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Johnson slams Biden’s ‘senior moment’ on Israel aid

Speaker Mike Johnson said Wednesday he felt betrayed by President Joe Biden after learning that he is willing to withhold offensive weapons to Israel and accused the president of reneging on the deal they made to pass aid to Israel, Ukraine and Taiwan last month.

Johnson also said he hoped that Biden’s threat to cut off American weapons, made in a CNN interview, was “a senior moment.” And he revealed that even before that, he had privately reached out to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to fact-check reports that weapons were being delayed to send a political message, contrary to what Biden administration officials had told him.

The speaker reacted just moments after he learned about Biden’s comments during an exclusive hour-plus interview with POLITICO Wednesday night. The sitdown also came just hours after Johnson survived an attempt at a parliamentary coup by a far-right faction of House Republicans who said Johnson “aided and abetted the Democrats and the Biden administration in destroying our country.”

The speaker was in a buoyant mood after defeating the attempted putsch as he sat in his Capitol office suite beneath an enormous painting of Ronald Reagan. In a wide-ranging conversation for a forthcoming episode of the Playbook Deep Dive podcast, he touched on topics that included his relationships with Biden and former President Donald Trump, the Jan. 6 Capitol attack and the future of democracy.

His comments on Biden and Israel, however, are particularly notable because it was the first time that Johnson accused the president of violating promises made to secure the nearly $100 billion foreign aid package, passage of which led directly to yesterday’s ouster attempt.

Johnson said that even before Biden’s comments last night threatening to cut off weapons to Israel, he was deeply concerned by reports that the U.S. had already done so.

“And my reaction honestly was: Wow, that is a complete turn from what I have been told even in, you know, recent hours,” Johnson said. “I mean, 24 hours ago it was confirmed to me by top administration officials that the policy’s very different than what he stated there. So I hope that’s a senior moment.”

Johnson said he had been assured by Biden officials that the reports of a weapons cutoff were not accurate and did not violate his agreement with the president.

“I was in the SCIF having classified discussions with some top administration officials,” he said, referring to a secure facility in the Capitol. “My concern was we got word about these, you know, this shipment of munitions being delayed. And that was a great concern to us because I got commitments from top administration officials before we passed the supplemental package for the aid to Israel that that would not happen.”

He added that he was told “in writing and verbally” that there was “no delay in the delivery of weapons to Israel because it’s so desperately needed.”

Not satisfied with those guarantees from the Biden administration, Johnson decided to ask the Israelis.

“So yesterday, I talked with Prime Minister Netanyahu about it, and I wanted to get confirmation from him exactly what’s happening. And he described exactly what was happening before the news was confirmed,” he said. “I went straight to the White House, and I said, ‘What gives? Somebody’s going to have to explain this to me, because it’s very different than what I was told.’”

Johnson said the White House told him the delayed munitions were from “earlier weapons tranches” and had “nothing to do with the supplemental package that you all passed.”

The confusion around the issue made Biden’s comments last night more surprising to him.

“I hope — I believe he’s off script,” Johnson said. “I don’t think that’s something that staff told him to say. I hope it’s a senior moment, because that would be a great deviation in what is said to be the policy there.”

Asked if he felt betrayed by Biden’s statement, Johnson said, “I got to say that I do, yeah.”

Betrayal — and surprise — were also on his mind when it came to his own House colleagues, 11 of whom voted Wednesday to move forward with the motion to vacate.

“I didn’t think they would go through with it,” Johnson said.

But he also revealed a unusually magnanimous response. He said he approached the trio who brought the motion — Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) and Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) — after the vote.

“They were some of the last to leave. And, I said, ‘You know what? I don’t carry grudges, and I’m not angry about this. We have to work together. And I want to work with you guys and those ideas we were talking about. I’m still working on them, so I hope we can put this behind us and move forward.’”

But Johnson also told POLITICO one of those ideas was dead in the water: He does not plan to accede to Massie and Greene’s demand to defund special counsel Jack Smith, who is currently pursuing twin criminal prosecutions against Trump.

“That’s not something you wave a wand and just eliminate the special counsel as a provision,” he explained. “There is a necessity for a function like that, because sometimes the Department of Justice, which is an executive branch agency, can’t necessarily, without a conflict of interest, investigate or prosecute the president, who’s their boss, or the president’s family.”

Johnson never learned why his critics decided to spring the vote on him on Wednesday.

“They didn’t have an answer for that tonight,” he said. “I think I probably surprised them by my approach and demeanor on it. But who knows? I can’t get in the mind of anybody else.”

But he was withering in his criticism of the 11 Republicans who tried to bring him down — and dismissive of the prospect that they might try again to unseat him.

“These are perilous times for the country,” he said. ”The world is on fire. There are hot wars around the globe. We have allies in jeopardy, our borders wide open. The cost of living is through the roof. The crime rates through the roof. We’re projecting weakness on the world stage. We got antisemitism and angry mobs on college campuses. This is no time for frivolous palace intrigue and politics. We have got to have a functioning Congress. And I think the large, you know, the landslide vote tonight against removing the speaker is a signal that I think people on both sides of the aisle obviously understand this is not a time for games.”