The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

House GOP tries to avoid Trump talk at retreat while targeting Bragg

Republicans insisted they aren’t talking about Trump all the time, while also opening an investigation into the Manhattan district attorney

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and other GOP leaders speak to reporters March 8 on Capitol Hill. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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ORLANDO — As House Republicans gathered here this week for their annual issues conference, one man loomed large: Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg.

Republicans contorted themselves when pressed on Bragg’s possible criminal case against former president Donald Trump, avoiding addressing a range of inquiries about the 2024 presidential candidate’s legal woes, including questions about alleged hush-money payments made by Trump’s former fixer to a porn actress; if any lawmaker thought a candidate charged with a crime should be the party’s presidential nominee; or whether any believed Trump’s call for Americans to protest his alleged pending arrest was a dangerous incitement that echoed his rhetoric ahead of the deadly Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Instead, Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) laid into Bragg, saying possible charges against Trump are “political” and an example of a local district attorney intervening in presidential politics. One of McCarthy’s top deputies, Majority Whip Tom Emmer (R-Minn.), called the potential prosecution of Trump “outrageous.”

Bragg has pushed back against Republican criticism, calling attacks “baseless accusations” and saying in a statement Monday that his office “will not be intimidated by attempts to undermine the justice process.”

Throughout the three-day conference, House Republicans across the ideological spectrum echoed McCarthy’s position that an investigation into a former president raises questions about political motivations. But in conversations with GOP lawmakers, a noticeable few staunchly defended Trump — a dynamic that once again highlighted the ongoing debate over Trump’s influence in the party and his grip on the GOP base.

Many lawmakers have opted to simply talk around Trump to avoid being the target of political retribution if he is again chosen as the party’s presidential nominee. Yet they remain hesitant to publicly distance themselves from him altogether so as not to alienate Republican voters who still support him. House Republicans instead sought to focus their retreat on the key planks outlined in their “Commitment to America,” the policy agenda they released ahead of the 2022 midterms that they now must reach consensus on. Closed-door roundtable discussions focused on the electoral political landscape, foreign policy, the budget and border security.

McCarthy downplays N.Y. case against Trump, dismisses it as ‘personal money’

“We worked really hard to get to the [House] majority, telling the American public that this is what we’re doing,” McCarthy said, referencing the House GOP’s policy proposals. “We’re not talking about [Trump] in our conference,” he insisted, adding he hadn’t spoken with Trump directly in roughly three weeks.

And when a reporter asked McCarthy whether he could lead the Republican Party into a new era or whether Trump still wields influence, McCarthy insinuated he himself was the standard-bearer of the party.

“In the press room, for all of you, [Trump] is. If you think I can’t lead, why would I go through 15 rounds of anything?” he said, referencing the rounds of balloting it took for him to be elected speaker earlier this year.

That sentiment was echoed by Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), who said flatly, “I think the leader of the party is the speaker of the House,” during a news conference touting the growth of Hispanic Republican voters.

But Trump did come up in an evening conversations about how best to conduct investigations with former House Oversight Committee chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) and Trump lawyer Eric Herschmann, both of whom suggested pursuing Bragg, according to a person in attendance.

And while Republicans blamed the press for making Trump a looming presence at their retreat, a trio of House Republican committee chairs on Monday launched an investigation at McCarthy’s request into what they claimed was a “politically motivated prosecutorial decision,” inserting themselves and their colleagues into the conversation before Bragg has even announced whether Trump will be indicted.

Back in Washington, several Senate Republicans said they agreed there were questions about Bragg and whether he was politically motivated, and largely skirted around endorsing bringing Bragg in to testify.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) suggested it is probably time better served if House Republicans focus on keeping their legislative promises to voters over launching another investigation.

“I would think that there’s more than enough to do, and I would hope they’d stick to the agenda they ran on when they got elected to the majority,” he said.

Several House lawmakers privately said Trump continues to be a drag on the party whom they would rather not deal with, but they understand a considerable amount of the Republican base remains behind the former president. Still, many are withholding their endorsements of Trump in the Republican presidential primary after learning from the midterm election that showed voters in swing districts and some states rejected extreme candidates.

“Show me the candidate who can win back the 7 percent of independent voters,” mused one House Republican who hasn’t yet endorsed a presidential candidate.

Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.), who chairs House Republicans’ campaign arm, said that he is working with incumbents to “build a fortress” around their candidacy to separate themselves from the 2024 GOP presidential primary and general-election politics. The strategy is in part informed by some Republican criticism of the top-of-the-ticket GOP candidates in swing-state governor and Senate midterm races last year, many of whom were endorsed by Trump.

“We have to deliver on some of [our] promises,” Hudson said of the need for legislative wins to help differentiate candidates from the presidential field.

While House Republicans are often the first to staunchly stand by Trump, their immediate responses to questions about the former president’s latest legal woes saw them maneuver around a forceful defense of Trump and pivot to talking points connecting Bragg to out-of-control crime in New York City. The accusations have allowed Republicans to peg Bragg as the latest example of how Democrats’ priorities on crime are misplaced and how the government is “weaponized” against conservatives.

“He thinks that going after, you know, a Florida resident for a charge that the federal government won’t even pursue as a local DA — it’s purely political,” Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.) said. “And anybody who looks at it objectively recognizes this is an abuse of power for somebody to go after their political enemy using their government position.”

Emmer, the Republican whip, however, said that defending Trump and attacking the Manhattan district attorney “are separate” issues.

“I think it is fair to say whether you endorse Trump or not, you can look at that case and say, ‘Wow, that’s, that seems to be political,’” said Hudson, the National Republican Congressional Committee chair. “You could separate that, hypothetically, and say, ‘I don’t I don’t necessarily endorse Trump, but I see this for what it is.’”

There was one House leader who did not mince words in expressing her unabashed loyalty to the former president: Conference Chairwoman Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), who remains one of Trump’s staunchest defenders. She spoke with him Monday morning and said during a moderated conversation with Punchbowl News that she detailed for Trump how the House Judiciary and Oversight committees would be investigating the Manhattan district attorney, while reassuring the former president that her constituents say he remains their top pick for president.

In fact, Stefanik said, she thinks the possible indictment will be a win for Trump.

“I think you’ll see his poll numbers go up,” she said.

Liz Goodwin contributed to this report.