House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) speaks in his office on Capitol Hill in Washington on Sept. 22. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Would-be speaker Kevin McCarthy walks the Trump tightrope, pursuing a GOP House

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has regaled top donors at private events in recent months with a behind-the-scenes story about a fight he says he had with former president Donald Trump.

The 2020 clash began when Trump broke an agreement with McCarthy to consult before making endorsements in House races and took sides in a North Carolina primary contest. The California Republican responded by calling up Trump with curse-laden fury, he has told donors. When Trump’s candidate lost in the primary to McCarthy’s pick, Madison Cawthorn, Trump acknowledged that he had been wrong and, McCarthy argues, he gained respect for his advice.

The point of McCarthy’s tale is that he knows how to work with Trump in this strange moment in Republican politics, when the former president both holds the keys to the party’s most animated voters and threatens to alienate the moderates the GOP needs to win control of Congress, according to a person who has witnessed the pitches and who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations.

With only a handful of seats needed for Republicans to win control of the House next year — and the likely prospect of McCarthy becoming speaker — he has been selling himself as a singular leader of the party, able to stand up to the unpredictable former president without breaking their bond.

“I stay close to him. We have a good relationship. But he and his team don’t have a veto power on what we do,” McCarthy, 56, tells the donors, according to the witness. He even contrasts himself with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who has distanced himself from Trump and earned his public scorn.

“I can do it,” McCarthy has assured his donors about the balancing act before him, according to the witness.

As he casts his challenge in heroic sweep in private, McCarthy’s effort to lift his party beyond its circumstances has looked a bit more painful in public. He has repeatedly contorted himself to take principled stands against Trump’s most radical behavior, then reversed himself to woo Trump and his allies as they push false claims of election fraud and defend Capitol rioters as “patriots.”

McCarthy called for Trump to be censured after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol by the president’s supporters, only to later visit the former president at his Florida resort to solicit his help in next year’s campaign. He called for a fact-finding effort to investigate the insurrection, only to block a bipartisan investigation because, he said, its scope did not extend beyond the attack.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and former president Donald Trump have expanded in recent months on what they said during their Jan. 6 call. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Trump has complained to allies about McCarthy’s support of his censure, and recently told a talk radio host that he planned to push the minority leader to stop financially supporting Republicans who voted for his impeachment. A spokesman for Trump denied that McCarthy had ever cursed at Trump, as McCarthy told donors.

“I have a great relationship with Kevin,” Trump said in a statement to The Washington Post.

McCarthy’s delicate alliance with Trump has the potential to deliver Republicans a major victory in 2022 that reclaims Congress as a step to retaking the White House in 2024. Democrats, faced with internal dysfunction and declining approval numbers, hope it will backfire, and some of McCarthy’s former allies have joined their call.

Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), McCarthy’s former leadership deputy, whom he first supported and then pushed out and sought to isolate because of her criticism of Trump, argues that McCarthy has chosen a path that threatens both the party and the republic.

“You can be pragmatic when it’s, ‘Are you going to eliminate the SALT deduction?’ ” she said, referring to the debate over state and local taxes. “But you can’t be pragmatic if the issue is, are you going to allow antisemitic and racist bigots to play a role in your party and not condemn them? Are you going to allow insurrection to go unanswered?”

Former Republican representative Bill Thomas, who previously held McCarthy’s California seat and first hired him into politics, went further, calling McCarthy a “hypocrite” for indulging in Trump’s election falsehoods.

“Republicans led by Kevin McCarthy voted not to accept the Pennsylvania electoral college votes,” Thomas said in January. “It was as though they went on an extended lunch and came back to resume their mission: Reinforce by your votes the lies of the president.”

On his far-right flank, members of the Freedom Caucus have begun staging news conferences to demand that he take more radical action. Even some of the party’s 2022 candidates have begun to criticize him.

“If it’s true, and it continues to be true, that Kevin McCarthy is backing supporters of the impeachment, then no, he won’t get my vote,” said Florida state Rep. Anthony Sabatini (R), a Trump acolyte who is running for Congress outside Orlando. “It’s taking sides against a new Republican Party that is emerging.”

