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Rep. Mike Johnson is the next Speaker of the House. What do we know about him?

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. After three weeks of chaos, representative Mike Johnson of Louisiana is now the 56th speaker of the House of Representatives, putting an end to a public spectacle that put the division of House Republicans on full display. A relative unknown, Johnson was the fourth candidate to put himself in the ring after the House rejected Jim Jordan of Ohio three times and Majority Whip Tom Emmer of Minnesota dropped out. This saga and search for a new speaker began after the Republican-led House ousted Kevin McCarthy while in session. It's the first time in U.S. history that that's ever happened. Johnson, now the new speaker, is a deeply conservative lawmaker who opposes abortion rights and same-sex marriage. He also played a significant role in congressional efforts to overturn the 2020 election. He's now the second in line to the presidency.

Jonathan Blitzer is a staff writer at The New Yorker and has been following this story. He says Johnson represents a far-right ideology, much like congressional colleagues like Jim Jordan. The difference, he says, is that Johnson, up until now, has been less visible and vocal. Blitzer's latest article explores the power of Jim Jordan and the factions within the party. It's titled "Jim Jordan's Conspiratorial Quest For Power: How The Ohio Republican Built An Insurgent Bid For Speaker On The Lies Of Donald Trump." It's in this week's New Yorker. Jonathan Blitzer, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

JONATHAN BLITZER: Good to be back.

MOSLEY: Gosh, it was quite extraordinary to see the House fall in line for Representative Mike Johnson. I'm just wondering, based on what we've seen the last few weeks and days, what is it about Johnson that you think allowed him to secure the votes?

BLITZER: I think it's a few things. I think one big aspect of all of this is fatigue inside the Republican conference. This has now gone on for 22 days. The House has been without a speaker. The party has lurched from candidate to candidate, and it looks terrible for the party. And I think a lot of members are frustrated. They're hearing a lot of criticism from constituents. And so I really think there was a point at which everyone was quick to coalesce behind this candidate who appealed particularly to conservative members, which speaks again to the second strength of his, which is that as a deep conservative who has a pretty long track record of supporting very conservative causes, on everything from social issues to defending Donald Trump during the 2019 impeachment and helping craft the party's argument for refusing to certify the 2020 election, he had a lot of supporters among the factions that so far have been particularly bothersome to the party - that have held out, that have ousted McCarthy. He's someone who could really appeal to the hard right and who, at the same time, seemed mild-mannered enough to unite moderates who just wanted to put an end to this struggle.

MOSLEY: Let's talk a little bit more about that because, as you mentioned, he's known as being ultraconservative, but maybe less antagonistic. What does that mean?

BLITZER: He's less antagonistic in the sense that he's less well-known than the real conservative firebrands. So he and Jim Jordan are very similar ideologically, and he, in fact, sits on Jim Jordan's Judiciary Committee. He said of Jim Jordan that Jim Jordan is the Batman to his Robin. I mean, these guys are really in deep together. But Johnson has always been careful to plot a course publicly that is a little bit more muted, a little bit less sort of openly confrontational of Democrats and of institutions.

And so, you know, for instance, with the 2020 election, while you have people like Jim Jordan essentially explicitly saying that there had been fraud, that Donald Trump's victory was stolen from him, Johnson supports the same outcome. He will also refuse to certify the election, for instance. But the argument he makes will be a lot more legalistic. And he'll kind of ground it in constitutional principles and in legal principles. And he will skirt the issue of whether or not there had been fraud. And so he's able to deliver to the hard right and to Trump the end results they want. But he does it in a way that doesn't call undue attention to just how radical those positions are.

MOSLEY: Can you give us a little more insight - high-level insight - on his views about abortion and LGBTQ rights? He's known as being anti-abortion and supports restrictions for LGBTQ people.

BLITZER: Yeah. I mean, his record in Congress is about as far-right as you get on those issues. He has sponsored the legislation commonly known as Don't Say Gay bills. Those are all kind of right up his alley - you know, gender identity stuff, LGBTQ rights, abortion. He is a hard-line conservative on all of these and has really kind of made a name for himself. Even before he entered Congress, by the way, he was a lawyer for an organization called the Alliance Defending Freedom, which, you know, you might think of it as sort of a right-wing corollary to the ACLU that prosecutes all of these cases. I mean, this is a guy who has described himself as being on the front lines of the culture war fights and actually uses religious language to describe his calling as a legal advocate to pursue that agenda.

