Kevin McCarthy's Trump Gamble: Worth the Risk?

When reality TV star and real estate tycoon Donald Trump announced his candidacy for the Republican presidential ticket in June 2015, few within the party took him seriously. Within the GOP leadership there was a consensus that Trump was somewhat dangerous and they rebuked his racist and xenophobic rhetoric. At the time the party had been planning on running a more diverse campaign after their failures in ’08 and ’12 and recognised the need to come across as ‘kinder’ and appeal to a more diverse base; this was not something Trump was interested in.

However, not everyone within the GOP leadership was so dismissive of Trump. In March the following year during the middle of primary season, the House Minority Leader, Representative Kevin McCarthy (R – CA), told reporters that he believed that Trump could help garner votes in his home state of California and could win the election for the Republicans. While this was not an official endorsement (McCarthy refused to endorse any candidate during the primaries), it certainly showed his belief that Trump was not as dangerous as the rest the party leadership made him seem.

By cosying up to Trump in these early days McCarthy took somewhat of a risk. At the time, Trump was an incredibly divisive figure within the party and McCarthy was already beginning to fall from favour amongst his Republican colleagues in the House.

When Representative John Boehner announced his resignation as Speaker of the House in September 2015, McCarthy was seen as a favourite to replace him. He seemed to have the support of House Republicans and had the added benefit of being a Californian, which could help prove to the intensely liberal state that the Republicans did in fact care about them.

However, it was not to be. McCarthy made a serious gaffe when commenting on the infamous House of Representatives’ special panel investigation into the 2012 Benghazi attack, which investigated the terrorist attack on Americans at the consulate in Benghazi, Libya. McCarthy suggested that one success of the investigation had been in helping to drop Hillary Clinton’s poll numbers. While this statement may have been factually correct, it let out the best-known secret in Washington at the time; that the true purpose of the investigation was to ruin Hillary Clinton (who had been Secretary of State at the time of the attack).

This comment caused bi-partisan outrage at McCarthy. Democrats used the incident to prove that the Benghazi hearings were a partisan ploy, while the Republicans refuted his statement and tried to distance themselves from him. McCarthy lost too much support and pulled out of the race. He failed to reach the top of the Republican Congressional ladder and was in search of a way to regain his political standing. Donald Trump provided McCarthy that opportunity.

While not outright endorsing Trump in the primaries, McCarthy ensured that his rhetoric was friendly enough towards Trump so as not to be in his bad books. Trump was a gamble, but one supported by the majority of the Republican party and enough of the country to allow him to win the presidency in 2016. McCarthy clearly realised that you were either an outright supporter of Trump or his worst enemy, and he wisely chose to be the former.

Throughout his presidency, McCarthy has been a staunch ally for Trump and has ensured that House Republicans remain in line with the former president. McCarthy took huge political risks to ensure he did not anger the former president. For example, when Trump threatened to withhold funding to relieve the victims of the California wildfires in 2019 as they were not in a state that supported him, McCarthy refused to rebuke the attack on his home state. Instead, he told reporters that he agreed with the former president that California needed to do better with forest management. It was clear that McCarthy would prefer to defend the former president rather than his constituents. While such a move is generally not politically wise, it allowed McCarthy to retain favour within the White House which he realised would likely be more useful come election season.

In 2020 particularly, McCarthy showed his true loyalty to the former president. During Trump’s first impeachment trial McCarthy staunchly defended the former president and echoed his rhetoric that the trials were a ‘witch-hunt’. Trump survived that first impeachment and McCarthy again rose in favour amongst the Trump-loyal Republicans. He showed true political skill in uniting the House Republicans in opposition to Trump’s first impeachment, despite the fact that the evidence against the former president was overwhelming.

While such behaviour may have damaged McCarthy’s creditability as a statesman and defender of the law, it ultimately increased his political clout within the party. The episode demonstrated how McCarthy is willing to take gambles and risk alienating more moderate wings of the party.

Luckily for McCarthy, this gamble paid off and those Republicans who had raged at him for his Benghazi gaffe came to support him. Representative Thomas Massie (R – KY) put it best when he told the New York Times “I can say this about Kevin, he’s been far more helpful to the president than Paul Ryan [who replaced Boehner as Speaker instead of McCarthy] would have ever been during this impeachment sham.”

