WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Mike Johnson was one of the faces of President Donald Trump's recent impeachment defense — hand-picked by the president to be on a tight-knit response team that did countless appearances on television. But it was the behind-the-scenes work by the Bossier City Republican that may have had a more significant impact on the president's eventual acquittal.

“It was a career highlight for me, it's a big historic event and kind of surreal to be a part of,” Johnson said.

Johnson, who practiced Constitutional law for about two decades before joining Congress, nearly had a role presenting oral arguments in the Senate trial, but about a week before it began, senators agreed that only the Democrat impeachment managers from the House would be allowed on the floor during the trial.

“They didn't want House members on both sides because they were afraid to turn (it) into a cage match,” Johnson, 48, recently recalled, chuckling.

Johnson’s part, instead, went to famed Constitutional law scholar and Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz.

“I was certainly delighted to hand the baton to Dershowitz. He’s probably the most famous constitutional law litigator in the country,” Johnson said. “I thought he did a great job, and so we were happy to help in any capacity.”

In just five years, Johnson has climbed from freshman state lawmaker without a single significant piece of legislation under his belt to head of the most influential conservative Republican Congressional caucus and one of Trump's key allies.

Johnson grew up in a rural area outside of Shreveport, the oldest of four kids.

In 1984, when Johnson was just 12 years old, his firefighter father was critically injured on duty — 80% of his body was covered with third-degree burns — and given a 5% chance of survival. His father lived, but the fire left him permanently disabled until he passed away from cancer two days after Johnson was elected to Congress in 2016.

Johnson, who earned his bachelor’s and law degrees at LSU, was in the state Legislature little more than a year before his successful run for the U.S. House. During that brief stint in the state House, he cultivated a reputation as a hard-line Republican willing to take the mantle on social conservative priorities, in particular his embrace of religious freedom for Christians that often runs contrary to LGBTQ and abortion rights. He became a foe of progressive activists, but even his detractors often note his affable personality.

“He comes across so benign and nice and nonthreatening … such a great guy and so positive,” said Melissa Flournoy, a former Democratic state lawmaker and president of Louisiana Progress. “But really, he has such a dangerous agenda for so many people in Louisiana and across the country.”

Johnson's remarkably quick ascent followed a fortuitous sequence of events.

Then-U.S. Rep. John Fleming decided to run for an open U.S. Senate seat after Republican Sen. David Vitter, who had just lost a rancorous governor’s race, opted against seeking re-election. Republican John Kennedy emerged as the winner from that crowded Senate battle, while Johnson soundly won the 4th District seat with the backing of both Fleming and Vitter.

Two years later, Johnson was picked to lead the influential Republican Study Committee, which represents 147 of the most conservative House members.

He is running and expected to win his second House reelection campaign this year, after taking more than 64% of the vote two years ago and avoiding a runoff. Johnson and his wife, Kelly, have four children.

U.S. House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, the longest-serving and highest ranking member of the Louisiana delegation, has known Johnson since Scalise was in the state Legislature in the late 1990s and early 2000s. 

“He was a brilliant lawyer, and was a rising star back then,” Scalise said. “Then he got into the state House and did a great job there, and, obviously over here, he has risen very quickly — now the chairman of the Republican Study Committee, one of the one of the most powerful positions in Congress.”

Vice President Mike Pence and Scalise are among the RSC's previous chairs. In a body where some members have served decades, it’s rare that someone would be picked for the coveted leadership post in their second term. 

Johnson hopes to to leverage the group to its fullest conservative, wonky extent.

“There's a lot of politics that goes on on Capitol Hill, but there's not always as much attention paid to the policy development, which is the reason we're all here,” he said.

Democrats seized control of the House in the 2018 election cycle, just as Johnson was taking control of the influential Republican group.

“There's a conception on the Hill that when you're in the minority, you just kind of waste two years — sort of wander around in the wilderness,” Johnson said. “I look at this exactly the opposite. I think this can and should — it must — be our most productive time."

He's focused the RSC's efforts on developing a master playbook for when Republicans make their way back to the House majority.

“It'll be specific legislative proposals and plans," he said, "legislation that's ready to go."

While some Republicans have openly lamented the inability to pass substantive legislation in the divided Congress – and some have even announced plans to retire — Johnson appears to appreciate the challenge.

“That’s what is keeping me so energized and busy right now — trying to quarterback that whole effort and make sure that we're ready,” he said. “I'm increasingly confident that the Republican Party will win back the majority and a year from now will be implementing this playbook. And I think it's going to be a great thing that we have it.”

He's also adjusting to life in Trump's inner circle, joining the president for football games, Air Force One flights, campaign rallies and other events.

In mid-December, Johnson, along with Jim Jordan of Ohio and John Ratcliffe of Texas, both fellow Republican congressmen on the powerful Judiciary Committee, started strategizing with the White House legal team on Trump's impeachment defense plans. The Democrat-controlled House passed two articles of impeachment — abuse of power and obstruction of Congress — but it would be left to the GOP-controlled Senate to decide whether the president should be removed from office.

