WASHINGTON – A planned vote to remove Rep. Liz Cheney from her GOP leadership role has put a spotlight on House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a staunch Donald Trump ally who broke with the former president briefly after the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, only to later mend fences with him.
Cheney, R-Wyo., angered McCarthy and other Republicans after repeatedly criticizing Trump’s actions regarding the Capitol riot and his false claims of election fraud. Cheney – whose father, former Vice President Dick Cheney, was an institution in Republican politics for decades – faces a vote Wednesday to oust her as House GOP conference chair.
The vote highlights changes in a Republican Party transformed over the past half-decade by Trump..
McCarthy, R-Calif., has publicly backed Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., to replace Cheney in her leadership role.
McCarthy has not always been in sync with the ascendant Trump wing of the party.
He entered the House of Representatives as an ardent conservative in the traditional mold of the past half-century. During the Trump era, he balanced fidelity to the president alongside standard-issue conservative principles.
In the wake of the violent Capitol insurrection by Trump followers Jan. 6, McCarthy and the Republican Party face serious tests as the GOP considers whether and how to move on after the Trump era.
Who is Kevin McCarthy?
McCarthy was raised as one of three children in a Bakersfield, California, family. His father, the assistant city fire chief, and mother, a dental assistant who became a homemaker, were active in the community and registered Democrats.
At 19, McCarthy won $5,000 in the state lottery, which he used to found a sandwich shop called Kevin O’s Deli. He used that small business to pay for his education at California State University, Bakersfield, where he earned degrees in marketing and business. He was president of the California Young Republicans.
As a college student, McCarthy applied for an internship in Washington in the office of Rep. Bill Thomas, a Republican who represented Bakersfield in Congress, but was rejected. McCarthy was undeterred, going on to volunteer in the congressman’s district office and eventually heading the outpost as a paid staff member.
In 2002, McCarthy was elected to the California State Assembly and replaced Thomas in the House of Representatives after the longtime congressman announced his retirement in 2006.
In Washington, aides and allies often described McCarthy as a positive presence albeit not a skillful legislator. The California Republican quickly rose through the ranks of the House GOP as a member of the “Young Guns” alongside Reps. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Eric Cantor of Virginia.
The group, which supported a Reaganite conservative agenda, gained the ire of hard-line conservatives in the media and the House Freedom Caucus, many of whom saw McCarthy as part of the Republican establishment to be opposed.
In 2015, when Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, announced his retirement, McCarthy made an unsuccessful bid for speaker, unable to win enough moderates or hard-liners in the caucus to his side. Ryan, his close ally, took the speakership, which is second in line to the presidency after the vice presidency, while McCarthy became the majority whip.
McCarthy’s rise in the Trump era
As majority whip of the GOP caucus, McCarthy emerged as a fierce defender of Trump, navigating the din of the president’s term by ignoring many of Trump’s controversial statements.
McCarthy and the White House were in frequent communication about legislative efforts on Capitol Hill. After a brutal year for House Republicans in 2018, when Democrats retook the chamber, McCarthy became House minority leader, promising to use the role to “unite” the party.
The Republican leader continued to defend Trump against multiple scandals, including the president’s first impeachment for allegedly soliciting the Ukrainian government to interfere in the 2020 presidential election and the unfolding revelations of the investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller into Russian interference in the 2016 elections.
McCarthy, Trump and the Capitol riot
After the riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6, McCarthy opposed the impeachment of Trump on charges of inciting it, but he did acknowledge he thought the president played a role in the violence. He supported the censure of Trump but has continued to back the former president.
On Jan. 13, McCarthy said Trump “bears responsibility” for the mob of his supporters storming the Capitol. A week later, he disputed that Trump incited the riot and said he should remain an important figure in the Republican Party.
According to Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Wash., McCarthy spoke with Trump as the mob stormed the Capitol, and Trump seemed unconcerned and refused to do anything to stop the siege.
Beutler said McCarthy told her that when he informed Trump on the phone that the mob consisted of his supporters, the president responded, “Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are.”
Beutler is one of the Republican House members who voted to impeach Trump, along with Cheney.
McCarthy said Jan. 21, “I don’t believe he provoked it if you listen to what he said at the rally,” referring to Trump’s speech on the day of the riot, which House impeachment managers claimed helped incite his supporters to storm the Capitol.
McCarthy and Cheney
Some Republicans, like Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, have called for Cheney’s ouster for months over her criticism of Trump. More recently, McCarthy amped up the pressure.
The California Republican defended Cheney against an effort to remove her from her leadership position in February after she blamed Trump for the riot. Cheney held onto her job in a secret vote.
Since she voted for impeachment, Cheney has been the target of Trump and his allies, who want her removed from her position as the third-ranking House Republican and voted out of office.
In a Fox News interview last week, McCarthy cited concerns from conference members about Cheney’s “ability to carry out her job” after a back-and-forth between her and Trump over his false claims about election fraud. McCarthy was caught on a hot mic saying he had “had it” with Cheney, according to Axios and CNN.
His comments represented the hold Trump has over congressional Republicans.
McCarthy’s focus is on making sure enough House Republicans get elected in upcoming midterm elections, according to assistant political science professor Bryan Gervais at the University of Texas, San Antonio.
“He recognizes that it’s necessary for him to stay in power and that Republicans have a very good chance of retaking the House, and so he has a good chance of being the next speaker,” Gervais said.
In an op-ed for The Washington Post last week, Cheney accused McCarthy of switching his viewpoint, citing his initial statements about Trump’s role in the riot.
“On the floor of the House on Jan. 13, McCarthy said: ‘The president bears responsibility for Wednesday’s attack on Congress by mob rioters. He should have immediately denounced the mob when he saw what was unfolding.’ Now, McCarthy has changed his story,” she wrote.
Cheney has repeatedly said the Republican Party should move on from its association with Trump.
Last week, Trump endorsed Stefanik, who rose to prominence within the party for her defense of the president during his first impeachment, to replace Cheney as conference chair. Stefanik has support from leading Republicans, including Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., though her voting record is less closely aligned with Trump’s priorities than Cheney’s, according to a FiveThirtyEight analysis.
Follow Matthew Brown online @mrbrownsir.
Follow Jeanine Santucci @JeanineSantucci.
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