House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s latest vow of loyalty to ex-President Donald Trump offers the clearest signal yet about the character of the likely Republican House majority that could rock Washington next year.
The Californian’s quickly exposed denial last week of a true, private remark that he might ask Trump to resign after the January 6 riot was important not just because it added a new detail about the attack on US democracy in 2021.
Rather, the choice he made – between telling a blatant lie or destroying his own dream of being speaker by confirming the truth and alienating the ex-President – reveals the vital power calculation underpinning the modern GOP. That dynamic hands Trump enormous potential proxy power if the party makes good on its strong prospects and wins the House of Representatives in November.
In a sign that McCarthy may have mended some fences over the weekend and is trying to bolster his standing in Trump world, the House minority leader will lead a GOP delegation, which includes Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, to the southern US border on Monday.
Greene, an extreme pro-Trump lawmaker, has warned McCarthy will have to satisfy a series of demands before he gets votes for speaker from her and like-minded Republican representatives. The trip will underscore how immigration – perhaps Trump’s signature issue – is a glue that unites GOP factions and is at the center of the party’s midterm election quest given the White House’s vulnerabilities on the issue.
The McCarthy drama, which for a while last week threatened to shatter his career – until an outwardly magnanimous Trump collected his vow of loyalty – was triggered when two New York Times reporters revealed that McCarthy had told fellow top Republicans that he was considering advising Trump to step down after the insurrection in January last year. The House minority leader flatly denied the claim and slammed the reporters, Jonathan Martin and Alex Burns, as tools of a biased, corporate media. But appearing on MSNBC, the reporters soon revealed a tape that obliterated McCarthy’s denials and appeared to leave him on wafer thin ground.
In another time, McCarthy’s eviscerated credibility might have destroyed his political future. But in an age in which most GOP power depends on Trump’s patronage, McCarthy’s subsequent recommitment to the Trump movement might have actually strengthened his claims to the speakership.
And it proved that anyone with aspirations of power in the GOP, at least in the House, must make a similar decision to prioritize loyalty to Trump over simple facts and truth.
This is not a partisan point – it’s borne out by events of four tumultuous years of the Trump presidency, two impeachments and the ex-President’s lies that the 2020 election was a fraud. And it represents judgments by lawmakers about the views of their constituents in the pro-Trump base of the party, which remains strongly aligned with the ex-President and favorable to his alternative 2020 reality.
McCarthy and Trump spoke Thursday night to discuss the Times story. The younger man’s apparent success in papering over what could have been a political nightmare suggests that the same unwillingness to speak truth to the ex-President’s excesses that marked the GOP during his term in office will be a dominant feature of American politics in the midterm campaign and ahead of the 2024 election if Trump runs.
A GOP midterm win would hand Trump a powerful weapon
McCarthy’s conduct has confirmed that a future GOP House majority would operate as a political subsidiary for the ex-President. This will give Trump a powerful weapon in Washington as he seeks to destroy the presidency of Joe Biden, his vanquisher in the 2020 election and possible 2024 rival.
In practice, it would mean McCarthy gives even greater latitude to vehemently pro-Trump members of the GOP conference – like Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, who is vowing to pummel the Biden White House with investigations if Republicans get the speaker’s gavel next year. Given that he’s even more in Trump’s debt than before, McCarthy may be in less of a position to reign in GOP radicals like Greene. The Georgia Republican, testifying last week in an unprecedented disqualification hearing probing whether she should be barred from office over her alleged role in the January 6 insurrection, repeatedly said she could not remember past comments or interactions and repeated false claims about Trump winning the election.
In a broader sense, events of the last few days pose grave questions for American democracy since Trump’s authoritarian streak has only become more extreme as he sought to overturn the 2020 election and seeks to turn the 2022 midterms into a pageant of personal revenge. And there is even less evidence that the House GOP, which has worked to whitewash his incitement on January 6, 2021, has the interest or the political capacity to do anything to curtail him in the future.
Trump embraces new evidence of his power
Trump understands the power dynamic perfectly. McCarthy’s phone call with the ex-President after the audio emerged reestablished that his future was in Trump’s hands and reinforced perceptions that Trump is the true locus of GOP power.
The ex-President relishes public displays of fealty. It suits him and his zeal for power for McCarthy to be portrayed in the media as his puppet and for McCarthy to turn political somersaults to retain Trump’s favor.
Thus, the ex-President told the Wall Street Journal in an interview on Friday that his relationship with McCarthy remains good because the minority leader had quickly moved to row back his apparent criticism.
And referring to Republicans, who have largely embraced him after slamming his role in the Capitol insurrection, Trump said: “It’s all a big compliment, frankly,” adding, “They realized they were wrong and supported me.”
Democrats seize on Trump’s shadow
Still, the latest example of Trump’s dominance of the GOP could play into Democratic claims that the former President represents a mortal danger to American democracy.
Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts told CNN’s Dana Bash on “State of the Union” Sunday that McCarthy’s conduct in recent days showed that he was a “liar and a traitor.”
“This is outrageous. And that is really the illness that pervades the Republican leadership right now, that they say one thing to the American public and something else in private,” Warren said.
But the gravest moment of danger for McCarthy appears to have passed – at least for now – though there are no guarantees when it comes to Trump. The ex-President has a long record of souring on subordinates he once indulged. He, for instance, withdrew his endorsement of Rep. Mo Brooks’ Senate campaign after the Alabama congressman said it was time to move on from the 2020 election.
So McCarthy’s speakership hopes – already facing some skepticism from the pro-Trump wing of the GOP – will never be a sure thing right up until the moment that Republicans claim power if they win back the House in November.
But the California Republican can also count on strong loyalty of many of the GOP rank and file in the House, partly through his prodigious fundraising.
Some party lawmakers told CNN’s Melanie Zanona, Manu Raju and Lauren Fox in recent days that the leader was not seriously damaged by the episode.
McCarthy has long considered the support of Trump’s base the critical factor in winning back the House. His entire strategy of downplaying the fallout from the January 6 insurrection has been directed toward this aim.
And a huge GOP win in November would also bolster McCarthy’s authority and long-held hopes of becoming speaker. Political circumstances appear to be aligning with his goal. With each month that passes, the plight of Democrats – plagued by high gas prices and raging inflation – fails to improve and the McCarthy victory scenario becomes even more plausible.
While there are profound questions raised by Trump’s enduring power, the failure of the Biden administration to meaningfully ease higher prices for everyday goods – even if other parts of the economy are roaring back – offers Republicans compelling arguments to make to voters.
Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, a Republican who flipped a Biden state last fall, showed that Democratic campaigns rooted in the danger from Trump can be neutralized by sharp attacks on them over costly grocery bills and perceptions about a politicized education system.
And while Washington commentators and Democratic lawmakers highlight the blatant nature of McCarthy’s lies, the fragmented and hyper-partisan nature of US media means their concerns will not move most Republican voters.
Therein lies the essential logic behind McCarthy’s choice: the only outcome of his latest controversy that could imperil his hopes of becoming speaker would be if he ended up further estranged from Trump.
So his path forward was obvious. And that is likely to have huge consequences for what Washington looks like in January 2023 and beyond.