MOSLEY: Has he articulated yet what some of his priorities will be as speaker?

BLITZER: He hasn't said much. And, in fact, in his first address to the press as speaker, he did not take questions, which is revealing in its own right. But I think, you know, the first priority and the first thing on everyone's mind is what's going to happen next month when the government needs to pass, at the very least, a temporary budget measure to keep the government open. He, I actually think, is going to have a lot more maneuvering room on this issue than someone like Kevin McCarthy did. So already, people in the Freedom Caucus on the far right of the conference are saying, look. We understand he's inheriting a difficult situation.

You know, one influential Freedom Caucus member referred to Johnson as the, quote-unquote, "backup quarterback," which is just to say they're willing to vote in favor of what's called a continuing resolution, a budget measure that keeps the government open longer, which ordinarily members of the Freedom Caucus are very uncomfortable supporting. So he's got some maneuvering room in that direction. He has already called for a vote to further aid to Israel. We'll see what that looks like in practice. He has opposed, for instance, further aid to Ukraine.

MOSLEY: Ukraine.

BLITZER: And so, you know, Democrats want to push both at the same time - aid to Israel, aid to Ukraine. It will be interesting to see if and or how Speaker Johnson tries to split the difference there.

MOSLEY: You know, another thing that I was thinking about - you know, as we saw these potential candidates for the speaker, one by one, fall off, there are a number of far-right Republican House members who are relatively inexperienced. And I'm just wondering what the effect will be in having less experienced leaders come into power who seem to be less interested in working with Democrats to get anything done.

BLITZER: I think that's the key thing. I think inexperience tends to correlate with intransigence, lack of willingness to compromise. And I think it's going to be a problem because particularly when the majority is as thin as the Republican majority is right now, it's very hard to steer stuff through a pretty fractious Republican conference without some points of contact with Democrats. And so I think that's going to be one of the ways in which we see and feel his inexperience. I mean, this is a guy who first came to Congress - he was elected 2016, you know, which is really atypical for someone who's ascended to this height inside the body. I mean, this is the second in line to the president.

MOSLEY: Yeah.

BLITZER: And so he is both far more conservative than any of the speakers who've come before him, and he's far less experienced.

MOSLEY: He's also in a tenuous position - right? - because based on what we are seeing, he could see the same fate as Kevin McCarthy, right? Eight Republicans voted to oust McCarthy, and many of them seem to have different reasons as to why. We're still seeing a divided Congress.

BLITZER: That's true. I do think what he has going for him is the chaos that everyone in the House has just experienced for the last three weeks. I think a lot of Republicans are fed up and embarrassed by how this all played out. And so I think - whereas there - they were much more aggressive in challenging McCarthy and going right at leadership from the start, I think, under the circumstances, they may grant him more leeway. And, in fact, he is seen as a much more conservative figure than McCarthy. A lot of the far-right members saw McCarthy as someone who was willing to do whatever it took to get and stay in power. And a lot of them questioned whether or not he was, ideologically speaking, a kind of true believer. Someone like Mike Johnson is not going to face those doubts.

But it's true. He's still going to face an incredibly divided conference. He is going to face a divided conference at a very difficult time, both given what's happening in the world and what's upcoming in the next year in American politics. And as you say, all it takes is a couple of members, a couple of wayward members, to start to rock the boat. And so, you know, it's something we're just going to have to watch.

MOSLEY: Let's take a short break. If you're just joining us, I'm talking with journalist John Blitzer from The New Yorker about the chaos in Congress leading up to yesterday's vote to elect Mike Johnson as speaker of the House. Blitzer's latest article, titled "Jim Jordan's Conspiratorial Quest For Power," explores how the Ohio Republican built an insurgent bid for speaker on the lies of Donald Trump. We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DANILO PEREZ AND CLAUS OGERMAN'S "RAYS AND SHADOWS")

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR, and today we're talking to Jonathan Blitzer, staff writer for The New Yorker. He's talking with us about the impasse over choosing a new speaker of the House, which ended yesterday with the election of Mike Johnson. Blitzer's latest article, titled "Jim Jordan's Conspiratorial Quest For Power," explores how the Ohio Republican built an insurgent bid for speaker on the lies of Donald Trump.

I want to step back just a little bit because you've written about this before. These factions within the Republican House - they're the so-called five families. How will this impact the five families and those different factions? Are they still intact?

