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Okay, let’s talk about Trump for House speaker

President Donald Trump speaks with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy at the White House in April 2020. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Let’s establish two things:

  1. The notion of Donald Trump’s becoming House speaker in 2023 is very likely just a way for allies to curry favor with the former president rather than a serious idea — a not-so-elaborate troll.
  2. The past five years have shown us that we can never totally discount something like this, nor should we, given who Trump is and the internal dynamics of the GOP.

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) on Tuesday became the latest Trump ally to have some fun with this prospect. Gaetz, who has previously said he’ll nominate Trump for speaker and vote for him, said he had spoken with the former president about the idea but coyly declined to elaborate.

This idea — we’re obliged to note that one needn’t be a House member to be elected speaker — has cropped up infrequently in the past year. Stephen K. Bannon appears to have been the first to raise it in February, followed by Trump giving a characteristic we’ll-see-what-happens response. Despite Trump’s own comments, Trump aide Jason Miller poured cold water on the idea in June, saying Trump “has zero desire to be speaker.”

But Trump keeps being noncommittal, and allies such as Gaetz, Bannon, Mark Meadows and Matt Schlapp keep playing into the idea, for one reason or another. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) — the would-be speaker himself — raised eyebrows last month by appearing to say of Trump, “He tells me he wants to be speaker, and I think he should be president.”

McCarthy’s staff stated that McCarthy had misspoken and that he meant Trump said he wanted McCarthy to be speaker. If you watch the video, McCarthy does seem to trip over his words and maybe attempt a “me” between “he wants” and “to.”

But also consider McCarthy’s last attempt to become speaker, in 2015. He was the party’s majority leader and the speaker-in-waiting when Speaker John A. Boehner headed for the exits, but the conservative House Freedom Caucus balked at installing him. Ultimately, there appeared to be basically one candidate who could get enough Republican votes from both establishment Republicans and tea-partiers, and that candidate — Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) — ultimately did become speaker after resisting entreaties.

McCarthy has since gotten his leadership career back on track (at least somewhat) and is the top Republican in the House. But his uneven leadership and struggles to wrangle the party in the Trump era very much echo what transpired in the tea party era.

For example, McCarthy early this year momentarily blamed Trump for what transpired on Jan. 6 and even floated an unprecedented censure of Trump. Since then he, like many Republicans, has recognized that the party didn’t agree with that posture and has reverted to embracing Trump and basically pretending that what happened at the Capitol that day didn’t actually happen.

McCarthy has also continued awkwardly to deal with the pressures of the Trump wing of the party, including recently failing to prevent 13 members from giving President Biden the decisive votes for his infrastructure bill — a circumstance Trump sharply criticized while not laying it at McCarthy’s feet.

McCarthy clearly recognizes that his hold on the title of presumptive speaker is tenuous, just as it was in 2015. And just as the 2021 election reinforced the likelihood of a Republican takeover of the House in 2022 (the party needs to gain just five seats, which the opposition party usually does in midterms), simmering and undersold questions about McCarthy’s prospects for speaker have become more concrete.

Yet again, members of the House Freedom Caucus such as Gaetz and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) are balking at the idea of McCarthy’s becoming speaker, leading to questions about whether he’ll have the votes. Greene said recently, “We know that Kevin McCarthy has a problem in our conference. He doesn’t have the full support to be speaker.

Greene, of course, says lots of things. Merely raising the prospect of bypassing McCarthy for speaker and maybe even installing Trump works politically for Trump and his allies on a number of levels. It keeps Trump in the conversation and serves as a warning signal to McCarthy that he needs to mind his right flank — that he needs to stay in line. McCarthy has clearly sought to acknowledge that signal.

The idea of a Trump speakership also, of course, hands Democrats an argument for 2022. Trump was an unpopular president, and to the extent this remains in the conversation, Democrats can use it to raise money and warn about what a GOP House might look like.

Ultimately, this would boil down to two things: Whether McCarthy could get the votes, and whether Trump could resist what would be the ultimate troll.

If Republicans win big in 2022, McCarthy’s prospects improve, both because he wouldn’t need the likes of Gaetz and Greene as much and because he will have just helped deliver a big GOP midterm win. But even when he was bypassed in 2015, there were many GOP votes to spare; Republicans had a 247-188 majority.

Imagine a scenario in which things are a little bit tighter and Freedom Caucus members think they can do better than an establishment-oriented California Republican who has haltingly sought to appeal to their side. They could opt for someone like House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), who is more in line with them, or for someone else.

But then imagine a scenario in which Trump states he’d like to be in the running. In this circumstance, a closer House might actually work against Trump, in that there would be some (perhaps impeachment supporters, if they’re reelected, but also plenty of moderates) who wouldn’t want to vote for him. You can bet leaders would do what it would take to prevent such a choice, but that’s not always up to them. And every Republican would know that, as with impeachment, opposing Trump would come at a severe cost.

The real question in all of this is whether Trump would force the issue, because he certainly could if he wanted to. Most likely he wouldn’t and this is just the troll that it appears to be. Being speaker isn’t exactly great if you’re lining up another run for president at the same time, because it’s a big job. Trump hasn’t shown much interest at all in the nitty-gritty details of legislating, making him particularly ill-suited for the job of speaker. But if you’re all about winning and plaudits and big titles — and perhaps you’re mad because the same House impeached you twice — and the title of speaker is just sitting there potentially for the taking, maybe you make a go of it? Maybe you reason that you can delegate things and do it your way?

Again, not at all likely. Again, convenient to talk about and much more difficult to put into practice. But in a party that has largely given Trump what he wants, what if he decides he wants this? It’s not like his party is great at saying no to him.