Rep. Kevin McCarthy has already come close to being the House speaker and failed — forced to bow out of a competitive race at the last minute in 2015 amid pushback from conservatives.
He has spent the years since trying to make sure nothing gets in his way the next time around — largely by courting Donald Trump in hopes that his sway over the Republican membership would scare off potential rivals and lock down the votes needed for the biggest prize in congressional politics.
But as Republicans grow more confident that they will secure control of the House in November, McCarthy’s future is suddenly in doubt, his ambitions upended by revelations that he privately insulted a man who demands unstinting loyalty.
This week, new audio recordings of McCarthy’s private conversations with fellow Republicans following the Jan. 6 attack show that he was appalled by Trump’s actions when his supporters ransacked the U.S. Capitol. In one snippet, McCarthy says, “I’ve had it with this guy. What he did is unacceptable.” He was also recorded telling Rep. Liz Cheney, R.-Wyo., that he would advise Trump to resign lest he be removed from office.
It’s a fast-moving drama that until now largely played out behind closed doors. Whether McCarthy can survive the latest twists in a race he would be favored to win is not yet clear. So far, most Republican lawmakers show no sign of abandoning him.
But much depends on how Trump reacts. He has not yet issued a public statement on McCarthy or indicated that he could throw his weight behind another candidate. A spokesman for Trump said he would have no comment.
One person close to Trump said McCarthy called the former president and apologized.
“He said he was placating Liz and he was paying her lip service,” said the person, who spoke with Trump about the call. “Trump isn’t really mad. He’s got other things on his mind. He accepts Kevin for who he is. It’s not like he really trusts him.”
Another person close to Trump said on Friday that the former president isn’t upset about McCarthy’s remarks and that “unless something else drops,” Trump isn’t likely to ditch McCarthy for another member to be speaker. McCarthy’s disgust with Trump’s actions on Jan. 6 is no mystery, after all. He appeared on the House floor a week after the Capitol riot and told the world that Trump “bears responsibility.”
“He’s so used to people nicking him,” this person said.
Until Trump weighs in, though, many Republicans will be watching and waiting for signals from Mar-a-Lago that could decide McCarthy’s fate.
“These things usually go one of two ways,” Rep. Kelly Armstrong, R., N.D., said. “We’ll see how it goes.” He added, though, that the audio “doesn’t sour me” on McCarthy.
McCarthy is navigating the uproar in a period when Republicans are far more factionalized than in 2015, when he tried to succeed John Boehner as speaker. Now, the caucus contains a conservative faction and a pro-Trump faction. There are some who proudly like Trump and others who quietly reject him. Add to the mix Cheney, who has become a symbol of the anti-Trump movement and may lose her congressional seat as a consequence.
The New York Times first reported Thursday on McCarthy’s private discussions, publishing an excerpt from a new book that claimed he had wanted Trump to resign in the days after the Jan. 6 riot.
McCarthy issued a blunt denial. The report was “totally false,” he tweeted Thursday.
But before the day was over, an audio recording of the conversation surfaced. McCarthy, speaking on a call with House Republican leadership, is heard saying he thinks the Senate will vote to remove Trump from office and that as a result, he would recommend that he resign.
‘In Trump’s ear’
Some of Trump’s most loyal supporters in Congress were already leery of McCarthy, and the recordings will likely only bolster that sentiment. “There are always guys in Trump’s ear saying you can’t trust Kevin,” the person close to Trump said.
Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., a Trump loyalist who has repeatedly raised questions about McCarthy’s leadership tweeted Friday: “While I was rallying in Wyoming against Liz Cheney … Kevin McCarthy was defending Liz Cheney among House Republicans.”
Gaetz only represents a minority of House Republicans. Other members quickly lined up behind McCarthy. One House ally said McCarthy remains “very strong” in the GOP conference and accused Cheney — who was on the call — of leaking the audio, but provided no evidence of that. Her office has denied that accusation.
“He is going to be speaker,” the McCarthy ally said.
And after listening to the leaked audio, a conservative Freedom Caucus member, Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Tenn., actually threw his support behind McCarthy. DesJarlais explained that the days after the Jan. 6 attack were a confusing period, saying that McCarthy had made the assumption that Trump could be convicted by the Senate (Trump was acquitted more than a month later).
“McCarthy’s always been approachable, available, fair-minded and respectful,” DesJarlais told NBC News. “I think he would be a solid, productive speaker.”
A third House Republican, Ashley Hinson of Iowa, tweeted that “Republicans are going to take back the majority in November and when we do, Kevin McCarthy will be our speaker.”
Another revelation that could jeopardize McCarthy’s bid is his comment — reported by The New York Times — that some GOP lawmakers should lose their Twitter accounts.
That’s a sensitive issue for many conservatives who argue that tech companies have been censoring speech by canceling Trump’s account or muting conservatives like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., for violating their terms of service.
Asked about that comment, Armstrong said he was more concerned that McCarthy’s comments were recorded and leaked. Publicizing what’s supposed to be a private conversation makes it hard for lawmakers to talk candidly with one another, he said.
“There are a lot of members that wouldn’t really like their private conversations recorded” around the time of the Jan. 6 attack, he said. He added that many were “emotional” back then, “me being one of them.”
McCarthy can’t afford to see his alliance with Trump unravel when the speaker job he’s coveted for so long is finally within his grasp. Steve Schmidt, a top adviser to John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2008 who became a vocal critic of Trump and the current Republican Party, recalled a conversation with McCarthy when he was first elected to Congress from California in 2006. “You’ll be in leadership in three terms,” Schmidt said he told him.
“You think it will take that long?” McCarthy replied.
McCarthy spent years trying to ingratiate himself with Trump after Trump rose to power in 2016. When Republicans lost control of the House in 2018, McCarthy became the Republican leader and quickly solidified himself as the president’s strongest ally in congressional leadership.
Trump has been unafraid to insert himself into internal Republican politics on Capitol Hill. He has been a vocal critic of Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, although he has yet to get McConnell expelled from his leadership perch.
“Look, Trump is a fact,” Newt Gingrich, the former House Republican speaker, told NBC News. “If you’re going to try to run a collective body like the House, it’s easier to run it as a Republican with Trump on your side than with Trump against you.”
McCarthy last year hired Trump’s former White House political director for a similar role in his own shop. He flew to Mar-a-Lago and posed for pictures. When Cheney offended Trump with her persistent criticism, McCarthy moved to drum her out of Republican leadership and then Congress, endorsing her opponent in Wyoming’s Republican primary race.
All of the deference seemed to be paying off. Trump nicknamed him “Mr. Hollywood” — presumably a reference to his coiffed silver hair — and he would call McCarthy from the golf course to sound him out on potential endorsements.
“Kevin kissed his butt,” the person close to Trump said. “To be direct, he’s gone down there [to Mar-a-Lago] and … said what he needs to say. And he’s been smart to do that because there was a moment when he was close to being on the outs.”
If Trump ever does excommunicate McCarthy, plenty of ambitious House Republicans could step in and mount a challenge for the speaker’s job.
Republican Whip Rep. Steve Scalise of Lousiana has long been seen as waiting quietly in the wings for his chance to usurp McCarthy. Cheney may also have her eye on a post-Trump world. The conservative wing would like to see Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio elevated. And Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York has been seen as a rising star in the party after she replaced Cheney in leadership.
“In politics, things could change tomorrow. And there’s some uncertainty, there’s some unknowns there,” said one GOP lawmaker, who asked to speak anonymously to discuss the ongoing leadership speculation.
“Trump could change on a dime and try to work against him.”