BLITZER: It's an interesting question. I do think there's more division than I would have expected in each of these factions, certainly on the far right. My assumption had always been - and I think part of the way they wielded power in the past was to all speak with one voice. That was a way that they could project greater power beyond the strict math of their numbers. So, like, the Freedom Caucus, for instance, has maybe 33 members in it. So how - in a body, obviously, that's much larger than that, how do you, you know, manage to wield influence if you only got 33 people in your group? But under the circumstances, again, because the majority is so slim, there, I think, has been a lot more frustration inside each of these groups because I don't think everyone sees eye to eye. And now suddenly that's really felt, both within each of the groups, within the broader conference.

So I think, you know, the election of Mike Johnson as speaker by Republicans - what does it do to this broader dynamic? I think, in some ways, it holds things in place - in a very attenuated and precarious place, but it kind of keeps everyone in their respective orbits. And so I don't think you're going to see a lot of conflict from them, per se. And it remains to be seen how much leeway Johnson will have with members of the far right. I mean, some of these guys in the far right, they're not even motivated entirely by ideological principle. Some of it is about getting the spotlight. Some of it is about being the protagonist of a news cycle. A lot of it is about fundraising and boosting their notoriety to drive fundraising.

These days, the centralized power structure inside the Republican Party doesn't have the same influence it used to have. I mean, in the past, if you were a member of the Republican Conference, you relied on leadership to help you with fundraising, to help introduce you to donors. You needed the imprimatur of the establishment. Over the last several years, that power has become increasingly decentralized. And you'll notice - you know, when Speaker Mike Johnson addresses the public and addresses his members, he has said exactly this. He's already said that this is going to be one of the most decentralized Republican conferences that members have ever seen. I mean...

MOSLEY: Right.

BLITZER: ...Those are his exact words. So he's already trying to nod in that direction.

MOSLEY: Yeah. I mean, I'm actually thinking - you mentioned fundraising. There may be a scenario - there probably likely will be a scenario where he will be calling on help from more senior members. I'm thinking about McCarthy, for instance, who is known for his ability to fundraise. And does Johnson even have a staff? He will have to beef up his staff, right? I'm sure he probably has a smaller one than a speaker would normally.

BLITZER: Absolutely. And, you know, I just saw a report, a very interesting report, that some of McCarthy's influential donors and lobbyists are now throwing their weight behind Johnson because this is not someone who's got a powerful fundraising operation. He's never really had the need to. And so he's also starting from - not from scratch, but from a place that is uncommon for someone assuming the speakership.

MOSLEY: Democrats seem to be very locked in. What have they been doing while the Republicans have been having this battle?

BLITZER: Well, Democrats are seizing on the conservatism of Mike Johnson to assail him as basically an extreme conservative who voted against certifying the 2020 election, who is no different than any of the firebrand ideologue types who have been, you know, so notorious and who the public knows more generally. What some Democrats have called Mike Johnson is Jim Jordan with a jacket, because Jim Jordan is...

MOSLEY: Never wears a jacket, yeah.

BLITZER: ...Known for never wearing a jacket. And Johnson is, you know, just as aggressive but a bit more polished. And so, you know, Democrats will really play up that fact. And I think, you know, they seem pretty united so far. There are issues that the Democrats will face in the next several weeks and months, for example, on Israel and other foreign policy issues that are complicated matters for them to deal with as a party. But right now, we haven't really seen too much meaningful disagreement among them, because they have all been locked in on this speaker fight, and they've all kind of been moving more or less in lockstep.

MOSLEY: As you mentioned earlier, they're tired, possibly, probably embarrassed. But how do you think the last few weeks might impact the election in 2024?

BLITZER: I mean, it could not help Republicans. I don't see how it could. I guess the question becomes, will this remain clear enough in people's memories, you know, in the next year to recall what Republican rule in the House has looked like? You know, it's complicated, too, because we're in divided government. You know, Democrats control, obviously, the White House and the Senate, Republicans run the House. And so it's not so clear-cut, necessarily, to people who are maybe following along vaguely as they live their lives that this dysfunction has been, you know, wholly wrought by Republicans. I think it's pretty clear, and I do hope that that message kind of lands in some ways, because it's a very striking fact.

