The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

You don’t need Trump as speaker if you have Kevin McCarthy

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) holds his weekly news conference on Capitol Hill on Nov. 18, 2021. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)
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One of the reasons Donald Trump has managed to maintain his position as the putative leader of the Republican Party is that, time and again, he has outlasted crises and scandals that would have tanked nearly any other politician. In part, this was because he merged defense of himself with a defense of the political right broadly, and in part it was because he understood that what makes scandals worse is often the voices calling it a scandal, not the outrage of the public. Tamp down those voices, and it’s easier to skate.

Trump gave his allies many opportunities to experience this process. The apex, of course, came on Jan. 6 of last year, when Trump stoked the fury of millions of people, drew tens of thousands to Washington and then sat back and watched while hundreds beat their way past police to overwhelm the Capitol. Even his longtime defenders lashed out. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) spoke with Trump on the phone and demanded he take action to end the riot.

“Well, Kevin,” Trump reportedly replied, “I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are.”

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In a speech a few days later, McCarthy offered hints that, in fact, they were.

“The president bears responsibility for Wednesday’s attack on Congress by mob rioters,” McCarthy said. “He should have immediately denounced the mob when he saw what was unfolding.”

The context here is important. McCarthy was not speaking off the cuff but in an effort to derail Trump’s second impeachment. Speaking a week after the riot, he called for Trump to “accept his share of responsibility” and “quell the brewing unrest” to ensure that Joe Biden could begin his term as president. But his solution was not an impeachment that he said would “fan the flames.” Instead, it was a “fact-finding commission” and censure resolution.

The impeachment and subsequent trial moved forward, and during that process, the revelation about McCarthy’s call with Trump emerged, reported by a member of the Republican caucus who ended up supporting impeachment. McCarthy refused to talk about it. McCarthy’s position was clear: He was nestling back into Trump’s embrace. In late January, before the call with Trump was reported, McCarthy traveled to Mar-a-Lago to pose for a photo with the former president.

McCarthy ended up pushing back against the sort of “fact-finding commission” that he had initially advocated. On Wednesday, just shy of one year since he proposed that commission, the one that was formed, led by House Democrats, sent him a letter requesting his testimony about his interactions with Trump and, of course, that phone call. McCarthy quickly rejected the request. Once again, in the battle between Trump and scandal, Trump won.

Yet, it’s fascinating to contrast McCarthy with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). McConnell, too, opposed the creation of a commission but had similarly called out Trump’s role in the Jan. 6. attack on the Capitol.

“The mob was fed lies,” McConnell said, adding that the rioters “were provoked by the president and other powerful people, and they tried to use fear and violence to stop a specific proceeding of the first branch of the federal government, which they did not like.”

Unlike McCarthy, though, McConnell has continued to be vocally critical of Trump’s role on that day. When Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) had the temerity to point out that there wasn’t significant electoral fraud and that Trump had, in fact, lost his reelection bid, Trump lashed out at Rounds. But McConnell came to Rounds’s defense, saying he thought that “Senator Rounds told the truth about what happened in the 2020 election, and I agree with him.”

There’s a fascinating difference between Senate and House Republicans on this issue, in fact, one that extends back to Jan. 6 itself. After the riot, Congress reconvened to consider the electoral votes submitted by states. A handful of Senate Republicans maintained their objections; a majority of House Republicans did.

In part, this is a function of the way the two chambers were constituted. The Senate was designed to be the more sober, slower-moving chamber. Its structure — elections every six years, not two, with a guarantee that a majority of members will retain their seats over an election cycle — was meant to guard against the “fickleness and passion” of public opinion.

But it is also in part the difference between McCarthy and McConnell.

McConnell leads his party’s caucus in a chamber where Republican power has backstops. The filibuster gives the minority the power to block legislation. The allocation of two senators to every state, including low-population, heavily Republican ones, makes it easier to hit a 50-vote margin — much less the 42 votes needed to uphold a filibuster. Twenty-one percent of the country lives in 21 states that backed Trump in 2020, enough votes to block any legislation in the Senate if each of those states elects two Republican senators.

McCarthy, on the other hand, is aiming for the top job in the House, should his party win more seats in this year’s midterms, which seems likely. He leads the caucus now, but election as speaker is not guaranteed. At the same time, whatever his party’s majority next year, it could vanish two years after that. (“Fickleness.”) He’s also leading a caucus in which the winning candidates are often the ones who earned their seats by running to the right in districts that were unquestionably going to elect whichever Republican escaped the primary. (“Passion.”)

To secure his position, McCarthy has bet on Trump. Axios has a good delineation of the ways in which McCarthy has promised to run a House Republican majority in a robustly Trumpian manner: embracing partisan fights, elevating hard-right policy priorities and culture-war disputes. To some extent, it’s an embodiment of the detente the party itself has reached in the sort-of-post-Trump era, giving the base what it wants while still working to ensure that more-moderate Republicans retain interest.

An interesting thought experiment concerns how each Republican leader would operate in the other chamber. Were McConnell the leader of the House minority, would he similarly stand against Trump’s dishonest claims about the election? Were McCarthy leading Rounds and the other Republicans in the Senate, would he be more critical of the former president?

Whatever the answers, it seems clear that the speculative, semi-earnest rumblings about electing Trump himself as speaker a few weeks ago were not necessary. McCarthy, to secure his position and a majority, has bet on Trumpism as his strategy.

The left will see the headline of this article as an indictment. McCarthy will see it as an endorsement.