When Mike Johnson, the new speaker of the House of Representatives, talks about race in America, he often draws a striking personal connection, telling the story of how he and his wife, Kelly, “took custody” of a black teenager 24 years ago and raised him like a son.
“I’ve walked with him through the discrimination he’s had to endure over the years and the obstacles he’s faced at times,” he told a House committee in 2019 while testifying against slavery reparations. “I know all this because I was with him.”
When Mr. Johnson was named speaker of the House this week, his relationship with his son, like much of Mr. Johnson’s personal and political life, faced new scrutiny. Mr. Johnson’s official biography does not mention the man, now of legal age, raising his family in California. And he doesn’t appear in family photos posted on the congressman’s website. Mr. Johnson has four biological children: two daughters and two sons.
On Friday, Mr Johnson tried to explain the absence, saying it was out of respect for his son Michael’s request for privacy.
“At the time of the speaker’s election to Congress, Michael was an adult with a family of his own,” Corinne Day, the speaker’s director of communications, said in a statement first reports Newsweek. “He asked not to interfere in their new public life. The speaker respected that sentiment throughout his career and maintains a close relationship with Michael to this day.”
The attention now being paid to Mr. Johnson — as well as to Michael — reflects the new world he entered with his sudden move to a position that puts him second in the line of succession to the presidency. Before this week, Mr. Johnson was an obscure Southern Republican, with little known about his background outside his home state; the story of Michael, who was 14 when he joined the Johnson family, was even less well known.
In his public remarks over the years, Mr. Johnson has described Michael as his son and has not corrected an interviewer who described Michael as “adopted.” Ms. Day said in an interview that the Johnsons did not formally adopt Michael because of the “long adoption process.” Ms. Day declined to say whether Michael used “Johnson” as his last name.
Michael could not be reached for comment.
Mr. Johnson spoke publicly about Michael mostly when he talked about race. He described Michael as a “success story” and compared the experience of a white couple adopting a black teenager to “The Blind Side,” a 2009 film about a wealthy white family taking in an impoverished black teenager who becomes a football star.
In his testimony on racial reparations before a subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee, Mr. Johnson said Michael also opposed reparations because they defy “an important tradition of self-reliance.” Mr Johnson’s comments drew boos from reparations supporters at the hearing.
Black members of Congress, who are mostly Democrats, did not welcome Mr. Johnson’s rise. Congressional Black Caucus issued a statement this week after electing Mr. Johnson as speaker describing him as a “Trump-backed extremist who wants to criminalize abortion and cut programs like Social Security and Medicare.”
Johnson’s remarks about race also drew criticism from the right. U Interview 2020 on PBS, spoke with reporter Walter Isaacson about racial tensions in America in the immediate aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, a black man, by a white Minneapolis police officer. Mr. Johnson described Mr. Floyd’s killing as “an act of murder” and said he learned about racial inequality in America firsthand by raising a black son.
At the time, Mr. Johnson noticed that his oldest biological son, Jack, was now the same age as Michael when he came into the house. “I’ve often thought about all these trials in the last few weeks about the difference in experiences between my two 14-year-old sons,” he said in an interview with PBS. “Michael is black and Jack is white. They have different challenges. My son Jack has an easier path. He just works.”
When he was nominated for House speaker this month, Mr. Johnson — a hardline conservative whose election to the new post was applauded by the conservative movement — earned the remarks rare criticism from the right, which saw them as an acknowledgment of systemic racism.
Matt Walsh, a right-wing podcaster on the Daily Wire, wrote on X that Mr. Johnson’s comments about Mr. Floyd were “a complete endorsement of the left’s racial narrative” and called the 2020 interview “totally disqualifying.”
Laura Loomer, a far-right ally of Donald J. Trump, accused Mr. Johnson of being an “undercover Democrat,” asking in a post on X: “What kind of MAGA Republican says something like this?”
But when asked about the criticism in his first lengthy interview since becoming speaker, Mr. Johnson appeared to downplay the role he believes race played in the lives of Jack and Michael.
“Raising two 14-year-old boys in America and the state of Louisiana, they’ve had different experiences,” he told Fox News host Sean Hannity on Thursday. “And I’m not sure it was all about skin color, but it’s about culture and society. Michael, our first, came from a really troubled background and had a lot of challenges.”
Ken Bensinger contributed to the reporting.