But we're just going to have to see - we're going to have to see what happens. And, you know, the idea that the party has now picked as a speaker someone who's an extreme conservative who is closely aligned with Donald Trump at a time when Donald Trump is again at the top of the Republican ticket. If you're a moderate Republican in a district - and I think there are 18 of them - in a district that went for Joe Biden in 2020, you've got to feel pretty uncomfortable because the main spokespeople for your party right now are Donald Trump and now Mike Johnson. And they're going to be propounding a message that you're not necessarily thrilled for your constituents to hear.

MOSLEY: You wrote this deep dive on Jim Jordan. Do you know what relationship Mike Johnson and Jim Jordan have, the relative amount of power each has in the House and the party at large?

BLITZER: The two of them, from an ideological perspective, are nearly indistinguishable. They've both worked together on the Judiciary Committee. They have a friendship. They speak very warmly about each other. At one point, Johnson has called Jim Jordan a hero. It's been interesting to watch the two of them on the Judiciary Committee together because you see the difference in their styles. Again, on substance, they are almost completely aligned, but in style they do differ.

And so, you know, you'll see in the committee room, where Jordan is much more vocal and dramatic, Johnson tends to be more lawyerly and subdued. And he tries to couch his arguments more in legal terms. I've watched him in the committee rooms essentially citing Heritage Foundation reports and other, you know, extremely conservative documents to talk about everything from, you know, bias at the Justice Department to rampant crime in American cities. He actually had a very large role, Johnson did, when Jordan brought the Judiciary Committee to New York City this past April to talk about crime in Manhattan.

And the reason they were doing that was because the district attorney, Alvin Bragg, had recently indicted Donald Trump. And so they were, you know, off to the races, trying to do what they could to discredit Alvin Bragg. And so it's Jordan's decision to bring a branch of the Judiciary Committee to New York for what they called a field hearing. And at that field hearing, you see Mike Johnson holding forth, quoting statistics talking about how blue cities are more dangerous than red ones because of progressive prosecutors. And he's quoting reports, and he's making this ostensibly reasoned case. And so the two of them really work hand in hand. And I think their power together is quite striking.

MOSLEY: You know, one of the things you write extensively about is Jim Jordan's interest in investigations, which is something he can drive as a member of the House Judiciary Committee. Now that Johnson is the new speaker, I'm just also wondering about is do you think there'll be more interest in investigating things like bias against conservatives and an investigation of President Biden?

BLITZER: One important thing to note about Speaker McCarthy and his leadership of the House until he was ousted was that he pretty much gave all of these conservative elements in the conference everything they wanted where the Biden investigations were concerned. And you may remember, in September, he acquiesced to conservative demands and allowed for this impeachment inquiry to go forward. So it's hard to imagine a speaker doing more to empower these Republican investigators to continue to go at Hunter Biden and connect Hunter Biden, to the extent they think they can, to the president. I don't - it's hard to imagine Mike Johnson going further in that regard. But, you know, we've been shocked before by the direction party leadership has gone in. So you know, I hesitate to say anything too definitive in that way.

MOSLEY: Our guest today is Jonathan Blitzer, staff writer with The New Yorker. We're talking about the divided House of Representatives and his latest piece on Representative Jim Jordan. I'm Tonya Mosley and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOEL FORRESTER AND PEOPLE LIKE US' "YOUR POLITICAL MOVIE")

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. And if you're just joining us, I'm talking with journalist Jon (ph) Blitzer from The New Yorker about the divisions among the House Republicans in electing a new speaker of the House. Blitzer's latest article, titled "Jim Jordan's Conspiratorial Quest for Power," explores how the Ohio Republican built an insurgent bid for speaker on the rise of Donald Trump.

You've written extensively about the House Freedom Caucus, which was founded by Jim Jordan in 2015.

BLITZER: Yes. And what's interesting about them, if you talk to people who have been in, you know, House leadership over the last 10 years or so, what everyone will point out is that the Freedom Caucus, closer to when it formed in 2015 and in the years immediately after, they were more aligned as a unit. They saw eye-to-eye on key issues like federal spending and what their position was going to be vis-a-vis House leadership. And they had to do that because the Republican majority during those years - when there was a Republican majority or when they were not in the majority, when you just looked at the full kind of array of Republicans in the House - the Freedom Caucus members were - their power was diluted, and so they needed to band together. They needed to speak with a single voice in order to be heard.

