Oct 3, 2023 - Politics & Policy

How Trump shadowed McCarthy's doomed speakership

Former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, left, and former President Trump at a rally.

Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), then the House minority leader, and then-President Trump at a rally in 2020. Photo: David McNew/Getty Images

Former President Trump helped Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) become House speaker. In the end, Trump wasn't willing — or able — to help McCarthy save it.

Why it matters: Trump's backing gave McCarthy a boost when the Californian won the gavel — barely — last January. But the concessions McCarthy made to become speaker left him vulnerable to being ousted by far-right Republicans who identify with Trump's MAGA movement.

  • The House's historic vote to remove McCarthy came after he compromised with Democrats one too many times in the eyes of a few MAGA loyalists whose efforts have frozen business in the chamber.
  • Republicans will try to elect a new speaker next week, with a government shutdown looming in mid-November if they can't reach agreements on funding plans.

Between the lines: Trump and McCarthy don't agree on everything — Trump has led a growing number of Republicans who oppose military aid to Ukraine, for example, while McCarthy strongly supports it.

  • After the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, McCarthy declared that Trump "bears responsibility for Wednesday's attack on Congress."
  • But later that month, he visited Trump at Mar-a-Lago to heal the rift, a turnabout that then-Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wy.) called "stunning."
  • Leading up to the 2022 midterms he kept close to Trump, and the former president repaid the favor by lobbying lawmakers to elect McCarthy speaker, even talking by phone with members on the floor during the vote.
  • Trump — the frontrunner for the GOP presidential nomination — is occupied this week with his civil fraud trial in New York. But as the vote to remove McCarthy approached Tuesday, he posted on Truth Social, asking "why Republicans are always fighting among themselves."

Zoom in: During his nine-month tenure, McCarthy tried to channel the energy of Trump's MAGA movement into conservative legislative wins.

  • But compromises with Democrats — on a deal to raise the debt ceiling in exchange for budget cuts, and the short-term spending bill to keep the government funded into mid-November — left MAGA diehards bitterly disappointed.
  • McCarthy had tried to appease them by opening a formal impeachment inquiry into President Biden — but that antagonized Democrats. They could have saved his speakership Tuesday, but decided to let him fall.
  • Ultimately, it was McCarthy's decision — a "gamble," as he put it — on the short-term funding bill that led to MAGA hardliners' calls for his removal.
  • Eight far-right Republicans joined 208 Democrats to remove him, 216-210.

Driving the news: Speaking to reporters late Tuesday, McCarthy said he wouldn't run for speaker again next week when Republicans aim to vote on a replacement.

  • He said he'll work to expand Republicans' majority in the House — an edge that appears to be at risk in the 2024 elections — but it wasn't clear whether he'd stay in Congress.

McCarthy's MAGA tormenters were led by Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.). Because of rules McCarthy agreed to in order to win enough hardline Republicans' votes in the divided House, a single member could raise a motion to remove him.

  • That made the threat of removal a constant during McCarthy's brief tenure, as he struggled to deal with hardliners who wanted dramatic budget cuts and other priorites — and did not want to compromise.
  • "They don't get to say they're conservative because they're angry and chaotic," McCarthy said late Tuesday.
  • It "was personal," he said of Gaetz. "That's not becoming of a member of Congress."

Zoom out: In many ways, McCarthy's speakership was doomed from day one, when he achieved his long-held goal on the 15th ballot.

  • Both Republicans and Democrats expecting a red wave in the midterm elections, but voters gave the House GOP just a five-seat majority — thanks in part to their rejection of several far-right candidates Trump had endorsed. The Senate stayed in Democratic control.
  • Now McCarthy's replacement will face a similar dynamic: A thin majority that includes eight to 10 far-right Republicans who operate as though they have a big majority.
  • McCarthy's advice to the next speaker: ""Change the rules," so that it's harder for hardliners to oust them.

What we're watching: The question hanging for McCarthy's replacement is whether he or she will face the same kind of personal animosity that was directed toward him.

  • Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.) who is battling cancer, is making calls about a possible bid, according to Politico.
  • The interim speaker is Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.), a close McCarthy ally who is chair of the Financial Services Committee.
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