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At the White House after Trump's acquittal this month, the president pointed to Johnson in the crowd and praised him with a showbiz-worthy compliment, calling him "central casting," meaning he looks the part of a lawyer.

"What a job," Trump said. "You can represent me anytime."

But Johnson initially got off to a rocky start with Trump. They both began their existing elected roles in January 2017 after wins in the 2016 election cycle.

Trump campaigned on ending the federal Affordable Care Act, commonly known as “Obamacare,” and made a major push for what was deemed a repeal and replace effort shortly after taking office. Johnson is also an opponent of Obamacare, but he thought there were flaws in the hurried push to pass legislation to appease the president. 

“It was a big mess,” Johnson said. “Frankly, the Republican Party leadership had not prepared for a governing moment, because everybody thought Hillary (Clinton) was gonna win.”

House Republicans hadn't rallied around a detailed plan for Obamacare when the GOP held the White House and both chambers of Congress.

“We didn't have a game plan at all, so I resolved that that's never going to happen again on my watch,” he said. “I'm going to do my best to make sure that our team is ready.”

But at the time, Johnson’s objections put him in Trump’s crosshairs. He got a 20-minute call from the president. Looking back, Johnson describes the call as respectful but with flashes of the New York businessman and real estate tycoon's intense personality.

“It was good conversation but he was, you know, forceful because this was a big thing was a big campaign promise that every Republican who ran had made," Johnson said. ", I had to just respectfully hold my ground and explain that there's no way I could do it and that I didn't think it was good for him or the country."

Trump ended the call telling Johnson, “I think you'll be a yes." 

"I thought, well, I'm gonna hold my ground but this may be the end of my career as it's just getting started," Johnson said.

In Congress, before his impeachment defense efforts, Johnson was perhaps best-known for the bipartisan “Honor and Civility Caucus” that he helped create in 2017 and a related civility pledge he's urged members to sign. 

With the blistering rhetoric of Trump and escalated partisanship, it was a quaint idea with a lofty goal.

“We had a lot more activity in the last Congress than we have in the environment now,” Johnson said. “And that's a great regret.”

Since impeachment, the president has called Democrats “evil” and “crooked,” labeled the impeachment charges “bullshit," and sent many tweets aimed at nearly anyone who has crossed him.

So how does Trump fit into Johnson's push for "civility"?

“He's a combative Manhattan real estate developer — that's the world he came out of,” Johnson said. “I can't control how anyone else in the world communicates or anything. That's not my job."

Johnson said his own goal is to “be the best example I can and try to navigate these difficult uncharted waters.”

Given his safe reelection position, Johnson has been fundraising and campaigning for other GOP candidates.

The night before an interview with this newspaper, he hosted a fundraiser for the House Conservatives Fund — the RSC’s campaign arm — at the Capitol Hill Club, a swanky private GOP haunt around the corner from the Capitol. It drew about 70 people, he said.

The House Conservatives Fund is campaigning for vulnerable Republicans, as well as building up GOP candidates in Democrat-held districts that could flip.

“I feel like this fall is going to be a really good cycle for Republicans, and I believe the President's gonna win reelection handily,” Johnson said.

Independent analysts, including the Cook Political Report and the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, still give the edge to Democrats to retain control. Democrats still have a jam-packed slate of presidential hopefuls, but most have been polling competitively against Trump.

While his national profile has grown, opposition to Johnson hasn't escalated at the same rate.  He has been closely aligned with Alliance Defending Freedom, serving as senior attorney for about a decade for the conservative Christian nonprofit that has fought against protections for LGBTQ and abortion rights.

In the state Legislature in 2015, Johnson authored the controversial Louisiana Marriage and Conscience Act, which was backed by then-Gov. Bobby Jindal and aimed to carve out protections for people who oppose gay marriage. In practice, it would have barred the state from being able to deny people tax exemptions, tax deductions, contracts, cooperative agreements, loans, professional licenses, certifications, accreditation or employment because they oppose same-sex marriage. The bill was shot down in a House committee, with critics saying they worried it would promote or condone discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the name of religion.

"Congressman Johnson's career is built entirely on advancing legal discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer Americans,” said Dylan Waguespack, board president of Louisiana Trans Advocates and a former lobbyist at the Louisiana Capitol. “In fact, his handling of this bill was so poor that it did not even advance from a Republican-controlled committee and may well have created the political shift in our Legislature that now sees such efforts as distasteful at best.”

Johnson is Baptist and deeply religious — at times adopting the affectation of a preacher. When the LSU football team visited the U.S. Capitol last month after winning the National Championship, Johnson told the players to read the words above the House Speaker's podium, "In God We Trust" and stressed to them that the nation's founders meant the Christian God.

“What I believe, as a conservative and what I believe as a Christian is that we never compromise our core principles, but I have to compromise my preferences because we're also operating within a constitutional Republic, and I'm the nerdy constitutional guy,” Johnson said.

Email Elizabeth Crisp at ecrisp@theadvocate.com and follow on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp.