The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The House hard-liners blocking McCarthy aren’t listening to Trump

In another sign of the former president’s waning influence, his efforts to bolster McCarthy’s bid as House speaker have not persuaded 20 Republicans to drop their opposition

President Donald Trump speaks alongside Republican Kevin McCarthy, then the House minority leader, in the White House Rose Garden in 2019. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

For the first time in recent memory, former president Donald Trump found himself relegated this week to the outskirts of a humiliating Republican implosion.

Instead, at the center of the latest conflagration stood Kevin McCarthy, the California Republican who on Tuesday sat through three devastating votes in which he failed to earn the House speaker’s gavel, only to return Wednesday for three more rounds of self-abasement. As of Wednesday evening, the House still had no speaker.

In the long run-up to the race for speaker, Trump was the leading character in a bevy of political parlor games — including breathless, overhyped scenarios in which the former president would offer himself up for the gavel and speculation about whether Trump would endorse McCarthy’s bid.

On Jan. 4, Republican Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) failed to garner the 218 votes needed to be elected House speaker. (Video: Adriana Usero/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

In the end, Trump supported McCarthy’s candidacy — and his party responded with a collective shrug. The former president and his endorsement, it seemed, were essentially irrelevant.

The 20 Republicans who voted against McCarthy were nearly all hardcore Trump loyalists; all but two were election deniers — echoing Trump’s false and baseless claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen — and 15 of the 20 had received Trump’s endorsement during the primaries.

Some, such as Matt Gaetz (Fla.), have made fealty to the former president almost their entire political brand. Yet Gaetz was one of the five original “Never Kevin” Republicans who made clear his chief mission was to deny McCarthy the gavel, regardless of the consequences for the party or the nation.

Even after Trump put out a statement Wednesday morning on his Truth Social platform reiterating his support for McCarthy, Gaetz remained unmoved: “Sad!” Gaetz told Fox News Digital in a statement. “This changes neither my view of McCarthy, nor Trump, nor my vote.”

And none of the floor speeches Tuesday even invoked Trump or suggested that his support of McCarthy was in any way meaningful or persuasive.

Marc Short, former chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence, said Trump’s opinion on this issue is inconsequential for most Republicans.

“I don’t think he factors into it,” Short said. “Do you see any evidence he’s swaying anybody?”

As a former president who has seen his potency wane in the wake of disappointing midterm results, Trump no longer instills fear throughout his party, Short said — especially not over an inside-the-Beltway Republican conference vote.

“What could the punishment be?” Short said. “What levers does he have over them at this point?”

Trump’s main relevance during the unfolding drama came only when he specifically injected himself into it, such as during a brief interview with NBC News on Tuesday night that suggested he might be waffling in his support for McCarthy.

But even those remarks felt more like a former president desperate for attention than an actual player in the ongoing House speaker battle.

“We’ll see what happens,” Trump said when asked directly if he was sticking with McCarthy, who by then had lost three rounds of voting.

Two Trump advisers said that Trump’s call with NBC News, as well as a subsequent one with Punchbowl News, were the result of the reporters directly calling one of the former president’s cellphones and were not orchestrated by his team. “He just answers the phone,” one of these people said, who like some others interviewed for this report spoke on the condition of anonymity to disclose internal details, and added that Trump was considering taking that cellphone out of rotation for a while.

On Wednesday morning, Trump reiterated his endorsement of McCarthy on Truth Social, his social media site, calling on all “GREAT Republican House Members to VOTE FOR KEVIN, CLOSE THE DEAL, TAKE THE VICTORY.” He added, “Kevin McCarthy will do a good job, and maybe even a GREAT JOB — JUST WATCH!”

His 2024 presidential campaign also blasted the statement out in an “In Case You Missed It” email, and his team additionally sent it around to House Republicans, a Trump adviser said. But unlike his presidential tweets, which often sent Republicans scurrying and claiming they hadn’t seen the missive, his show of support on Truth Social swayed no one.

House Republicans continue to fight over who will be speaker. Kevin McCarthy is failing to muster enough votes, increasing unrest in the house chamber. (Video: The Washington Post)

Republican Lauren Boebert (Colo.), a Trump loyalist who enjoyed his support during her primary, took to the House floor Wednesday to bluntly say that Trump’s efforts to influence his supporters were not compelling.

“Even having my favorite president call us and tell us we need to knock this off, I think it actually needs to be reversed,” Boebert said. “The president needs to tell Kevin McCarthy that, ‘Sir, you do not have the votes and it’s time to withdraw.’”

Democrats, who have watched the whole spectacle with delight, greeted her comments with a round of gleeful “Oohs.”

“The most extreme Republicans are upset Kevin McCarthy isn’t extreme enough for them,” said Ammar Moussa, a Democratic National Committee spokesman. “Despite it all, the way Trump’s potential 2024 opponents are tripping over themselves to be the most MAGA proves Trump’s stranglehold isn’t going anywhere.”

Trump, for his part, had spent recent weeks making calls to Republican House members to try to gin up support for McCarthy, a Trump adviser said. But the former president found that none of the far-right conservatives trust McCarthy, and though they would listen politely, they made no commitments of support, this person added.

This week, Trump received calls from lawmakers — some who griped about McCarthy, others who asked for his help in shoring up the California Republican.

Trump called McCarthy several times for updates, a Trump adviser said, adding that he also reached out to some of the holdout lawmakers, urging them to talk to McCarthy. The holdouts have all offered slightly different reasons for disliking McCarthy, and Trump has grown exasperated listening to them — privately expressing incredulity at how “stupid” the fight is, because none of the hard-right Republicans can seem to articulate a clear plan. The former president watched the proceedings all day Tuesday and complained they were a political embarrassment, an adviser said.

“This needs to end,” Trump has told the recalcitrant Republicans, the adviser said. “You all need to figure this out. Kevin is the one who can get the most votes. We ought to try and make a deal.”

McCarthy — whom Trump has called “my Kevin” and who once instructed his staff to sort through a supply of Starbursts to provide Trump with his favorite cherry and strawberry flavors — has spent much of the last half decade trying to kowtow to the whims of Trump.

He was the first major elected Republican to appear publicly with Trump in the wake of the deadly Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, in a visit to Trump’s private Mar-a-Lago Club that helped resuscitate the former president. And though their relationship can be mercurial, Trump views McCarthy as “predictable and steady” and generally likes him more than many of his colleagues, a Trump adviser said.

He especially appreciates McCarthy’s obsequious loyalty, save for one notable exception: McCarthy’s suggestion, in the immediate aftermath of the Jan. 6 attacks, that Trump be censured — a moment Trump refers to as “the C-word” and over which he still needles McCarthy, this person added.

But after the NBC News interview, McCarthy’s team grew nervous that Trump was wavering in his support, and the two men spoke Tuesday night.

“He thinks it’s better if all the Republicans get together and solve this,” McCarthy told reporters when asked about his phone call with Trump. “It doesn’t look good for Republicans. But we want to be able to solve it where we’re stronger in the long run.”

Specifically asked if Trump encouraged him to stay in the race, McCarthy added, “Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah.”

But the former president’s allies say they can sense his support is hardly generous.

“I can tell you one thing: Trump’s base is 99.9 to 0.1 percent against McCarthy,” said Stephen K. Bannon, a former senior adviser in the Trump White House and the host of “War Room,” a far-right podcast. “His Truth posts had zero impact. People love him; they respect him. On this one, he’s just dead wrong.”

Short added that while the contingent opposing McCarthy is clearly made up of Trump loyalists, both the inside-baseball nature of the fight and Trump’s somewhat tepid support have blunted the former president’s potential impact. Several Trump advisers said he didn’t plan to “savage” any of the unsupportive lawmakers, noting that many of them have praised him extensively — and that Trump could cut bait if it’s clear McCarthy cannot win.

“They are all still Trump supporters, but they don’t really believe that Trump’s heart is in it,” Short said. “And they don’t really believe that most of their voters are really worried about a House leadership matter.”

Despite remaining the de facto leader of the Republican Party, Trump’s influence has been waning for some time. He lost the 2020 election to President Biden, and many Republicans blamed him for the loss of two Senate seats in Georgia several months later.

In the 2022 midterm elections, Trump’s primary endorsements helped usher in a slate of extremist candidates unable to win a general election, leading to a disappointing showing for Republicans; Democrats retained control of the Senate, and the Republicans made smaller-than-expected gains in the House — an underlying cause of McCarthy’s current dilemma. Trump then went on to unsuccessfully endorse Rick Scott (R-Fla.) for Senate minority leader over Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who won handily.

Trump’s early entry into the 2024 presidential primary field has not dissuaded a number of prominent Republicans from considering their own 2024 bids, and some have begun publicly dismissing him as a loser whose moment has passed.

“Trump misused his power within the party in the midterms and it has cost him, and it’s made him more of a traditional political influencer,” said Tim Miller, a former Republican strategist and ardent Trump critic who works as a writer for the Bulwark website. “Does he have more influence than [Fox News host] Laura Ingraham right now? Not really.”

“The juice,” Miller added, “is gone.”

Byron Donalds (R-Fla.), who on Tuesday pulled his vote from McCarthy on the third ballot, saying he had switched because he didn’t think McCarthy had a path to victory, was more charitable.

Trump’s support of McCarthy, he said, was “all well and good.”

“But the members are going to decide this process,” Donalds said. “And, you know, that’s no disrespect to President Trump. That’s just the reality of the House of Representatives.”

Kevin Uhrmacher and Dylan Wells contributed to this report.