Oh, how fast things have fallen for Kevin McCarthy. One morning, he’s vehemently denying claims, published in a new book by New York Times reporters Jonathan Martin and Alex Burns, that he said he would ask Donald Trump to resign, shortly after the former president goaded a mob into storming the U.S. Capitol. And then later that night, he’s immediately proven wrong—by a recording of him actually saying: “I think [an impeachment resolution] will pass, and it would be my recommendation that you resign.” Suddenly, all of his defenses slagging the Times fell flat: one can’t particularly blame the “corporate media” for pushing a falsehood if they’re actually right. Overnight, McCarthy’s presumed likelihood to become House Speaker later this year, when the G.O.P. assumedly wins the House, was instantaneously second-guessed.
Is McCarthy actually toast? It’s a little more nuanced. Overall, the diehard Trumpy wing of the party has always held McCarthy in suspicion for what they view as his wavering support of the former president, and this recording simply confirms that. This is a massive political problem for a movement that rewards Day One loyalty. (That, and he just simply reeks of establishmentarianism, by virtue of being a Republican politician who existed before Trump came to Washington.) More recently, however, he’s had a target painted on his back by the unofficial MAGA wing of the Republican caucus. Indeed, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene told Matt Gaetz last November that McCarthy “doesn’t have full support [in the G.O.P.] to be Speaker” should the party take over the House in the midterms. I’d always assumed that a push from Greene and Gaetz—potentially backed by Rep Paul Gosar and, possibly, Lauren Boebert—to get an alternative speaker nominated would be dead on arrival, and at the moment, I think that might still be the case. But the odds of an insurrection just went up. “He’ll be lucky to survive the next conference meeting,” said Reed Galen, a longtime G.O.P. operative and co-founder of the anti-Trump Lincoln Project. “If the rank and file believe they’re going to take the House with or without him, they may throw him overboard.”
McCarthy, for his part, has about eight months to turn things around and salvage his career, and not just by building a House Majority with non-MAGA G.O.P. representatives. Naturally, this being Washington, there is a playbook for such retroactive Trump affection-seeking, even post-Capitol riots. With the right type of Lindsey Graham-style groveling (Graham had publicly stated after January 6th that he’d “had enough” of Trump, and yet remains one of Trump’s most public defenders), he can certainly win his way back into Trump’s personal good graces. He’s already done it once before, when he made a pilgrimage to Mar-a-Lago in early 2021, one week after Trump left office, to repent for his light chastisement of the president’s incendiary behavior on Jan 6th. Trump’s public largesse can certainly stave off the nationalist-populist attacks on McCarthy—the two reportedly spoke on Thursday, and Trump was allegedly unpreturbed—but I don’t know if that wing will accept that as a full-fledged pardon and a sign to forgive him.