House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy had an important decision to make — stick with former President Donald Trump and his loyalists in the Freedom Caucus, or side with more establishment House Republicans who want to take the party back.
The answer became clear when instead of calling Trump, as he often did when Trump was president, he is now set to visit with Trump in Florida on Thursday. The meeting was initiated by McCarthy, a person familiar with the meeting said, and is part of an effort to get back into the good graces of the former president.
McCarthy was in Florida on Wednesday, where he was fundraising, as the House is out this week.
Two sources told CNN that some people warned McCarthy not to go see Trump on Thursday. A source familiar with the matter said it made him look weak. Another source close to McCarthy told CNN that the California Republican was told that he would look like he was “crawling back to Trump,” and that it would further isolate him from mainstream donors who want to move away from Trump.
The news of the meeting was first reported by Punchbowl News.
Despite political pressure from some in the GOP that the party must move on from Trump, McCarthy is eyeing what will win him back the House and possibly catapult him to the speakership. Sources told CNN he is eager to realign himself with Trump after corporate donors – including American Express, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Commerce Bank, Dow and Marriott – have suspended PAC donations to members of Congress who objected to certifying the election for Joe Biden.
For McCarthy, the balance falls between needing to appeal to GOP donors and to Trump’s base, which still makes up a powerful force in the party and will need to turn out in order for the GOP to win back the House in two years. Not to mention if McCarthy wants to ascend to the speakership in two years, he will need hold on to the Trump wing of his own conference or risk a challenge. For years, one of McCarthy’s strongest attributes as leader has been his propensity to bring in large fundraising hauls for the conferences. His prolific fundraising was highlighted Wednesday by National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Emmer during a private GOP call.
It was also on that call that McCarthy called on his conference to stop attacking each other, CNN reported earlier Wednesday. “Cut that crap out,” the California Republican told his members, according to two sources on the call. McCarthy said he’s had personal discussions with individual members and warned that a continued GOP vs. GOP battle will only benefit Democrats as the party aims to recapture the majority in next year’s midterm elections.
Since the early days of Trump’s campaign, McCarthy stood by him, earning the nickname “my Kevin.” Through health care, tax overhaul and most recently amid Trump’s threat not to sign a hard-fought stimulus package, it was McCarthy who helped get the then-President to “yes.” McCarthy has stood by Trump during the most petulant moments of his one-term administration. Even in the last days of Trump’s time as president, McCarthy joined a Texas lawsuit that was struck down by the Supreme Court that sought to overturn the results of the election. Even after the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6, McCarthy voted to object to the election results.
Politically, sources have told CNN that McCarthy is caught between Trump’s fervent supporters in the party and the GOP conference members who think the attack on the Capitol was sedition, including the 10 House Republicans – such as GOP conference chair Liz Cheney of Wyoming – who voted to support Trump’s second impeachment.
The fallout has led to questions about McCarthy’s leadership in his conference. As much as McCarthy cannot afford to lose support from members of the Freedom Caucus, he also can’t lose the backing of members in front-line districts that could help him win back the majority.
“We’re in a terrible position, as a country and as a party,” one Republican aide told CNN. “I think a lot of people are frustrated at Kevin because he’s at the helm of the conference.”
McCarthy has backtracked on Trump’s role in the insurrection as recently as this week, when he was criticized at his most recent news conference for saying he didn’t believe Trump “provoked” the insurrection “if you listen to what he said at the rally” – after saying two weeks earlier that Trump bears responsibility.
When asked in an interview Sunday with Gray Television if he had changed his stance on Trump’s role in the Capitol attack, he said: “No, I have not changed in that.”
“I thought the president had some responsibility when it came to the response. If you listen to what the president said at the rally, he said, ‘Demonstrate peacefully,’ ” he told Greta Van Susteren.
McCarthy has said he’s aware there’s a divide in his party he must address and that the conference plans to meet and speak freely.
“We can have differences of opinion, but I do believe we’re going to have a conference next week to air the differences, unite individuals and move forward, to work for all Americans,” he told Fox News in an interview last week. “That’s the best approach we can take.”
This story and headline have been updated with additional developments Thursday.
CNN’s Dana Bash, Jeff Zeleny, Michael Warren and Manu Raju contributed to this report.