Even on issues not nearly as consequential as impeachment, McCarthy has shown his unyielding loyalty to Trump. In December 2020, Trump vetoed the National Defence Authorization Act, despite it having strong bipartisan support. To counter this, both the House of Representatives and the Senate voted overwhelmingly to overturn the veto, the first time this happened during the Trump presidency. In the House of Representatives, the vote was a 322-to-87 washout, however, Kevin McCarthy was not in the majority.

Despite having initially supported the bill, McCarthy decided to stick with Trump and was one of the only 87 members to vote against the overturning of the veto. This move pitted him against 109 members of his own party and was politically dangerous given how strongly Republicans rely on their message of strong support for the military. It was yet another gamble that he was willing to make in order to ensure he was not on the wrong side of one of Trump’s notorious Twitter tirades, which Mitch McConnell and other Republicans had been the victims of over their stance on the bill.

It has, however, been the presidential election in which McCarthy has proven himself to be willing to do almost anything to keep the former president on side. After it became clear that Joe Biden won the election, McCarthy, like most Republicans, refused to acknowledge the results.

However, as time went on and the initial legal challenges failed, more and more Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, began to acknowledge Joe Biden as the winner; much to the dismay of former President Trump. McCarthy, however, did no such thing and has instead opted to do everything in his power to overturn the results. His name featured amongst 125 other House Republicans who signed their support to a lawsuit filed by the Texas Attorney General seeking to invalidate the results of the election in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Georgia.

McCarthy was also one of the 147 Republicans (eight Senators and 139 representatives) who voted in favour of objections made towards the certification of the electoral votes on January 6th. This came just hours after a mob of rioters forced their way into the Capitol during the ceremonial counting of the votes (McCarthy did rebuke this action but failed to condemn the former president’s involvement in inciting it), and a number of senators who had been planning on also objecting decided against it, citing the violence as their reason.

This vote defied the request of Mitch McConnell and has divided the GOP. Top Republicans, like Representative Liz Cheney (R – WY), the third highest ranking Republican in congress, argued that such action could damage the democratic system and harm the Republican party.

McConnell’s and Cheney’s arguments that attempting to overturn the results could damage American democracy and alienate voters have fallen on deaf ears within the Trump White House and with Kevin McCarthy. The violence seen during the siege of the Capitol has only gone further in compounding these fears. The former president was chastised by a number of Republicans, such as Senator Ben Sasse (R-NE), and there is a real danger that division on this issue will further split the party.

From the outside, McCarthy’s behaviour seems like political suicide. McCarthy is willing to tarnish American democracy and create divisions within the Republican leadership, as well as damage his reputation as a defender of the military, all to help the candidate who clearly lost the election.

If McCarthy has picked the wrong side in this gamble then it could be politically ruinous. Many assumed that Trump would continue to exert a huge amount of influence over the party in the coming years, which would benefit McCarthy. However, after the events on January 6th, Trump’s post-presidential role in the Republican party is in flux. The actions of these most dedicated Trump supporters, and his failure to adequately condemn them, has seemingly outed him as an enemy of democracy who is willing to put America’s most sacred institutions at risk for political gain. No political-ambitious person would want to find themselves on that side, so we might assume that McCarthy might try to make a quick switch. However, this had not happened. McCarthy chose to take a more ‘neutral’ option where he condemns the violence, but not the man who caused it.  

If this turns out to be the smart move, (and it must be noted that despite these distressing events, the Republican party continues to be heavily influenced by Trump) then this gamble could have huge paybacks for McCarthy. The risks he has taken in the past, like refusing to condemn Trump’s comments on California and his unwavering opposition to impeachment, have only helped him grow in favour amongst his party, which has been dominated by Trump supporters since 2016. It is clear that McCarthy has his eyes on a higher office, most likely the role of Speaker of the House that he failed to get in 2015, but possibly also on the Republican ticket in 2024. While Trump will not be in office by then, McCarthy still believes that Trump will remain a powerful influence within the party, and so by keeping on his side he is ensuring an endorsement from the former president in the future.  

While he may irritate top congressional Republicans, the majority of the party’s caucus in the House still clearly supports Trump as shown by the 125 who signed onto the Texas lawsuit and the 147 Congressional Republicans who objected to Biden’s certification. These are the men and women that McCarthy cares most about pleasing as they are the ones who will decide how high up the ladder he climbs within the House.

McCarthy is undoubtedly playing a dangerous game. His rhetoric and actions will make it difficult for him to work with House Democrats as well as President-elect Joe Biden in the future. However, if his gamble pays off and the Republican Party remains ‘The Party of Trump’ in the coming years, we could soon see a ‘Speaker McCarthy’, or indeed a ‘President McCarthy’.