At Columbia, Johnson Suggests Military Could be Needed to Quell Protests

Speaker Mike Johnson on Wednesday said President Biden should take action, including potentially sending in the National Guard, to quell pro-Palestinian protests at Columbia University and on other campuses across the country that he said had grown violent and antisemitic.

“There is executive authority that would be appropriate,” Mr. Johnson said during a news conference on the steps of Columbia’s Low Library, where he was booed and heckled by some onlookers. “If these threats are not stopped, there is an appropriate time for the National Guard. We have to bring order to these campuses.”

A number of hard-right Republican lawmakers, including Senators Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Josh Hawley of Missouri, have recently called for troops to be sent in to crack down on pro-Palestinian protests on campus. Mr. Cotton did the same in 2020 when he said military force should be used to put down riots across the country amid the civil unrest that followed the death of George Floyd, a Black man who was killed by the police in Minneapolis.

The United States has a grim history of employing the military to quell campus protests. In 1970, the Ohio National Guard opened fire on antiwar protesters at Kent State University, killing four students and wounding nine others.

Organizers of many of the campus groups leading protests around the country have said they denounce violence and antisemitism. But as tensions have risen in recent days, some demonstrators have used anti-Jewish and anti-Israel slurs and other threatening language, and some have expressed sympathy for Hamas. In one instance, a masked protester shouted, “We are Hamas. We’re all Hamas.” And according to the campus Chabad at Columbia, Jewish students have been verbally harassed with calls to “go back to Europe” and “stop killing children.”

Jewish students on many campuses have reported feeling unsafe, while many pro-Palestinian protesters have said they are being lumped with threatening actors in an attempt to silence them.

Mr. Johnson, who is battling a rebellion on his right, is the latest Republican to insert himself into the increasingly tense cultural moment unfolding on university campuses in response to the Israel-Gaza war in efforts to reap political advantage. Republicans have tried to use the conflict, which is dividing progressives and posing a political problem for Mr. Biden, to put the academic left on the spot and position themselves as the party more steadfast in its support for Israel and concerned with the safety of Jews.

Mr. Johnson’s visit to campus came days after the House approved $95 billion in foreign aid for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan, a move that put Mr. Johnson’s job on the line as the hard right, opposed to backing Kyiv, revolted over the spending package.

On Wednesday, Mr. Johnson, who met with Jewish students privately before his news conference, appeared to be looking for an opportunity to reclaim some conservative credibility and spotlight an issue that unites his party. He said that Dr. Nemat Shafik, the university president whom he also met with briefly, should resign if she cannot immediately get the situation under control. He called her a “very weak and inept leader.”

And he accused progressives of stoking antisemitism in America.

“Powerful people have refused to condemn it, and some have even peddled it themselves,” he said. Mr. Johnson said that Congress needed to “revoke federal funding to these universities if they can’t keep control.”

Mr. Johnson’s brief remarks were interrupted by jeers from students, including one who called him “racist.”

“Don’t lie about what’s going on on campus!” another shouted at him.

A large crowd assembled as Mr. Johnson spoke, building to hundreds and at one point breaking into chant of “Free, Free Palestine!”

Mr. Johnson, looking perturbed by the interruptions, coolly responded: “Enjoy your free speech.”

He said he was there “to proclaim to all of those who gnash their teeth and demand to wipe the state of Israel off the map, and attack our innocent Jewish students, this simple truth: Neither Israel, nor these Jewish students on campus, will ever stand alone.”

The mounting unrest on campuses has splintered Democrats who were already divided over the conflict, with many on the left expressing sympathy with the pro-Palestinian protests, which include some Jews. Others in the party voice concern for Jewish students experiencing a hostile environment at their schools.

A group of House Democrats including Representatives Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey, Dan Goldman of New York, Jared Moskowitz of Florida and Kathy Manning of North Carolina toured the Columbia campus with Jewish students earlier this week and called on the university to take stronger action to protect them.

But Mr. Goldman also cautioned against calling for Dr. Shafik’s immediate resignation.

“It is very easy and very politically expedient to simply call for the resignation of anyone who does not do exactly right in every situation,” he told reporters.

Representative Ilhan Omar, Democrat of Minnesota — whose daughter, a Barnard College student, was suspended last week for her involvement in a pro-Palestinian encampment at Columbia — appeared on Tuesday at the University of Minnesota to praise pro-Palestinian protesters there.

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York, called the protests at Columbia “peaceful” and denounced a decision by the university administration last week to call in the New York City police to arrest more than 100 student protesters who had organized the encampment on a school lawn and refused to leave.

The administration’s move came a day after Dr. Shafik assured Congress during a heated hearing that Columbia was committed to taking serious action against antisemitism on campus, including by suspending students and disciplining certain faculty members.

But the extraordinary step did not quell the calls from the right for her resignation. And it only enraged the students involved in the protests.

Some Columbia faculty members have called the university’s action an “unprecedented assault on student rights.”

Mr. Johnson on Wednesday said he had a simple message for the students involved in the pro-Palestinian protests: “Go back to class, and stop the nonsense,” he said. “Stop wasting your parents’ money.”

Liset Cruz contributed reporting.