Thirty-four years after the onetime Bakersfield, Calif., deli operator was rejected for a congressional internship for his home district, McCarthy has told others that he is willing to bet his house that Republicans recapture Congress next year.

“The further I get out, the rope gets thicker,” McCarthy said of his high-wire balancing act, in a recent interview before addressing Republicans at a state party dinner in Nashville. “The path gets easier.”

The high wire

The plan for McCarthy, from the start of his career as a California legislator and party leader, has been to build teams that can win.

“Look, I don’t get to hire the people who work here. I don’t get to fire them. I just have to inspire them,” McCarthy says, dismissing his opponents’ criticism. “And it’s constant work. It means one day they may be mad at me. The next day, they are not.”

He is a master of the glad hand and a compulsive connecter, rarely dining alone or spending idle time without someone on the other end of the phone, often one of the dozens of members he checks in with regularly. He spends days jetting to far-flung locales, people who know him say, to see some of the country’s top donors. Several Republican officials said he fundraises far more than any other elected official in the party. He often has stacks of polls on his desk, trying to suss out how to win certain districts.

The party that he says he hopes to build was on display over the summer, when he hosted his top donors for a retreat in Jackson Hole, Wyo. For a rare moment, in a high-altitude ballroom where jeans and boots were encouraged over suits and ties, McCarthy was fully in control of how he presented the Republican future.

McCarthy put up an impromptu panel of House candidates he was backing in the 2022 midterm elections, all of them veterans, including two former Navy SEALs, a female Army Reserve judge advocate general and an African American former Army helicopter pilot, all of them united in their disdain for Democrats and their dismay at the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Even from his days in Sacramento, transcending the ideological divides that have riven his party has been a goal. McCarthy positioned himself as a bridge-builder for the last two Republican speakers, Ohio’s John A. Boehner and Wisconsin’s Paul Ryan, helping communicate the concerns of the party’s newcomers with leadership. It’s a role he has tried to maintain since.

“He pays attention. He knows my wife and kids,” said Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.), the head of the conservative Republican Study Committee and a close McCarthy ally. “He has a pulse on where the majority of the conference is.”

That has meant riding the wave of the Republican Party’s multiple transformations over the past 15 years, taking the positions that seemed necessary at the moment.

During the Obama administration, amid the tea party uprising, McCarthy would lead Republicans on field trips to the Bureau of the Public Debt to watch government traders auction off Treasury bills and savings bonds — a dramatization of American decline.

Then when Trump arrived, he embraced Trump’s agenda to “prime the pump” and the debt rose another $8 trillion, or 36 percent, including spending on the federal government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. McCarthy supported increases in the debt ceiling under Trump but opposes them now during Biden’s presidency.

The most jarring recent turnabouts came as McCarthy navigated Trump’s election tantrums. Two days after the election, McCarthy went on television to embrace Trump’s fantasies about the vote count, saying without proof that “President Trump won this election” and falsely warning Americans of the potential theft taking place.

“Do not be quiet. Do not be silent about this. We cannot allow this to happen before our very eyes,” McCarthy told Fox News viewers, in a clip that his office helped go viral by embedding it in a tweet.

A day later, he quietly repudiated his own words in a little-noticed interview with David Wasserman, a journalist for the Cook Political Report, who tweeted that McCarthy said he never meant to declare Trump the winner, but was arguing that Trump deserved credit “for helping us win House seats.”

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) criticized President Donald Trump in January for not quelling the Capitol riot. Now McCarthy says he did enough. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post, Photo: Astrid Riecken/The Washington Post)

Weeks after that, McCarthy told one colleague that he would not sign a December amicus brief to a lawsuit from the Texas attorney general seeking to overturn the election “because it wasn’t constitutional,” according to a person familiar with the exchange who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the private conversation. McCarthy later signed the document after many of his colleagues went public with their support. (A McCarthy adviser contested this account, saying the leader always wanted to litigate legitimate challenges to the election.)

Then came the Capitol riot. A week afterward, McCarthy announced that Biden had “won the election” and clapped back at his own party members who falsely claimed antifa was responsible for the attack. He also said that Trump “bears responsibility” for the insurrection and should be censured.

