The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

House Republicans lining up to defend Trump, helping in GOP primary

Some senior Republicans are using legislative and oversight tools to defend and boost the ex-president, an unusual move for an open presidential primary

Former president Donald Trump boards his airplane, known as Trump Force One, en route to Iowa at Palm Beach International Airport in West Palm Beach, Fla., on March 13. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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Last week began with three House Republican committee chairmen issuing a letter to the Manhattan district attorney demanding documents and testimony about his investigation of Donald Trump.

It ended with a dozen House Republicans visiting prisoners at the D.C. jail who face charges from storming the U.S. Capitol two years ago in a bid to overthrow the 2020 election and keep Trump as president.

Still more than 10 months until the first caucuses of the GOP presidential nominating contest, the House Republican conference appears more and more as if it has taken sides with the former president — even though the 2024 race is considered an open primary with a couple of already declared candidates and several more getting ready to enter the race.

Trump has that way of making everything about him unusual and unprecedented, but these early moves by House GOP leaders would go against the normal patterns of keeping legislative machinations out of the presidential nominating process.

At least 40 House Republicans, nearly 1 in 5 members of the entire conference, have already endorsed Trump’s 2024 bid. That list includes two members of GOP leadership, Reps. Elise Stefanik (N.Y.) and Richard Hudson (N.C.), as well as two committee chairs, Reps. Jim Jordan (Ohio) and Roger Williams (Tex.).

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) recently told reporters that he might endorse a candidate in the primary, which would defy decades of practice by the top House and Senate leaders to stay out of presidential primaries, in part because they serve as co-chairs of the party conventions.

“I could endorse in the primary, but I haven’t endorsed,” McCarthy said March 17, prompting the follow-up question of whether he intends to do so.

“I could endorse, but I haven’t,” he replied, with a slight emphasis on “could.”

Endorsements alone are not unusual from lawmakers trying to either help their preferred candidate or to gain goodwill with a presidential candidate they believe could eventually win the Oval Office.

And oftentimes a House majority, against the opposing party’s president, will launch oversight investigations of the administration that can have a clear political benefit of wounding the incumbent president’s standing by exposing some wrongdoing. Those House investigations into President Biden’s handling of the Afghanistan withdrawal and his family’s personal financial dealings fall into that category.

But this crop of House members are taking actions that could have the side effect of also shoring up Trump’s support among GOP primary voters who might be considering an alternative.

Jordan’s Judiciary Committee, along with the House oversight and administration committees, on March 20 launched their probe of the Manhattan investigation into Trump’s payout to an adult-film actress following her allegation that it was hush money.

The Administration Committee is conducting its own review of how the Democratic-led Jan. 6 committee handled its investigation into Trump’s role in trying to block the congressional certification of Biden’s 2020 victory and the ensuing Capitol riot — a probe that is designed to undermine the select committee’s findings about Trump.

And members of the Oversight and Accountability Committee are investigating the jail conditions of those charged with Jan. 6-related crimes, calling them “political prisoners” and “patriots” who do not deserve to be imprisoned.

That follows McCarthy’s decision to provide access to thousands of hours of security videos from Jan. 6, 2021, to Fox News personality Tucker Carlson for a report that also tried to downplay the pro-Trump mob’s behavior on that day.

To be sure, some senior House Republicans would rather stick to the agenda they ran on in the 2022 midterms — fighting inflation and crime — than delve into actions that could reverberate in the presidential primary.

“It’s still almost a year away, so we are focused on passing our agenda here,” House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.) said when asked last week about the presidential primary contest. “Obviously, that’s been my focus and just getting bills passed that actually get this country back on track. That’s our top priority.”

All told, just two House Republicans have endorsed someone other than Trump. Rep. Ralph Norman (S.C.), a staunch conservative, has endorsed his state’s former governor, Nikki Haley, and Rep. Chip Roy (Tex.) has endorsed Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) even though he has yet to formally announce a presidential bid.

Across the Capitol, Senate Republicans remain perplexed by how much their counterparts want to wade into the presidential campaign.

Just five GOP senators have endorsed Trump so far, about 1 in 10, and almost everyone else is staying out of the endorsement game and not trying to use their legislative perch to help the ex-president.

“Stay out of it. I think we have a good, robust nominating process,” Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) said in a brief interview last week.

“Absolutely neutral. Chuck Grassley, the governor and I are always neutral through the caucuses,” said Sen. Joni Ernst (Iowa), No. 4 in GOP leadership, highlighting how her state’s senior senator and Gov. Kim Reynolds would not endorse.

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who remains away from the Senate recuperating from a bad fall, has not endorsed any presidential candidate in the four open primaries that have occurred during his more than 16-year reign atop his caucus.

McCarthy’s most recent predecessors, former speakers John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), did not endorse in the three open GOP primaries for which they oversaw the caucus.

But most of today’s House GOP has a love of Trump ingrained in its political DNA, so much so that even lawmakers who are staying neutral are advancing causes that will help fortify the ex-president.

Through his senior spot on the Administration Committee, Rep. Barry Loudermilk (R-Ga.) is leading the after-action review of last year’s Jan. 6 panel. He released what he called a “flash report” Wednesday that countered Democratic accusations that he led “reconnaissance tours” for pro-Trump activists the day before the attack.

Loudermilk, who expects to stay out of endorsing in the primary, is also examining security failures at the Capitol and will plumb deep into other aspects of what the Jan. 6 committee reviewed last year. He is adamant that he’s not trying to tip the scales for Trump in next year’s primaries, even though Loudermilk’s work could help Trump’s defense.

“My investigations have nothing to do with the 2020 election, the 2024 election,” he said. “We’re not litigating it. We are simply focused on Jan. 5, Jan. 6, what happened, how did these people get in, how do we fix that.”

Back in the Senate, Republicans are so restrained from getting involved in the presidential race that they aren’t willing to formally endorse even if they will otherwise gush in public about candidates.

“I’ve been pretty outspoken in the fact that I think the world of Tim Scott, and I still feel that way about him,” John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) said of the South Carolina GOP senator who is weighing a bid.

He paused, then just added a simple statement: “I’m ready to support the nominee of the party.”