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As Congress comes back on Tuesday, all eyes will be on House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. To recap: New York Times reporters Jonathan Martin (aka JMart, a friend of this reporter) and Alex Burns reported in their soon-to-be-released book This Will Not Pass that McCarthy planned to help encourage Donald Trump out of office. McCarthy denied it, only for audio to be released proving his denial was false. The recording from January 2021 proves that the GOP House leader knew how egregious Trump’s actions were, downplayed them, and then proceeded to pal around with the former president.
They also reveal a much deeper truth about McCarthy that many people in Washington know: His control over the GOP caucus is incredibly tenuous, and indeed it always has been. In 2015, he attempted to replace retiring House Speaker John Boehner, only to prematurely bow out and pave the way for Paul Ryan. He finally took on the mantle when Ryan retired in 2019, and has led the House GOP in the minority ever since. Many are now questioning whether he can lead a Republican majority.
Unlike House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — who can instill discipline in an extremely heterogeneous caucus featuring everyone from the Squad to the relatively conservative Blue Dogs — McCarthy has never been particularly good at herding cats, even after serving as a party whip for many years. Just last year, 13 Republicans defected to vote for the bipartisan infrastructure bill, and many more voted to create a bipartisan commission to investigate the insurrection after he opposed it. McCarthy also lacks both Boehner’s self-confidence and the policy razzle-dazzle that elevated Ryan to Mitt Romney’s presidential ticket.
Unlike Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, McCarthy also doesn’t rule the Senate GOP caucus with an iron fist — and he can’t point to the same record of significant accomplishments that McConnell has notched up by way of utter ruthlessness. The initial Times report had McConnell saying Democrats would “take care of the son of a b***h for us,” meaning Trump. McConnell, who reportedly hasn’t spoken to Trump since he left office, knows that one reason he doesn’t need to sweat is that nobody can do with the Senate GOP what he does. Trump can deride him as the “Old Crow” all he likes, but the former president wouldn’t have his three Supreme Court Justices without McConnell. Still, his power may be secure, but it’s not absolute: recall that he said he’d support the former president if he ran again in 2024, and that he ultimately folded in holding Trump accountable for the January 6 insurrection.
McCarthy, on the other hand, gets along better with firebrands like Jim Jordan – the man Boehner once called a “legislative terrorist” – and has made peace with hardline conservatives like the House Freedom Caucus. He nominated both Jordan and Republican Study Committee Chairman Jim Banks to the January 6 select committee, then pulled all his other nominees when Pelosi refused to seat the two of them.
But his position at the top of the House GOP is still precarious. Trump, for his part, told The Wall Street Journal that “I didn’t like the call,” but that McCarthy’s about-face was nonetheless a “compliment” and recounted how “almost immediately, as you know, because he came [to Mar-a-Lago] and we took a picture right there – you know, the support was very strong”. Others, though, might not be as forgiving. On Sunday, Florida Republican Matt Gaetz quote-tweeted a video of McCarthy where the GOP leader said he never asked Trump to resign. As Gaetz summarized his leader’s stance: “I never said it to his face; I only said it behind his back.”