He embraced a “fact-finding commission,” only to later object to the bipartisan one that Rep. John Katko (R-N.Y.) negotiated with Democrats because the scope did not address other incidents, including the killing of a Capitol police officer on April 2 by a man who rammed his car into a barrier outside the building. A McCarthy adviser blamed Democrats for poisoning the process.

Courting Trump

McCarthy maintains that the pressure has not ruffled him. He has launched a set of House task forces to develop a sellable policy agenda to run on next year, one that is likely to lean heavily on the Democratic embrace of tax increases for the rich, reduced enforcement on the border and the perennial boogeyman of government control.

His grooming of a new class of candidates to topple Democrats comes after a banner year of recruitment in 2020 that helped Republicans flip 14 Democratic seats, even as Trump lost the popular vote by 7 million.

McCarthy talks of the tens of thousands of votes out of more than 150 million cast that kept him from winning the majority in 2020, and how he roughly doubled the number of female Republican House candidates in one election cycle. He knows how many of those who voted for Trump in 2016 never turned out two years later, and tells nearly everyone he meets that all the Democratic incumbents who went down in 2020 fell to women or minority GOP candidates.

But the omnipresence of Trump has still kept McCarthy maneuvering to keep the party from splintering. The roots of his relationship with Trump date to 2016, say people involved, when McCarthy was the first member of House leadership to endorse him for president after it was clear the New York businessman would be the nominee. Weeks later, McCarthy was captured in a private audio recording with Ryan and others, saying that he believed Russian President Vladimir Putin was paying then-candidate Trump.

“Swear to God,” McCarthy said, before Ryan asked everyone in the room to make sure McCarthy’s comment never leaked. Aides said McCarthy was joking.

Once McCarthy became minority leader in early 2019, he made courting Trump a top priority, convincing him to endorse every GOP incumbent in the House — because they all voted against his first impeachment — and to record more than 50 telephone rallies and endorsements for GOP House candidates.

“Kevin McCarthy and President Trump would go through each race, one by one, with McCarthy making his asks,” said a former White House official familiar with the process in 2020. “Sure enough, week after week, you’d see batches of primary endorsements.”

The relationship remains hot and cold. The former president has leaked word about McCarthy’s visits to Trump’s homes in Bedminster, N.J., or Mar-a-Lago, Fla., to drive public interest, while also privately bad-mouthing McCarthy to advisers and entertaining the possibility that someone else might make a better speaker, according to the former president’s aides.

Aides say Trump has learned to be wary of McCarthy’s different interests, even as they continue to work together. Trump, these aides say, has still not forgiven McCarthy for his proposed censure for the Capitol riot. “He’ll never get over that,” a Trump adviser said. “It’s really their main disagreement.”

More ominously, Trump has declared vengeance on the 10 House incumbents who voted for his impeachment, even as McCarthy has tried to defend some, according to people familiar with their conversations. Trump has endorsed primary challenges against Reps. Fred Upton of Michigan and Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington and, before his recent announcement that he would not seek reelection, Anthony Gonzalez (R-Ohio).

“1 down, 9 to go,” Trump said in a statement soon after Gonzalez bowed out.

Despite Trump’s rages, McCarthy has continued to fund Trump critics in his party, following financial agreements signed with them before Jan. 6, based on a formula that determined how vulnerable incumbents could be in 2022.

Through a committee called Take Back the House, which has been used in other recent election cycles, McCarthy has been channeling money to the reelection campaigns of eight of the 17 Republicans who signed on to either impeach or censure Trump for actions that led to the Jan. 6 attacks.

The group has also sent checks to nine other Republicans who voted to support the bipartisan commission to investigate the attacks. Trump warned of “consequences” for that “wayward” and “weak” group. Some of Trump’s fiercest defenders, including Cawthorn and Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.), have also benefited from joint fundraising agreements.

A Trump adviser said the former president is displeased with McCarthy supporting any of the Republicans who voted for impeachment. Trump said in a Sept. 23 radio interview that he wanted to find out more about where McCarthy’s money was going. “I’m going to see who he is funding,” Trump said. “If he is, I will stop the whole deal.”