Now what you're seeing is that they're at the peak of their power. But strangely, kind of paradoxically, there's the least coherence in their actual ideological vision. There's the most disparity in terms of what individual members think, because the majority now is so slim that, really, any few members of the Freedom Caucus can impose their will on the broader conference. So if you talk to members of the Freedom Caucus, for instance, and you ask them what they think of Matt Gaetz, you will not find that he has a lot of friends in the House Freedom Caucus, which, you know, to a kind of ordinary listener who's following politics but isn't deeply, deeply entrenched in the day-to-day rough and tumble, would maybe seem surprising.

But it just sort of underlines the point that these - there are a lot of free agents now operating inside the House Freedom Caucus. And so they're as divided as they've ever been, but they're more powerful than they've ever been.

MOSLEY: Jonathan, you've written this fascinating article that investigates Jim Jordan and what you call his quest for power. But, you know, after reading it, it also made me wonder, how much should we attribute Jim Jordan to the current dysfunction that we're seeing? And you kind of just laid this out for us, how this caucus has really operated over the last few years, sowing discord within the conference.

BLITZER: I mean, I started this story before it ever seemed possible that Jim Jordan would mount a run for speaker. But in a way, it really - this is the capstone to the broader story I'm telling in the article, which is, you know, over the years, the conference has lurched farther and farther to the right and the firebrands on the far-right who, you know, truck in Trumpian conspiracy theories and have deep ties to the Republican base can really route the broader agenda of the party. And no one is comfortable crossing them or even vaguely becoming at odds with them. And as the fate of Kevin McCarthy shows, even if you try to do right by the far-right members of the Republican conference, it's still never enough.

But what's interesting about Jordan is that - and this is sort of part of the story, too - you know, Jordan is someone who went from the fringes of the party as an insurgent, probably the most influential Republican insurgent in the House, to a member of the establishment. And he, over the last, I would say, four years, has kind of played both sides a little bit. And so he's an interesting case study, too, in what happens when you take one of these insurgent types who doesn't really have any interest in legislating, who has a long history of, you know, burning things down and so on and attacking leadership and plotting against speakers of his own party, who then starts to recognize that, OK, I have become such a thorn in the side of leadership that they need me. They need to make peace with me. And that's the story of Jim Jordan, that Kevin McCarthy - this started in 2018 and has only become more dramatic since. But Kevin McCarthy in 2018 recognized that the Freedom Caucus had sabotaged him before, and that his best course of action was to try to make good with some of its key members. And so he tried to bring Jim Jordan into the fold. And so in 2018, he invites Jim Jordan to become the top member, the top Republican member of the House Oversight Committee, which is a major concession from Kevin McCarthy.

And so now, you know, he's the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, arguably the most important committee right now in the House. He is in charge or at least coordinating in some form or another all of the major investigations into Joe Biden. The Judiciary Committee has a budget of $19 million, a staff of over 60 people. The budget is three times larger under the Republicans right now than it was under Democrats when they controlled the committee, which shows, again, the calculus of House leadership recognizing that we don't have much of a chance of passing laws, but we can launch investigations. And so a committee like the Judiciary Committee can be very important in that way. Jordan has all of these resources at his disposal. And in exchange, since 2018, up until the present, he has been a steadfast ally of Kevin McCarthy because Kevin McCarthy has facilitated this path to power.

MOSLEY: Part of your reporting takes us back to Jordan's introduction to Congress back in 2007. You even go way back to his formative years as a wrestler in high school. I'm wondering, what did those formative years reveal to you about the way he moves in Congress?

BLITZER: You know, it sounds almost too on the nose to say that Jim Jordan was a champion wrestler and that that defined his outlook, style, approach to life and to politics, but it really is the case. I mean, he was a champion wrestler in high school and in college. And, I mean, he's been inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame. This is someone who was a superlative wrestler and who - I think it's fair to say, again, at the risk of sounding cliche, he has taken that mentality, the aggressiveness, the relentlessness, the doggedness that you would see in a sport like wrestling to the halls of Congress. And he's said it himself. I mean, he has often said, for instance, that, you know, the House Oversight Committee is the closest to wrestling that a member can get to - you know, inside the body. He's always played up that angle. But that has, in fact, very much been his M.O.

You know, he's got a single-track mind. He's got an investigative target. He's got a kind of rhetorical point he's going to make. He's going to make it over and over. He's going to dig deeper than anyone else. No fact is going to deter him. No complicating set of circumstances or factors are going to soften his position. As one person who worked with him once said to me, he dives so deep that once something sticks in his head, it never comes unstuck.

