By Melanie Zanona, CNN
Donald Trump and his allies are starting to dangle the threat of the speakership over House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s head, teeing up a yearlong dynamic that is already emboldening the MAGA wing of the GOP conference and influencing the California Republican’s decision-making as he crafts a strategy to win back the House next year.
Some in Trump’s orbit have even floated the wild — but technically possible — idea that the former President should make a play for the gavel. While it’s a highly unlikely scenario, the fact it’s even being teased in some conservative circles is putting McCarthy on notice and reminding Republicans of the leverage Trump still has over the party.
Underscoring the idea that Trump has the power to make or break McCarthy’s quest for the speakership, Rep. Lauren Boebert of Colorado said Trump “matters in everything he weighs in on,” so “obviously” that applies to a speaker’s race. Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio said “of course” Trump would have influence over the outcome if he got involved. Rep. Scott DesJarlais of Tennessee said Trump’s voice indeed “carries weight.” And Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia said Trump’s opinion would have an impact “big time” and “100%.”
If the former President were to endorse McCarthy for speaker, it would provide a crucial boost for the California Republican’s path to power, according to interviews with over a dozen GOP lawmakers. That’s because Trump’s most loyal supporters in Congress — some of whom have voiced increasing skepticism and frustration with McCarthy in recent weeks — still take cues from the former President.
And those lawmakers could end up being decisive votes in a speaker’s race, depending on their party’s margins if the GOP flips the House. The hardline House Freedom Caucus, which has become a club for Trump’s fiercest defenders, is comprised of roughly 40 members.
Trump staying neutral in the contest would also be a boon for McCarthy, who is the clear frontrunner for the top job as he raises piles of cash and stumps for candidates across the country.
On the other hand, if Trump were to publicly or even privately come out against McCarthy — or encourage someone else to challenge him — it would almost certainly create a math problem for McCarthy, who needs 218 votes to clinch the speakership on the floor. Trump’s potential clout in the House GOP leadership elections is a stark contrast from the Senate, where Minority Leader Mitch McConnell maintains the steadfast support of his conference despite Trump repeatedly railing against the Kentucky Republican.
“Leader McCarthy is an important partner in President Trump’s effort to win back the House of Representatives with strong Republicans who will fight for his America First agenda,” Trump spokesman Taylor Budowich said in a statement.
“Kevin has his full support. But if he came out against him, it would be ugly,” GOP Rep. Mike Rogers of Alabama said.
Like Rogers, many Republicans believe Trump will ultimately stand behind McCarthy if Republicans win back the House next year — or at least stay on the sidelines. McCarthy has been one of Trump’s earliest and staunchest supporters, and having a reliable ally in charge of the House would be a huge benefit for Trump if he decides to run for president in 2024.
“I have zero doubt that Kevin will become the speaker,” said Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana, the head of the conservative Republican Study Committee. “And part of that is because he’s maintained a good rapport with President Trump.”
Threat of rebellion from McCarthy’s right flank
Still, some of Trump’s most loyal supporters in Congress are already signaling they won’t just automatically hand over their votes for speaker — a preview of the challenges to come for McCarthy in his hunt for the gavel.
“I’m going to be laying things on the table that I want to see changed over time, and then we’ll see what happens and see if anyone else is running,” Greene told reporters before the recess.
Rep. Chip Roy of Texas, who recently tangled with McCarthy during a private GOP conference meeting, has also had some strong words for the Republican leadership: “There’s a growing sense in the conference generally, not just the Freedom Caucus, that we need to fight. … We need to step on the gas.”
The threat of a rebellion from McCarthy’s right flank, which denied him the speakership once before, has led McCarthy to execute a delicate balancing act. Last week, he was facing blowback from conservatives for not punishing the 13 House Republicans who voted for a bipartisan infrastructure law.
But then McCarthy stood firmly behind Rep. Paul Gosar, an Arizona Republican who was under fire for posting a graphic video depicting violence against Democrats, which earned him widespread praise on the right. He even promised to reinstate Gosar and Greene to their committees, potentially even “better” ones, if Republicans win back the House.
And later that day, McCarthy delivered a marathon, filibuster-like speech on the House floor in opposition to Democrats’ massive social safety net bill. While it didn’t stop the measure from passing the House, it did earn McCarthy handshakes, high fives and, perhaps most importantly for McCarthy, public plaudits from Trump.
“Great job by Kevin McCarthy last night, setting a record by going over 8 hours of speaking on the House Floor in order to properly oppose Communism. We must never forget what the Democrats have done, at the highest level of evil,” Trump said in a statement. “If Mitch McConnell had fought, you would have a different Republican President right now.”
Bumps in the McCarthy-Trump relationship
Trump was livid with McCarthy in the wake of the deadly January 6 insurrection, when the California Republican was critical of Trump’s conduct and even floated the idea of censuring the then-President. But McCarthy, whom Trump once fondly dubbed “My Kevin,” has worked tirelessly since then to stay in his good graces and the pair maintains a good working relationship as they strategize behind the scenes to win back the House, according to multiple GOP lawmakers and aides familiar with their dynamics.
Trump recently headlined a House GOP fundraiser, where he had warm words for McCarthy and even referred to him as the “next speaker” at one point, according to lawmakers in attendance. McCarthy also told reporters last week that Trump called him up from the golf course last week just to catch up, emphasizing the casualness and closeness of their relationship.
“Catching up,” McCarthy said of their conversation. “Wasn’t even campaign (related) either. I have lots of friends. I talk to lots of people.”
But the mercurial former President can also be unpredictable, and his opinions can turn on a dime. Plus, the speaker’s election would be over a year away — plenty of time to fall in and out of favor with Trump.
Rogers called Trump a “volatile, great leader,” but said that he “has his ups and downs” when it comes to relationships. Added Rep. Patrick McHenry of North Carolina: “The former President is his own adviser. He has own take. He will voice his own take. Period.”
Some Republicans also took notice when Trump released a statement last month praising House Minority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana, who would be a top candidate for speaker if McCarthy can’t get to 218, for pushing back on a news story about former first lady Melania Trump. Some interpreted the statement from Trump as a message to McCarthy, who at the time was facing calls from the right to take a harder line on a number of issues, to fight harder.
And there have been other bumps in the McCarthy-Trump relationship this year. Trump was not pleased with CNN reporting that revealed McCarthy and his leadership team are quietly working to fundraise for five of the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump for inciting the January 6 insurrection.
“I’m going to see who he’s funding, and if he is, I’ll stop the whole deal. I’ll stop it,” Trump told a conservative radio show.
It’s unclear whether Trump would actually get involved in a speaker’s race or endorse a candidate. Some think he would only wade in if McCarthy were to bow out for some reason. But others don’t think Trump would waste an opportunity to insert himself directly into the action.
“I think he’ll get involved in anything he can be relevant in,” DesJarlais said.
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