A speaker who is suddenly media shy cannot answer questions. He’s on the phone.

It was his first day back in Washington after a long winter break, and Speaker Mike Johnson was under pressure to pass a short-term funding bill to avoid a government shutdown within days.

With hard-right Republicans completely revolted by the plan, everyone in the Capitol was eager to know what the inexperienced leader would do next and whether it could lead to his ouster.

After spending less than six minutes answering questions at a news conference, Mr. Johnson silenced reporters’ shouted questions with a silent sign, like a taxi’s lights turned off, signaling that he was no longer available: He held his smartphone to his ear and sped off out of sight. .

It’s a ploy Mr. Johnson has often used to avoid questions since he won the presidency in the fall, and with it the difficult job of governing with a deeply divided and shrinking Republican majority in the House.

Before he was elected in October, Mr. Johnson, a Republican from Louisiana in his fourth term, routinely stopped by for interviews in the hallway. They are an integral part of congressional life on Capitol Hill, where accredited reporters roam freely in all but a few safe spaces, snapping members of Congress wherever they find them. Mr. Johnson would often stop and talk in the marble corridors surrounding the House floor, subjecting himself to impromptu and sometimes lengthy question-and-answer sessions with reporters before and after the vote.

But since winning the gavel, Mr. Johnson has avoided that ritual, using one of the most common tactics in a member of Congress to do so: talking or pretending to talk on the phone. These days, as he strides through the Capitol from his office to the House floor and back, Mr. Johnson’s preferred position is unavailable. And that usually involves using your iPhone as a buffer.

The “on the phone” gesture serves as a shield against unwanted interrogation in the hallway, a multipurpose nonverbal rejection that conveys busyness without seeming confrontational, and carries with it the potential for extreme embarrassment if ignored. (Is it a fake phone call, a sick child, or the president of the United States? It’s hard for reporters to tell who, if anyone, is on the other end of the line — and that’s the point.)

On occasions when he’s not holding the phone to his ear while walking, Mr. Johnson sometimes takes notes or looks through papers. Photographers complained that it was difficult to get a picture of Mr. Johnson looking up.

And if he is not engaged in some other task, Mr. Johnson still rarely deals with questions about the work before the House, or anything else. What was he doing for his birthday, a reporter asked him on Tuesday morning, his 52nd birthday, as he made his way through the Capitol.

“It works,” Mr. Johnson replied sharply. He did not answer other questions.

His remote approach is a striking change from the way Mr. Johnson’s two immediate predecessors handled some of the most powerful, public-facing jobs in Congress. Kevin McCarthy, a chatty extrovert, couldn’t resist talking to reporters several times a day as he toured the Capitol, engaging in walk-and-talks and holding impromptu news conferences in Statuary Hall.

As he grew more and more tense, it seemed that Mr. McCarthy dabbled even more in the press, sometimes doing a few emergency fights a day, and unexpectedly ventured into live television reporters’ tapings, where he had the chance to talk more. Even on his worst days, Mr. McCarthy always made time for the media, even if his sometimes garbled statements had to be cleaned up with another press conference.

Former Speaker Nancy Pelosi also frequently answered questions as reporters followed her around the building. She also held her own weekly press conference, usually answering questions for about 30 minutes.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, the longtime Republican leader from Kentucky, also holds weekly question-and-answer sessions with reporters outside the Senate chamber. But outside of his formal news conference, the taciturn Mr. McConnell has a more direct and cool way of deflecting hallway questions he wants to avoid: He simply stares straight ahead and keeps walking, as if the questioner doesn’t exist.

Some observers have speculated that Mr. Johnson’s relatively awkward attitude stems from his inexperience in his new role. His aides insist it is strategic; he does not want to cloud the message of the day. Aware that all his comments are now being examined under a microscope, Mr Johnson’s approach assumes that less is more.

That means joining a weekly news conference with other House Republican leaders, a group affair where his is one voice among several, and little else. His aides note that he contributes to his thin media footprint under the Capitol dome with a greater presence in television interviews.

A trip through the Capitol can be a conversational minefield for lawmakers. Journalists and photographers, lurking from every hallway and stairwell, are an accepted part of the Capitol Hill ecosystem, and answering their questions about the news of the day is an expected part of the job for elected officials.

For those who love attention, media scrutiny is an advantage.

“My motto is, ‘Almost all press is good press,'” said Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., who has a reputation for often being inescapable for comment. Mr Khanna said it never occurred to him to use the phone to avoid questions. He said he would be more likely to hang up if a reporter approached him for an interview.

But for lawmakers less inclined to answer questions, the “on the phone” strategy is a convenient way to signal that reporters looking for commentary and quips should look elsewhere.

“I would actually do it as a joke,” said Al Franken, a former Minnesota senator and comedian. “I would just do it with my hand, thumb in my ear, like, ‘I’m on the phone.’ Sometimes I would say I’m on the phone with the president.”

Mr. Franken said it could be an effective way to avoid reporters, but he acknowledged that it hasn’t been a very convincing strategy for navigating the Capitol since the Blackberry went out of style. “He doesn’t want to be accessible,” he said of Mr. Johnson. “It kind of depends on him. Then he just has to live with the consequences, which is what you’re writing about.”

For some, the consequences include being caught in a lie. Sen. Ron Johnson, Republican of Wisconsin, pretended to be on a call as he left the Capitol in June 2022 as reporters pressed him to explain his role in trying to deliver a list of fraudulent voters to an aide to former Vice President Mike Pence.

“I’m on the phone,” Mr. Johnson said. Except it isn’t.

“No, you’re not—I see your phone; I can see your screen,” replied Frank Thorp V, a reporter for NBC News.

Mr. Johnson eventually gave up the ruse, put the phone back in his pocket and answered the reporters who were following him. (“That’s complete nonsense,” he finally said, adding, “I don’t know what you’re worried about here anyway.”)

Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, Republican of Georgia, who has threatened to oust Mr. Johnson as speaker if he introduces any legislation that includes more funding for Ukraine, said the phone trick was just not her style.

“I don’t think you’ll see me walking around on the phone,” said Ms. Greene, who in recent years has taken a friendly approach to the mainstream media she has used as a foil. “But I’ll see if Mike Johnson is trying to avoid me like that.”

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