President Trump and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) were alone in the presidential suite on Air Force One, flying east toward Washington in early October, when the president reached for a handful of Starbursts, the square-shaped candy fruit chews.
But instead of unwrapping all the treats, the president was careful to pluck out and eat two flavors: cherry and strawberry, McCarthy noticed.
“We’re there, having a little dessert, and he offers me some,” McCarthy recalled in an interview. “Just the red and the pink. A bit later, a couple of his aides saw me with those colors and told me, ‘Those are the president’s favorites.’ ”
Days later, the No. 2 Republican in the House — known for his relentless cultivation of political alliances — bought a plentiful supply of Starbursts and asked a staffer to sort through the pile, placing only those two flavors in a jar. McCarthy made sure his name was on the side of the gift, which was delivered to a grinning Trump, according to a White House official.
McCarthy’s overture — a Washington version of rock band Van Halen’s infamous 1982 request for backstage bowls of M&M’s purged of brown candies — illustrates the lengths many top congressional Republicans have gone to build a rapport with Trump.
The move also underscored McCarthy’s singular role as Trump’s friend and fixer over the past year — a courtship of backslapping and flattery that has led to eye-rolling among Democrats and skeptical Republicans.
From talks about the midterm elections at Camp David to a strategic interjection at a bipartisan immigration meeting, McCarthy, 52, has sought to position himself as Trump’s indispensable man in Congress, an easygoing Republican who gets him — and likes him.
Trump has showcased the relationship and appears to enjoy the fidelity of a high-ranking GOP leader. Before the two had dinner together Sunday at Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach, Fla., Trump took questions from reporters under the club portico’s ornate arches, with McCarthy standing beside him.
McCarthy — who was in the Oval Office on Thursday when Trump used a vulgarity to disparage immigrants — stood stone-faced and quiet as the president declared that he is “not a racist” and asserted that those comments weren’t made.
McCarthy is aggressive but hardly alone in his embrace. Many Republicans once thought of Trump as a crude intruder but have since developed relationships with the president to try to guide and influence him.
Last Tuesday at the White House, for example, Trump seemed to wander close to agreeing to an immigration deal with Democrats, without any conditions, to protect thousands of young undocumented immigrants known as “dreamers” from deportation. McCarthy jumped in quickly to head things off: “Mr. President, you need to be clear, though. . . . You have to have security,” he said, prompting Trump to retreat.
McCarthy’s ability to leap in without provoking Trump’s ire visibly relieved Republicans in the room.
While at Camp David earlier this month, McCarthy took up the task of explaining the obstacles facing Republicans ahead of the midterm elections in November, walking through the financial hurdles and bleak prospects in various races. He urged the president to do everything he could to raise money for vulnerable Republicans.
According to two people familiar with the presentation, Trump appreciated McCarthy’s use of pictures and charts rather than a memo. It was a basic and “foundational” presentation that explained midterm politics to Trump, in the words of one senior White House official. A second White House official said Trump may not have listened to others as well as he listened to McCarthy, which is why the tough love needed to come from him.
And after Trump gave mixed signals in a flurry of Twitter messages last week about a bill to reauthorize the government’s authority to conduct foreign surveillance on U.S. soil, McCarthy alerted the Republican conference about the president’s eventual clarification, calming lawmakers’ nerves.
Sometimes, what McCarthy doesn’t say also is helpful to the president. He has generally not criticized Trump — not just in Florida on Sunday night but ever since Trump referred to “shithole countries” in the Oval Office meeting Thursday.
While Trump has frustrated many Republicans who dislike his erratic tweets and rapid policy shifts, McCarthy has told colleagues that the president is not going to change and that it’s best to accept him for who he is.
“It hasn’t always been easy for everyone,” Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) said of other congressional leaders, such as House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), who has criticized Trump in the past but has since worked with the president on the GOP’s sweeping tax bill, which was signed into law last month.
“Ryan is the policy wonk, and the president isn’t,” King said. “The president picks up on Kevin being a different kind of guy, someone who speaks in analogies and uses empathy, who doesn’t really ever get emotional but doesn’t get too in the weeds, either.”
Critics of McCarthy grouse that he is an operator who is most concerned with improving his standing in the House by aligning himself with the Republican base’s standard-bearer. There are worries, too, that McCarthy’s ingratiation could enable Trump rather than contain him.
“I don’t think being a Trump sycophant is going to do much in the long run for the party or holding the majority,” said Republican consultant Mike Murphy. “It doesn’t change Trump’s behavior, which is imperiling the party, and we’re getting to a place where challenging him is an imperative.”
Associates of both men explain the pair’s bond as an outgrowth of late-night phone calls they had near the end of the 2016 presidential campaign. When other Republicans were publicly criticizing Trump or wary of forging any kind of relationship with him, McCarthy would call the candidate to update him on the latest tidbits from Congress and offer advice about the political map. Trump began to refer to him as “my Kevin,” a person he could trust. At one point last year, White House aides said, he was a favorite to replace Reince Priebus as chief of staff.
One business executive who came to a summit last year with White House officials including Gary Cohn, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner was surprised to see McCarthy sitting onstage, almost as if he worked at the White House.
McCarthy said in the interview that the president will often call him on his cellphone and ask him to drop into West Wing meetings he had not planned on attending, as he did Thursday.
Privately, McCarthy has at times expressed unease. Last spring, The Washington Post reported that McCarthy told a group of House Republicans in 2016 that Trump could be a beneficiary of payments from Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“There’s two people I think Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump,” McCarthy said, according to a recording of that remark, which was listened to and verified by The Post. McCarthy’s spokesman called it a “failed attempt at humor.” Rep. Dana Rohrabacher is a California Republican known in Congress as a defender of Putin.
Yet the McCarthy-Trump alliance carried on amid the firestorm over that report. In the interview, McCarthy said he is “one of those people” who sees Trump as a swaggering icon of American business — someone who could work “under budget, ahead of schedule.”
He insisted that his feelings are genuine, not driven by ambition or the transactional nature of politics.
“My wife once got me ‘The Art of the Deal,’ ” Trump’s best-selling 1987 book, for Christmas, McCarthy said, adding that he was an entrepreneur early in his career, when he used $5,000 he won in the state lottery to start a deli, Kevin O’s.
McCarthy offered another reason for his connection with Trump: They both like to talk a lot while watching movies.
“He likes to talk through the movie, and I like to talk through the movie — just ask my wife,” McCarthy said. He said he sat near Trump for recent viewings of “The Greatest Showman,” a movie about the circus, at Camp David, and “The Darkest Hour,” about Winston Churchill, at the White House.
McCarthy’s Air Force One huddle with Trump over Starbursts came on an Oct. 4 flight from Las Vegas, where the president had spoken and met with victims of the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.
“It was the end of an emotional day,” McCarthy said. “We were unwinding.”
McCarthy said the gift was obvious, as Trump enjoys small gestures as well as grand ones. “He remembers everything,” McCarthy said. “Of course I put my name on the jar.”