While lining up support for his bid for speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy made a pilgrimage to Mar-a-Lago, all but endorsed Donald Trump, and sat with congressional allies of the former president.
The California Republican spoke admirably of Trump, who offered his blessing at the 11th hour earlier this year and who had even bestowed on him a not entirely negative nickname. But when the McCarthy mutiny began in earnest, Trump didn’t ride to the rescue of “My Kevin.”
The larger pro-Trump constellation was split as the right flank ran McCarthy out of office: Some groups condemned the mutiny, at least one worked behind the scenes to pull it off, but most said nothing as the latest populist vacuum enveloped the Grand Old Party.
For his part, the former president only offered tepid support, writing in a social media post: “Why is it that Republicans are always fighting among themselves, why aren’t they fighting the Radical Left Democrats who are destroying our country?”
The statement did nothing to quell passions, and it didn’t give Republicans on Capitol Hill any indication of what Trump preferred. Some insisted he was more candid in private.
His conversations, Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz told Laura Ingraham on Fox News, “I’m going to keep to us, but I think I’m in pretty good stead with the former president.” Added the architect of the McCarthy mutiny, “You will see me on the campaign trail with him soon.”
Just hours earlier, Gaetz filed a motion to vacate. With the unanimous support of Democrats and eight Republicans, it passed 216 to 210. McCarthy became the first speaker removed from office. He lasted nine months. Even Stephen Miller had warned Republicans not to do this.
Miller worked in the Trump White House as a senior advisor, and the founder of America First Legal remains close to the former president. His message to those mulling the mutiny: “I understand all the emotions that are playing out right now.” But Miller added during the interview with Fox News’ Maria Bartiromo, “For the love of God, we are losing this country, and we are losing it fast.”
Miller and others stressed the most basic political reality: Republicans only control the House. With a slim majority, hardliners would “have to agree to spending levels you might not like, but to get the policy that you want.”
This kind of compromise was untenable for Russ Vought, a former White House colleague and ideological ally of Miller. It was Vought’s ultra-conservative Center for Renewing America that served as a nerve center for the foot soldiers of the first McCarthy mutiny.
It was Vought who handed rank-and-file conservatives a strategy used to force McCarthy into making key concessions to become speaker. Less than 24 hours after the midterms failed to produce a wide majority for Republicans, he said that the hardline House Freedom Caucus “was made for this moment.” In the weeks that followed, CRA offered both parliamentary advice and public cover for the revolt.
A run-and-gun playbook was published online two days later. “House conservatives will not need a majority to prevail. They merely need to block & veto until they get an acceptable candidate,” Vought said at the time, arguing that McCarthy was “a peace-time leader” unfit for the current moment when the right was “in a cold civil war” and what was needed was to seize conflict “by the throat.”
A senior congressional staffer involved in the struggle called Vought’s group “the earliest and most public advocate of a determined negotiating position against McCarthy” and credited them for making “an early investment that paid off in a transformative set of rules.”
And it worked. A source familiar with the work of Vought’s group and Congress marveled at the concessions that McCarthy had made with his right flank. “We haven’t seen a power-sharing agreement like this since Sam Rayburn,” they told RCP. One of the concessions: maintaining the ability of a single member to force a vote on dismissing the speaker.
In the early days of the new Congress, the conservatives who blocked McCarthy’s path were fond of referring to the new Republican majority as “a coalition-style government,” the idea being that the minority would still exercise some control. With the help of a unified Democratic caucus, that small minority broke the majority.
“If Kevin McCarthy were to violate the power sharing agreement, the motion to vacate would be available to topple the coalition government in exchange for a new one. He did that twice on the most vital leverage points that provided opportunities to check the Biden Administration,” Vought wrote after McCarthy had been ousted.
Much of the populist universe stayed silent as McCarthy met his fate, just as Trump did. The America First Policy Institute, often referred to as Trump’s “White House in waiting,” didn’t weigh in. A spokesman told RCP that their focus remains on policy, not the parliamentary procedure to get it into law. Likewise, the Heritage Foundation, the conservative behemoth that occasionally bedeviled previous Republican speakers, kept their powder dry.
“There is a vacuum of leadership,” said Kevin Roberts, the president of both the Heritage Foundation and its political arm, Heritage Action, in an interview with RCP. As the dust settles, he has encouraged Republicans to unite their conference around “a different framing” than the one that tied together McCarthy’s fleeting majority: “Make Chuck Schumer’s Senate the enemy. That’s the common enemy.”
Roberts also drew a redline for anyone interested in running for speaker: making aid to Ukraine conditional on increased funding for U.S. border security. “Anyone unwilling to do that,” he said, “should not throw his or her name into the ring.”
Rep. Patrick McHenry of Virginia now serves as speaker pro tem. Elections are expected next week when the House reconvenes. Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan of Ohio was the first candidate to announce a run for speaker. Majority Leader Steve Scalise of Louisiana followed suit. Both are to the right of McCarthy, and both previously served as chair of the conservative Republican Study Committee.
Roberts told RCP that Heritage may endorse a candidate in that race, something the foundation has not done previously. The Republican Party, meanwhile, enters a sort of wilderness without a clear leader in Congress and only the thinnest margins of error. But more generally, Roberts told RCP that the populist right is about where it was during the previous administration.
“The leader of the party is still President Trump,” Roberts said, adding that this was “good and fitting and appropriate on the one hand, and it’s challenging on the other.” He praised the former president’s position on policy. He qualified, though, that Trump was “no spring chicken.”
Looking specifically at Congress and the future, he continued, the battle over who would lead the Republican conference “has not indicated to the everyday conservative outside of D.C.” that some stand “ready to pick up the baton from President Trump.”