It’s no mystery what Rep. Mike Johnson said when he delivered the keynote address at the Council for National Policy’s conference at the New Orleans Ritz-Carlton on Oct. 4, 2019. There’s a video of his 31-minute speech which was leaked to watchdog group Documented and published online in 2020.
But what is a mystery is who paid for Johnson to be there, how much they paid, and whether the future Speaker of the House violated disclosure laws by failing to report his trip to New Orleans and the expenses associated with his attendance at an elite, far-right conservative conference.
If you take the example of other members of Congress who have spoken to CNP, the costs can rack up quickly when you consider travel, lodging, meals, and the conference registration fee.
When Rep. Jody Hice (R-GA) spoke to CNP at the Orlando Ritz-Carlton in February of 2019, he filed a gift travel report with the House Ethics Committee showing that his transportation was $884, a night at the hotel was $370, and the registration fee was $675.
In all three cases, CNP covered the expenses. And all three congressmen also properly disclosed the trips on their personal financial disclosures, as required when travel gifts exceed a minimum threshold.
But Johnson never reported his trip. He never filed a gift travel report, and he didn’t list the travel on his annual personal financial disclosure that year, either. That leaves a few options: he paid for the trip out of pocket, the trip somehow didn’t trigger the same reporting requirements that it did for his colleagues, or Johnson simply failed to disclose a gift from the conservative organization.
CNP did not return a request for comment about the trip.
Twelve hours after this story published on Monday—and 24 hours after the deadline The Daily Beast provided for comment—a Johnson spokesperson called to say that Johnson’s campaign committee paid for the costs associated with the event, noting that Johnson had attended a “political event” in New Orleans. Due to an internal miscommunication, the spokesperson said, the office had not had time to review the questions, which had been sent Friday afternoon.
That explanation raises its own questions. Federal Election Commission filings show that the campaign bought a $236.30 plane ticket on Sept. 27, a week before the conference. But there are no lodging or meal expenses anywhere near the conference dates. (Chip Roy amended his gift disclosure when he changed travel plans, but still disclosed other costs associated with his attendance at the 2022 event.) The spokesperson also could not immediately say who paid the hefty registration fee—which could also be written off as a campaign expense, or reported as a gift if it were waived.
The Daily Beast could not immediately find any record of Johnson attending a political event in New Orleans at the time. We asked the spokesperson for any available documentation to back up the expenses, including the registration fee, and we will update this article if more information is forthcoming.
Brendan Fischer, deputy executive director of Documented and a legal expert on campaign finance and ethics rules, told The Daily Beast that Johnson likely violated Ethics Committee disclosure rules by not disclosing the trip.
“The most reasonable inference is that the very well-heeled CNP covered Johnson’s expenses when he addressed the group’s meeting in 2019, but the new speaker failed to report those gifts,” Fischer said.
Fischer noted that this wouldn’t be unusual for CNP, as those other GOP lawmakers have attended CNP meetings in recent years—including in 2019—and then properly disclosed that the group covered the costs.
“What [would make] it an ethics violation is if the payments aren’t reported,” Fischer said.
There are, perhaps, some other explanations, though they also aren’t very charitable to Johnson. One explanation is that taxpayers paid for his trip.
The House statement of disbursements from the time shows that Johnson’s office reported travel and lodging expenses that overlap with the Oct. 4 trip. They include two $171 commercial transportation expenses with service dates on Oct. 3, and another $342 charge with service dates between Oct. 2 and 14. The report also lists a $221.66 lodging charge with service dates between Oct. 2 and Oct. 4.
It’s also clear that while Johnson lives in Shreveport, Louisiana, he appears to have traveled to the event from Washington, D.C.
In his speech, Johnson told the audience that he had been in D.C. the prior night, at a dinner with yet another group of major conservative funders.
“I had another surreal moment last night. I was in Washington, and somehow I found myself invited to a small dinner that Charles Koch was having on the Hill,” Johnson recalled, with trademark rhetorical modesty. The dinner was for Koch’s “Stand Together” group, Johnson said, and featured “25 of the top conservative philanthropists in the country.”
This means Johnson most likely traveled to the CNP event from D.C. While he may have returned home that night after the speech, it’s a five-hour drive. There are no direct flights between New Orleans and Shreveport, and there is no passenger train service into Shreveport.
Still, Johnson could use his congressional expense account—called the Members’ Representational Allowance—to cover costs related to official responsibilities. But a personal invitation to speak at a paid private event likely would not qualify, and neither Hice, Green, nor Roy charged taxpayers for their trips.
Another explanation is that Johnson paid out of pocket, but Fischer said that “defies belief.”
He noted that public reporting about Johnson’s finances—along with Johnson’s own statements that he is “a man of modest means” putting kids through private school, college, and law school—makes it hard to imagine that he would have paid personally, especially when he could avail himself of a number of other perfectly lawful options.
“If a person is tight on cash, why on earth would they pay out of pocket to attend a conference financed by some of the wealthiest individuals in the country, when the conference sponsor is willing and able to pick up the tab?” Fischer asked. “All he has to do is properly report the gift.”
Johnson has disclosed other travel gifts to the Ethics Committee. In March 2020, he reported that a trip to Israel with his wife the previous month was underwritten by a nonprofit called the 12 Tribes Film Foundation. The weeklong trip cost $18,000, including travel, meals, and $450 nightly stays at the five-star King David Hotel in Jerusalem, selected for “location and availability,” according to the filing. (Johnson had just been named to the House Armed Services Committee.)
He also disclosed a decidedly less pricey jaunt to Kentucky last year, which more closely resembles the circumstances of the CNP trip. In 2022, Johnson spoke at a conference hosted on April Fool’s Day by Answers in Genesis, the Christian radical group behind the Creation Museum. The nonprofit footed Johnson’s $433.15 travel costs, according to his disclosure.
Both of Johnson’s travel filings include letters from the Ethics Committee approving the gifts. The letters also note that if gift travel exceeds a minimum threshold—$390 in 2020, and $415 in 2022—members are also required to include the gifts on their annual personal financial disclosures, in addition to the gift report.
Both trips cleared that bar. But Johnson’s financial disclosures did not list either of them. In fact, when it came to his attendance at the elite, highly secretive CNP conference, Johnson didn’t disclose anything.
Johnson’s awestruck tone in his speech that night belied the fact that, while perhaps not being a driving force behind CNP, he had been a longtime member. Documented published a history of Johnson’s involvement with the group, tracing his membership back to at least July 2012. The CNP directory that year included Johnson’s name alongside right-wing activist and Supreme Court wife Ginni Thomas, anti-feminist Phyllis Schlafly, and conservative arch-donor Leonard Leo, Documented reported.
The directory is part of a trove of information Documented has gathered on the enigmatic but influential group. The membership of CNP—which The New York Times once called a “little known club of a few hundred of the most powerful conservatives in the country”—has included hundreds of right-wing luminaries and megadonors.
Johnson, who until attaining the speaker’s gavel operated largely under the radar, seems to have embraced CNP’s code of secrecy. Confidentiality is so paramount to the group that it is actually enforced—according to internal records hosted by Documented, members can be removed if they speak about the group publicly.
CNP gathers three times a year, “often at luxury Ritz-Carlton hotels, to discuss, strategize and develop ‘action steps’ for collective action,” Documented’s profile noted, observing that by the time Johnson delivered his speech in 2019, it was clear he was “already considered a leader by his peers in the movement.”
It’s just unclear who footed the bill so conservatives could hear from this leader.
This story was updated after publication to include a statement from Johnson’s spokesperson.