The former president has nonetheless agreed to headline a November fundraiser for the National Republican Congressional Committee, a separate House effort that McCarthy helps to lead.

An unruly caucus

The last time McCarthy had a shot at the speakership, in 2015, he undermined his case by going on Fox News to brag about the political motivations of a Republican investigation of former secretary of state Hillary Clinton after an American diplomat was killed in Benghazi, Libya. Everyone knew it was a political gambit, but no one was supposed to say it.

At the Nashville dinner, his learning curve was still on display. Presented onstage with an oversized gavel, meant as a symbol of his coming coronation, McCarthy said it would be “hard not to hit” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) if she were to hand it to him after Republicans win control of Congress.

It was a joke he had made before, in private settings with donors, according to multiple people who had heard him. But under a national glare, Pelosi’s allies pounced, accusing McCarthy of using violent rhetoric against a woman.

“This is a wholly different position that he is in. And it has been a really deeply jarring process to realize that for anyone,” Rep. Patrick T. McHenry (R-N.C.) said of his friend’s second climb toward the top leadership seat in the House. “And given how atrocious the politics are right now, it is even more difficult.”

As it stands, it is hard to find a Republican who does not believe the party is on track to take back the House next year. Republicans hope to gain at least as many seats as they need from the decennial redistricting process alone, assuming voters behave like they did in 2020.

McCarthy is widely viewed among his colleagues as the overwhelming favorite to become speaker if Republicans retake the majority. But opposition has at times bubbled up on the margins. Joe Kent, a Trump-endorsed rival for Herrera Beutler, is the first prominent candidate to say he will not support McCarthy for speaker.

“He is not a leader,” former Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon said in June of McCarthy on his daily podcast, which has become an anti-establishment rallying point for Trump devotees. “He is the pledge chairman at the fraternity. He is drinking what the client’s drinking.”

McCarthy has moved delicately as he tries to lay out boundaries for his own caucus. He removed then-Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) from his committee assignments in 2019, after King appeared to defend the term “white nationalist.” Then this year he fought unsuccessfully to keep Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) on one of her two committees after old offensive statements by her surfaced, including a comment about killing Pelosi.

Months later, McCarthy condemned Greene’s comparison of the Holocaust to mask mandates. He has told some people close to him that she was a big problem, according to people familiar with the conversations, although he has not said that publicly.

“He is trying to balance factions,” said one Republican strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to reflect the strategy. “It is almost an impossible job, before you put Trump into it.”

But McCarthy believes the dysfunction of the last two congressional GOP majorities can be left behind, and he has won some powerful supporters. Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), who challenged McCarthy in 2018 to become minority leader, now says he fully backs McCarthy’s speakership.

“He has brought the team together,” Jordan said in an interview. “The coach that brings you to the Super Bowl — you don’t change coaches.”

‘We are united’

McCarthy likes to point out the symbols, paintings and framed documents he has used to decorate his Capitol office. Immigration documents from Ellis Island showing the arrival of his Italian forefathers hang on one wall. Others display oversized paintings of Ronald Reagan and Abraham Lincoln and a map of the United States made from hotel room key cards he has gathered, including one from Bohemian Grove, an exclusive gentleman’s club north of San Francisco, and another from an Alabama Hilton Garden Inn.

He keeps an empty bottle of Bordeaux in his office — Château Talbot, 2003 — that he had his whip team sign in January of 2009 just after Republicans voted unanimously against President Barack Obama’s first stimulus bill.

That was the night, he says, he knew Republicans would retake the majority.

“They asked me how was that possible. We needed over 40 seats to win the majority,’ ” he recalled. “I said, ‘No, we are united tonight.’ ”

When Republicans won back Congress the next year, with a net gain of 63 seats, he popped the cork with his team.

He believes it is certain to happen again — a prospect even McCarthy’s detractors see as credible.

“People like me look at it and kind of find it repulsive,” said Bill Kristol, a conservative author who has compared McCarthy to “the piano player in the House Republican brothel.”

“But,” he acknowledged, “there is a sense that it might work.”