early and often

Kevin McCarthy Is Empowering House Extremists He Once Feared

The man who would be Speaker said some mighty troublesome things during and after January 6. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Just over six months before the 2022 midterm elections, you have to figure House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy can practically feel the weight of the Speaker’s gavel in his hand. Republicans have history, an unpopular presidency, a base-enthusiasm advantage, and a sour public mood on their side as they battle to flip the handful of House seats necessary to regain control of the chamber.

All they have to do is to stay united, ignore distractions, and grind away at a message of discontent about inflation, crime, an unsettled and dangerous world, and select poll-tested culture-war themes. Sure, Donald Trump is lurking nearby, snarling and howling like the hound of the Baskervilles with his pack of fanatical supporters in tow. But so far, it’s not enough to keep the midterms from being primarily a referendum on his successor. So even as Trump looks back at the power he lost in 2020, the GOP Establishment wants to look ahead to their own restored power.

But unfortunately for Kevin McCarthy, the news media and the House Committee on January 6 won’t let the dire insurrectionary events surrounding the Capitol riot and Trump’s attempted election coup fade into history. Among the inconvenient facts that keep coming out is that McCarthy freaked out about what was happening around him in January 2021 and said things that, if amplified, would displease the noisy MAGA faction of his caucus and threaten the slim hold on power he is likely to have next year.

Last week, Alexander Burns and Jonathan Martin of the New York Times trapped McCarthy in a lie about comments he made suggesting that Trump resign after the failed election coup. Now these reporters are back with more leaked comments from McCarthy, this time attacking some of his own troops for their complicity in Trump’s foiled plot:

In [a] phone call with other Republican leaders on Jan. 10, Mr. McCarthy referred chiefly to two representatives, Matt Gaetz of Florida and Mo Brooks of Alabama, as endangering the security of other lawmakers and the Capitol complex. But he and his allies discussed several other representatives who made comments they saw as offensive or dangerous, including Lauren Boebert of Colorado and Barry Moore of Alabama.

The country was “too crazy,” Mr. McCarthy said, for members to be talking and tweeting recklessly at such a volatile moment.

McCarthy wasn’t alone in talking smack about the GOP caucus’s firebugs in those turbulent days; his second-in-command, Steve Scalise, was also unhappy with Gaetz in particular for the Floridian’s attacks on Liz Cheney, then just below Scalise in the ranks of party leadership (this was before her superiors threw her to the wolves for voting for Trump’s impeachment). Now Gaetz is unhappy in turn, per the Times:

On Tuesday night, Mr. Gaetz responded with a blistering statement, castigating the two House Republican leaders as “weak men.”

“While I was protecting President Trump from impeachment, they were protecting Liz Cheney from criticism,” he said.

But by the next day, McCarthy was defending himself in a meeting of his caucus and, according to CNN, drew a “standing ovation” after describing the drip-drip of embarrassing disclosures about his Capitol-riot freakouts as “part of an attempt to divide the GOP conference ahead of the midterms.” Gaetz reportedly spoke at the meeting, as did fellow MAGA ultras Marjorie Taylor Greene and Scott Perry, “but it wasn’t contentious, per a source in the room.” Others have reported Gaetz is still angry at Scalise for disrespecting him, but in general, McCarthy seems to be in no immediate peril.

So just as Trump himself absolved McCarthy for his treasonous thoughts about him possibly resigning as president, the GOP caucus is giving McCarthy a pass for the revelation that he once thought of tossing some of his members under the bus. The Californian has, after all, been exceptionally careful not to get sideways with fractious members like Greene and Paul Gosar when they’ve gotten way out of line.

But the cumulative effect of the revelations that McCarthy hasn’t always been as privately slavish toward Trump and his minions as he has been publicly does create some risks for him. After the latest leak came out, Fox News host Tucker Carlson called McCarthy a “puppet of the Democratic Party” and “a man who, in private, sounds like an MSNBC contributor.” Maybe McCarthy can keep the peace within the GOP long enough to get through the midterms, but if he emerges with a tiny margin of control next year, he’ll take that gavel knowing it could be knocked from his hand at any moment by his most extremist members. So he will be sharing his power with them — and with Donald Trump.

Kevin McCarthy Is Empowering House Extremists He Once Feared