, generally holding a number of spur-of-the-moment gaggles a day and getting into unexpectedly into tv reporters’ stay photographs, the place he was recreation to speak extra. Even on his worst days, Mr. McCarthy all the time appeared to find time for the media, even when his generally garbled utterances wanted to be cleaned up with one more back-and-forth with the press.
Former Speaker Nancy Pelosi additionally incessantly 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 classes with reporters exterior the Senate chamber. However exterior his formal information convention, the taciturn Mr. McConnell has a extra direct and chillier manner 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 submit. His aides insist it’s strategic; he doesn’t need to muddy the message of the day. Conscious that every one of his feedback at the moment are scrutinized beneath a microscope, Mr. Johnson’s method assumes that much less is extra.
Which means becoming a member of a weekly information convention with different Home Republican leaders, a gaggle affair the place his is one voice amongst a number of, and little else. His aides word that he provides to his slim media footprint beneath the Capitol dome with an even bigger presence in tv interviews.
Commuting by means 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 many who love consideration, the media scrutiny is a perk.
“My motto is, ‘Virtually all press is nice press,’” mentioned Consultant Ro Khanna, Democrat of California, who has a status for occasionally being unavoidable for remark. Mr. Khanna mentioned it had by no means occurred to him to make use of his cellphone to keep away from questions. He mentioned he’d be extra more likely to hold up if a reporter approached him to talk.
However for lawmakers much less keen on answering questions, the “on the cellphone” technique is a useful option to sign that journalists searching for feedback and quips ought to hunt elsewhere.
“I might really do it as a joke,” mentioned 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 cellphone.’ Generally I’d say I’m on the cellphone with the president.”
Mr. Franken mentioned it might be an efficient option to dodge reporters, however he admitted it hasn’t been a completely plausible technique for navigating the Capitol because the Blackberry went out of trend. “He doesn’t need to be accessible,” he mentioned of Mr. Johnson. “That’s form of as much as him. Then he has to only stay with the implications, which is your writing a chunk about it.”
For some, the implications embrace being caught in a lie. Senator Ron Johnson, Republican of Wisconsin, pretended to be on a call as he left the Capitol in June 2022, as reporters pressed him to clarify his role in trying to deliver a slate of fake electors to an aide to former Vice President Mike Pence.
“I’m on the cellphone,” Mr. Johnson mentioned. Besides he wasn’t.
“No, you’re not — I can see your cellphone; I can see your display,” Frank Thorp V, a reporter for NBC Information, responded.
Mr. Johnson finally gave up the ruse, placing his cellphone again in his pocket and responding to the reporters trailing him. (“That’s an entire nonstory,” he lastly mentioned, 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, mentioned the cellphone trick simply isn’t her type.
“I don’t assume you’ll see me strolling round on the cellphone,” mentioned 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.”