Trump-McCarthy tension still climbing as Jan. 6 hearings draw out

Last updated on July 4, 2022

As Donald Trump publicly second-guesses Kevin McCarthy over the Jan. 6 hearings, House Republicans once again risk getting caught between their conference leader and the former president.

Trump’s criticism of McCarthy comes nearly a year after the minority leader yanked three picks for the Capitol riot committee in response to Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s veto of two others. While McCarthy didn’t run that move by his conference, House Republicans largely accepted it — some of his allies even pushed it — despite private predictions that Trump might come to dislike the panel’s lack of friendly voices.

Now the mercurial former president’s dissatisfaction is spilling into view as Trump watches hearings that home in on his election subversion and his role in the attack with no friendly Republicans to combat or distract from the select panel’s presentation. Behind closed doors, some GOP lawmakers view Trump’s pique over their boycott of the committee as a sign that the Jan. 6 hearings are breaking through with the public. But McCarthy disagrees on both fronts.

“Pelosi got to pick and choose,” McCarthy told reporters Wednesday, adding that there would be “no different outcome” had he seated some of his members on the select panel. Noting that he’s recently spoken to Trump about the matter, McCarthy replied an emphatic “no” when asked if the former president’s regrets indicate the Jan. 6 hearings are proving effective.

Trump’s frustration with McCarthy is also playing out in a refusal to endorse the Californian for speaker under next year’s likely House GOP majority — despite reports that he’s privately referred to McCarthy as “Speaker.” And some Republicans on the Hill have hinted at lingering tension between the two after leaked April audio showed McCarthy suggesting he might ask Trump to resign after Jan. 6. All of which puts Republican lawmakers in an uncomfortable position, again distracted by internal warring.

But some are openly defending McCarthy’s handling of the Jan. 6 hearings.

“Kevin made the only decision he could. What are we going to do? Allow them to just functionally silence entire constituencies?” said Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-N.D.), one of the members McCarthy originally tapped for the panel. “We don’t get good hands all the time in the minority.”

Trump’s remarks about McCarthy to conservative radio host Wayne Allyn Root have also put Republicans like Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, a House Freedom Caucus co-founder turned McCarthy ally, in a bind. Jordan, who’s also close to Trump, declined to say whether he thought Trump’s criticism of McCarthy was unfair and sought to redirect blame to Pelosi.

“Let’s say Kevin says: ‘I’m gonna give you new names'” after Pelosi’s veto, Jordan said in an interview. “There would have been a problem there. I think she was always going to wind up here because she wanted the partisan show.”

Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), the No. 3 House Republican who has grown closer to Trump in recent years, also defended McCarthy.

“I do think Kevin has handled this appropriately, and the members support how we’ve handled this,” Stefanik said when asked of Trump’s recent interview.

But Trump’s occasional jabs at McCarthy are a symptom of a potentially broader problem for the GOP leader: As the former president weighs his own 2024 bid, he’s leaving just enough room to turn on McCarthy if he chooses to. Their alliance could strengthen as the midterms approach, or it could just as easily fray, right when McCarthy is preparing for a likely GOP majority next year that could hand him the speaker’s gavel.

And the endorsement question goes both ways: McCarthy did not respond when twice asked if he’d endorse Trump in the 2024 presidential primary above all others.

“Trump is obviously very frustrated by the whole Jan. 6 production, and that was predictable. And so he’s just looking for people to lash out at, and I don’t know how long that lasts,” said one senior House Republican who spoke candidly on condition of anonymity. The GOP lawmaker mused that if Trump sought to undermine McCarthy’s speakership bid, it would be “pretty damaging” but not “decisive.”

It isn’t the first time this year that McCarthy has found himself trying to smooth things over with Trump.

Two months ago, McCarthy sought to reassure House Republicans that Trump wasn’t angry at him after the New York Times released recordings that captured the GOP leader criticizing Trump’s role in the Jan. 6 attack and broaching the prospect of asking Trump to step down as a possible impeachment conviction loomed.

The Times audio sparked minimal fallout within the House GOP in April. Republican lawmakers rallied to McCarthy’s defense, with some giving him a standing ovation when he addressed the conference about the tape.

And Trump himself appeared unruffled, expressing pleasure that McCarthy — and others who appeared to turn on the former president after the Capitol assault by his supporters — have since re-embraced him as the party kingmaker.

But to a small group of advisers and confidantes, Trump has voiced anger and frustration at McCarthy’s remarks about him in the intense aftermath of Jan. 6, according to two Republicans familiar with Trump’s private reactions. Another senior GOP member said Trump has a “good memory, adding: “Trump has said, ‘it’s okay. It’s okay. It’s okay.’ But he never forgot it. And at some point in time, there will be an opportunity for [him to] milk McCarthy.”

Trump’s decision to bury any anger, at least publicly, came as top figures in the party pressed for GOP unity ahead of November, when they have a chance to reclaim the Senate as well as House majority.

Trump’s latest remarks to Root about McCarthy conspicuously deviated from that plan.

“It was a bad decision not to have representation on that committee,” Trump told Root, referring to the Jan. 6 panel. “That was a very, very foolish decision because they try to pretend like they’re legit. And only when you get into the inner workings, you say: ‘What kind of a thing is this?’ It’s just a one-sided witch hunt.”

McCarthy, for his part, has repeatedly checked in with the former president to stay in his favor. And he’s transparent about his intentions to seek the speakership next year, fulfilling a long-sought goal. Maintaining support from his right flank — a major factor in his derailed 2015 bid for the House gavel — essentially requires remaining on Trump’s good side.

Still, though Trump has openly flaunted his power over McCarthy, some House Republicans see the former president’s latest remarks as unfairly blaming the GOP leader for problems he didn’t create.

“Ninety-nine percent of the shit that we’ve encountered in the last six years, you can directly tie to Trump,” said another senior House Republican, who admitted the Jan. 6 panel has done a “good job” in making its case.