MOSLEY: Let's take a short break. If you're just joining us, I'm talking with journalist Jonathan Blitzer from The New Yorker about the latest chaos in Congress around the vote for a new speaker of the House. Blitzer's latest article, titled "Jim Jordan's Conspiratorial Quest For Power," explores how the Ohio Republican built an insurgent bid for speaker on the lies of Donald Trump. We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF METALLICA SONG, "...AND JUSTICE FOR ALL")

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. Today we're talking to Jonathan Blitzer, staff writer for The New Yorker. He's talking with us about the impasse over choosing a new speaker of the House, which ended yesterday with the election of Mike Johnson. Blitzer's latest article is titled "Jim Jordan's Conspiratorial Quest For Power."

One of the things that Jordan oversees is the weaponization committee, which McCarthy approved as a concession to Jordan. Can you explain what the committee is and why Jordan wanted it so badly?

BLITZER: Well, the history is interesting. The idea didn't start with Jordan. The idea started with far-right members of the Freedom Caucus who had always envisioned of having their own version of something called the Church Committee. So the Church Committee was the committee named after Democratic Senator Frank Church in the mid-1970s to investigate abuses by the national security apparatus in the U.S. - the CIA, the NSA, the FBI? And what that investigation looked like in the mid-1970s was the intelligence community surveilling American citizens and actually targeting leftists in the U.S. - people who supported leftist causes, surveilling Martin Luther King. You know, that was the kind of orientation of that committee. And it was a watershed moment in American history because it was the first time that the U.S. Congress very seriously and publicly questioned overreach and abuse by the national intelligence establishment.

And so there are some members of the Republican Party and the conservative world who have long thought that they need to have their conservative version of that committee. And so for a lot of 2022, even before the Republicans were in control of the House, there had been conversations among certain far-right members of the Republican Party. And the idea was that, you know, there would have to be some way - this would be a chance for Kevin McCarthy to show that he was serious about the priorities that the conservative members of the Freedom Caucus had.

And so when McCarthy was running for speaker the first time this year, in January, and was struggling to get enough votes to become speaker, there were about 20 holdouts from the Freedom Caucus who said, all right, we'll throw our support behind you, but only if you agree to certain concessions. And there were a range of concessions, but one of them was the creation of what they wanted as a free-standing committee that had kind of a broad remit that could look into how the federal government did things that hurt conservatives. And McCarthy's counteroffer was, OK, why don't we make that a subcommittee inside the House Judiciary Committee? And let's put Jim Jordan in charge of it. And Jordan, of course, for territorial reasons, wanted it because he was planning on launching a lot of these investigations...

MOSLEY: Investigations.

BLITZER: ...Anyway. So he wanted, you know, kind of free rein over this subcommittee. So that's how it kind of took shape.

MOSLEY: So Jordan is known for villainizing people and stoking victimhood. And one example you give is the case of a computer scientist from the University of Washington. Her name is Kate Starbird. And she and other researchers conducted this study where they tracked online misinformation during the 2020 election. She then, after that, became the target of online conspiracy theorists who claimed that she and other researchers colluded with the Department of Homeland Security to censor millions of tweets during the 2020 election. How did the subcommittee that Jordan oversees actually come to investigate this? - because Starbird insists that her subcommittee is being mischaracterized and their work is being mischaracterized.

BLITZER: So Kate Starbird at the University of Washington was part of a consortium of academics and local and state election officials and members of tech platforms who were all in communication around the 2020 election. And Starbird and the other academic researchers were looking to understand how misinformation about the election spread in real time. And eventually what they do is they release their report, a very academic, dense report in March of 2021, that cites their full data set. And what a lot of conservatives seized on from relatively early on was the fact that there was a connection between these academic researchers and the Department of Homeland Security.

Now, that connection was very attenuated. Essentially, the mechanism by which these academic researchers were in touch with local and state election officials had something to do with an organization that received funding from the Department of Homeland Security. That was the connection. That was the extent of the connection. But the mere fact that the Department of Homeland Security was engaged with academic researchers studying misinformation, to the likes of Jordan and other conservatives, was an enormous red flag that meant that they were all colluding with the federal government.

And their view is that any form of content moderation, any interest that academic researchers have or the tech platforms have in trying to identify and potentially root out misinformation online, is proof of censorship, which is obviously an enormous leap. Going from content moderation to censorship is not a straight line. But to Jordan and others, they weren't interested in delineating the actual subtlety of it. And so they quickly seized on the fact of this partnership as proof of a broader conspiracy. And that's how it became kind of lodged in the agenda of the weaponization subcommittee.

