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Kevin McCarthy knows he crossed the line with Donald Trump

Oh, Kevin, My Kevin. You should have known better than to question Trump’s dominance in the GOP

Eric Garcia
Wednesday 28 June 2023 21:47 BST
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(Getty Images)

Few people embody Republicans’ relationship and acquiescence to Donald Trump more than House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.

In 2016, then-House Majority Leader McCarthy told colleagues, “There’s two people I think Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump,” in reference to the former Republican congressman Dana Rohrabacher who frequently praised Russian President Vladimir Putin.

When Mr Trump won the presidency, Mr McCarthy hastily mended fences, making sure to have a jar full of Starburst candies containing only Mr Trump’s favourite flavors: cherry and strawberry.

Mr McCarthy’s bridge-building seemed to pay off as Mr Trump dubbed the congenial Californian “My Kevin.” Indeed, arguably no Republican elite played a bigger role in welcoming Mr Trump back into the Republican fold after the January 6 riot than Mr McCarthy. In the days after the attack on the Capitol, he told his colleagues, “I’ve had it with this guy” and said on the House floor that Mr Trump bore responsibility for the assault. Then, only a few weeks later, he flew to Mar-a-Lago to kiss Mr Trump’s ring.

In his marathon 15 rounds to become House speaker earlier this year, Mr McCarthy again threw Mr Trump a lifeline. In the weeks after the 2022 midterm elections, Republican leaders, perhaps unwilling to blame the Supreme Court’s Dobbs v Jackson decision, said Mr Trump’s endorsement of bum candidates cost them a red wave. But when Mr McCarthy finally earned the gavel, he thanked Mr Trump for supporting him and said “I don't think anybody should doubt his influence.”

Those extraordinary lengths Mr McCarthy has taken to get on Mr Trump’s good side made his remarks to CNBC on Tuesday all the more stunning. To recap, Mr McCarthy said that “Can (Trump) win that election? Yeah, he can. The question is, is he the strongest to win the election? I don’t know that answer.”

In fairness to Mr McCarthy, congressional leaders and House speakers have a history of staying neutral in presidential primaries, largely because they will have to work with whomever the nominee is. But Mr McCarthy doubting Mr Trump’s force in the GOP stunned many, precisely because he of all people knows how Mr Trump punishes those seen as less than 100 per cent loyal to him.

In fact, Mr McCarthy helped Mr Trump do just that when he purged Liz Cheney from the ranks of the House GOP conference and he all but created the House’s subcommittee on weaponisation essentially as a response to the federal government’s probes into the former president.

Unlike Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who would rather never talk about Mr Trump after January 6 and especially after the Trump-endorsed candidates blew his chances of becoming majority leader again, Mr McCarthy has been Mr Trump’s top lieutenant in Congress.

Almost immediately, Mr McCarthy knew he stepped in it. In turn, he went to Breitbart’s Matt Boyle, perhaps the friendliest reporter to Mr Trump in right-wing media, and said the former president is “stronger today than he was in 2016.” He also reportedly phoned Mr Trump to apologise to the former president.

This is not the first time that Mr McCarthy’s mouth has gotten him in trouble. In 2015, when he first sought the speakership after John Boehner abruptly announced his resignation, he told Fox News’ Sean Hannity that “everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right? But we put together a Benghazi Special Committee, a select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping.”

Those words essentially revealed that Republicans convened the select committee not to investigate the deaths at the embassy in Libya in 2012, but rather to weaken Ms Clinton (which it did since the select committee ultimately led into probes of Ms Clinton’s private email server, which led to her downfall to Mr Trump). Mr McCarthy may have been right but he ultimately had to drop out of the speaker’s race for giving away the game.

But what makes Mr McCarthy’s latest misstep so shocking is it comes when his reign as speaker is so precarious. After it seemed like he tamed the House Freedom Caucus in the debt limit fight, they are now openly revolting and demanding a vote on impeaching President Joe Biden, as is his closest conservative ally, Rep Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), who all but told me last week that a vote for impeachment is her price for supporting him for speaker.

Similarly, he has floated voting to expunge Mr Trump’s two impeachments, which would be political suicide for his most endangered incumbents, but he may have to expedite to keep the boss happy. Ultimately, Mr McCarthy may have doomed his own reign as speaker simply by, well, speaking.

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