House Speaker Kevin McCarthy drew the ire of Trump world this week for candid comments about the former president’s strength as a presidential candidate, spelling trouble for the California Republican amid an already grueling fight to keep his fractured conference in line heading into a busy legislative season.
“Can Trump beat Biden? Yeah, he can beat Biden,” McCarthy said in an interview with CNBC, going on to say that Trump’s policies are better than Biden’s. “The question is, is he the strongest to win that election? I don’t know that answer.”
Trump’s support has been instrumental to McCarthy’s political rise. But the relationship between the House speaker and the former president has been more complex below the surface, occasionally bubbling up, often in the form of slips from the California Republican.
Most notably, McCarthy had rebuked Trump for his involvement in the events of Jan. 6, 2021, though he quickly fell back in line, joining the former president at his Florida estate weeks later and welcoming him back into the party fold. But a recording that surfaced more than a year later revealed that McCarthy had considered asking Trump to resign for his part in inciting the riot at the Capitol. Even so, any distance between the two appeared to dissipate by the time the speaker battle ensued earlier this year, as Trump all but secured McCarthy the gavel.
Accordingly, McCarthy seemed to spend much of the day on Tuesday backtracking on his comments, telling far-right outlet Breitbart News that “Trump is stronger today than he was in 2016.” And his campaign arm quickly sent out fundraising emails saying, “Trump is Biden’s strongest opponent,” and claiming that media reports were trying to “drive a wedge between President Trump and House Republicans.”
But for staunch supporters of Trump, the backtracking did not appear to be adequate.
Steve Bannon, a right-wing podcast host and former adviser to Trump, said after the comments on Tuesday that Trump made a “mistake” when he backed McCarthy for speaker.
“He is putting the shiv in every freaking second of every day,” Bannon said of McCarthy on his program.
The comments come as McCarthy has been presiding over an unruly and fractured Republican conference, the extent of which came to a head during the debt ceiling fight last month. But since then, McCarthy has been faced with rolling outbursts from some members, which has seemed to disrupt the regular functioning of the chamber, and the implementation of the House GOP agenda.
Among the outbursts was a rare protest from a group of around a dozen conservatives, who blocked the chamber from proceeding to votes for a week-long period earlier this month. Meanwhile, House Republicans have since Trump’s indictment for his handling of classified documents been pursuing ways to avenge the former president, like a censure of reliable Trump foe Rep. Adam Schiff and another to expunge Trump’s two impeachments, shifting the focus away from policy priorities.
Indeed, McCarthy has appeared to make efforts to keep those on the fringe of his party satiated, putting his support behind the expungement effort, although he has previously shied away from endorsing it. And over the weekend, McCarthy floated an impeachment inquiry into Attorney General Merrick Garland, in a surprising shift for the leader who’s warned against impeachment for political purposes that reflects the interest of some in his party in launching and impeaching a number of Biden’s Cabinet members – or the president himself.
The commitments may be McCarthy’s latest attempt to assuage those on his conference’s right flank, who gained immense power by withholding their votes for McCarthy during the speaker fight, before – with the urging of Trump – changing their tune, while reaping a number of concessions.
But McCarthy’s comments about Trump are a major setback on that front. And they spell trouble for the functioning of the already fractured conference heading into a busy legislative season.
As part of the debt limit deal, Congress must pass all 12 appropriations bills in the coming months or face 1% spending cuts across the board – a feat that hasn’t been accomplished on time in decades. Adding to the difficulty was an agreement brokered during the latest standoff with House conservatives, where House appropriators agreed to cap spending well below the limits outlined in the debt ceiling deal, which is likely a nonstarter in the Senate.
Congress also faces upcoming deadlines to approve the National Defense Authorization Act and the farm bill, while the House has been eying a major GOP tax package. But outside of the debt ceiling deal, the lower chamber has shown little ability to pass substantive legislation, opting for a slew of messaging bills with virtually no prospects in the upper chamber.
All the while, one reality granted during the speakership battle has hung heavy over McCarthy’s head – that a single lawmaker could motion for a vote on his ouster. And for the already-grievanced conservatives in the conference, who fervently back Trump, McCarthy’s slip-up may move the needle in that direction.