MOSLEY: You know, one thing that keeps happening is supporters of Jordan are quick to threaten the lives of anyone who he sets his sights on, including members of Congress who go against him. But how did this play out for this researcher, Kate Starbird?

BLITZER: It started - you know, even before Jordan had arrived on the scene, let's say, she started to realize that she was the subject of a conspiracy theory, which was interesting for her because her academic expertise is studying conspiracy theories. So it was this very surreal experience for her. And it started, you know, first with attacks and threats made on Twitter. So she eventually closes her Twitter account. Then campus police at the university where she works comes to her and says, listen. We're getting some strange complaints about you - I mean, outlandish stuff.

So she was beginning to see, uh-oh (ph). My name is now meaning something to people out there. And then for her, the really dramatic moment was in the late summer, early fall of 2022, the University of Washington begins to receive dozens of public records requests in which third parties, individual, you know, conservative journalists, the attorney general of Missouri, conservative foundations are asking to see Kate Starbird, this academic's, emails. They want to rake through all of her emails. And because the University of Washington is public, it has to comply with these public records requests and supply her emails, which, of course, worsens this cycle of misinformation because if you have a bunch of online conspiracists who can now freely quote from a bunch of random emails, they have almost an endless amount of material to keep stoking these theories with.

And so that's when she begins to realize this is becoming a problem. And then soon enough, Jordan arrives on the scene. And, you know, Jordan is the head of the Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government. And the entire premise of this subcommittee is to investigate each and every plotline they've identified as being proof of how the federal government is out to get conservatives. And this issue of what they call tech censorship is front and center for them.

And so before long, you know, Kate Starbird and a number of other people who are involved in this project, including people who worked at social media platforms, are summoned to testify before the subcommittee. Now, these interviews are conducted behind closed doors. They are recorded. They are transcribed. But none of that material gets back to any of the people who have been interviewed. So they're essentially doing these interviews blind. They don't know how the conversation they're having with congressional investigators is going to be used. They're assuming that some of this stuff is eventually going to get repurposed and released kind of piecemeal and selectively to further the Republican case on this issue. And so you actually see this truly staggering arc of an academic researcher who's doing her work and who goes from essentially getting an inkling of there being a conspiracy theory online to, several months later, being hauled before the U.S. Congress and forced to answer questions posed by Jim Jordan's subcommittee.

MOSLEY: Well, I mean, Jordan certainly talks quite a bit about this and a lot of the investigations. On Fox News, he's always talking about this. But is there any way to decipher if he has traction? Does he have the goods?

BLITZER: You know, the experience I and others have who tune in to Jordan when he speaks on Fox News or when he speaks in the committee room is to basically have to then go and look up all of these references because this stuff is incredibly arcane and specific. He doesn't have to have the goods in any kind of meaningful way that proves some serious collusion between these academic researchers and DHS. That material doesn't exist. But he can line up this material kind of relentlessly enough to make it a kind of cause celebre among conservatives. And I have to say, on the tech censorship issue in particular, he has had real traction not just among conservatives but - you know, these social media platforms were never thrilled about engaging in content moderation. They were...

MOSLEY: Yeah.

BLITZER: ...Essentially forced into it by exceptional circumstances - the 2016 election...

MOSLEY: Yeah.

BLITZER: ...A global pandemic the likes of which we've never seen before, the 2020 election, in which Trump refused to concede, all of these things. And so they were essentially pressured into having to be more active in moderating content around elections and the like. And now this kind of pressure has been so great that it really is scaring them away from doing this.

MOSLEY: Jonathan Blitzer, thank you so much for this conversation.

BLITZER: Oh, thanks for having me.

MOSLEY: Jonathan Blitzer is a staff writer with The New Yorker. His latest article is titled "Jim Jordan's Conspiratorial Quest For Power." His forthcoming book, "Everyone Who Is Gone Is Here: The United States, Central America, And The Making Of A Crisis," will be out in January. Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews a new album from big band composer Darcy James Argue. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOMMASO-RAVA QUARTET'S "L'AVVENTURA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tonya Mosley is the LA-based co-host of Here & Now, a midday radio show co-produced by NPR and WBUR. She's also the host of the podcast Truth Be Told.
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