Remembrance of House Coups Past

Mick Mulvaney
Mick Mulvaney, founding member of the House Freedom Caucus and Donald Trump’s third chief of staff. Photo: Samuel Corum/Getty Images
Tara Palmeri
December 5, 2022

Earlier this morning, I caught up with Mick Mulvaney, Donald Trump’s third chief of staff, who resigned from his post as envoy to Northern Ireland on the day after the January 6 riot at the Capitol. Mulvaney, of course, isn’t merely an expert on Trump and Trumpworld; he’s also a founding member of the House Freedom Caucus, which is currently hellbent on quashing Kevin McCarthy’s leadership bid. It seemed like a good time to chat and get Mulvaney’s perspective on how the negotiations might play out.

According to Mulvaney, the group that once took down former Speaker John Boehner, under Mulvaney’s leadership, has now devolved into directionless banditry, and one that thirsts after McCarthy because of a personal vendetta rather than conservative principles. During our dishy conversation, Mulvaney said that he’s not sure that many of the group’s fringiest members, like Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert, would have been accepted into his O.G. Freedom Caucus—that shutdown-loving, fiscally austere group he founded during the rise of the Tea Party movement. He also pointed fingers at Mark Meadows, his Freedom Caucus co-founder and successor as White House chief of staff, whom he suspects may actually want the speakership for himself. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Tara Palmeri: What’s your take on how the Freedom Caucus is maneuvering, and how have they changed since you founded the group in 2015? 

Mick Mulvaney: It’s not the same as it was back in 2015. Then, it was policy-driven. We perceived that John Boehner was marginalizing the conservatives. He was marginalizing the Tea Party movement. We couldn’t get on good committees. We had substantive issues with John Boehner in his role as speaker, but we didn’t dislike Boehner. This is more personal than anything else: it’s just some folks there don’t like McCarthy. Because McCarthy certainly hasn’t marginalized conservatives. Goodness, Jim Jordan stands to be the Judiciary chairman. That’s something we never would have dreamed of in 2015. So I don’t know what the objections are to McCarthy.

Let’s talk about the objection to McCarthy.

I don’t understand it. He’s done a really good job of bringing the conservatives into the mainstream of the operation of the House. We’re going to have good committee positions. We didn’t have an A-committee member when we formed the caucus. Not a single person in the Freedom Caucus was on an A-committee at that time. That was part of our complaint.

I’ve not heard any specific complaints about Kevin other than they don’t trust him, which I think is somewhat ironic. There are folks in the Freedom Caucus who signed a pledge not to vote for John Boehner in 2013. We had a pact and we all signed a pledge not to do it, so we knew that we had enough votes to prevent him from being speaker. But more than half of the people who signed that pledge went back on it, and some of those folks are now opposing McCarthy on the grounds that they don’t trust him. So I’m not sure what trust means in Washington D.C. these days if you can sign a pledge and go back on it.

What’s the beef between Meadows and McCarthy? 

I honestly don’t know. Maybe Kevin sees through Mark’s bullshit. I’m not sure. They’ve never gotten along.

I reported in the summer that Meadows was calling around to Freedom Caucus members, telling everyone to keep their powder dry on Kevin. 

I just wonder why anybody was actually listening to Mark Meadows.

He was a co-founder of the caucus with you. 

That goes back to your original question about how the Freedom Caucus changed. Keep in mind it was supposed to be the reasonable wing of the Tea Party movement. There were folks we didn’t let in. We didn’t let Louie Gohmert in because he was too crazy. We didn’t let Steve King in because he was too crazy. We were looking for the folks who had the discernment to sort of understand strategy, maybe vote yes, maybe vote no, depending upon what the long-term plan was, that was the whole purpose. And we did it with an eye towards spending, that’s what really drove us—spending. 

The Freedom Caucus changed under Donald Trump and sort of became the cheerleader wing in the House for Donald Trump. A lot of what Trump stood for was consistent with the Freedom Caucus, but certainly the spending wasn’t. Donald Trump spent a lot more money. Thanks in large part to Paul Ryan’s control of the House, we had to spend a lot more money than the Freedom Caucus would have voted for if somebody else was president. 

Do you think Lauren Boebert or Marjorie Taylor Greene would’ve been members of the Freedom Caucus in 2015? 

I think it’s a really, really low chance that we would have let them in.

What do you think is the point of all this? Is it just to get rid of McCarthy or to get concessions?

That’s a really good question. I think, for the smart people, it’s to get concessions. The folks who are playing chess and are actually bringing some sort of intellectual analysis to this, it’s to get concessions, and it’s the right thing to do. It’s just smart. But I don’t think that’s everybody. I do think that Matt Gaetz and Meadows are just in it because they can’t stand McCarthy. 

Do you have any sense of who they actually want to be speaker? 

The names I’ve heard were: Newt Gingrich—I see that on social media a lot, but it ignores the fact that Newt already endorsed Kevin and couldn’t get the votes—and Jim Bridenstine [the former NASA administrator] was actually a name that two members gave to me over the weekend, which is stunning to me. 

I like Jim. Jim is a good guy, I served with Jim. I’m not sure how Jim would get more than, you know, 10 votes. I’m not sure who votes for Jim Bridenstine for speaker. I’ve heard Meadows’ name come up a couple of different times. My guess is that it probably comes from Mark, himself. And then the other name you hear is Donald Trump. And that would be the bombshell: to nominate Trump and then have somebody vote against him. At that point, you’re just playing games.

Um, these people weren’t elected to Congress. Why?

Oh, that’s the fun little thing they want to do so they can go on television and explain to people the Constitution, that you don’t have to be a member of Congress to be speaker. Some people think that’s mind-altering and a huge discovery that they just made, that they talk to people about. Everybody on the floor knows you can nominate somebody who’s not in Congress. That’s not a big secret. 

What names are you hearing, Tara? 

I’ve heard Lee Zeldin. 

I like Lee. Lee is a good friend of mine. I worked with him when I was in the House and I tried to help him in his governor’s race in New York. So I like Lee Zeldin. I’m pretty sure Lee Zeldin is a pro-choice Republican. You’re telling me that the conservative wing of the Republican Party is gonna vote for a New York, moderate Republican over Kevin McCarthy? If that’s the case, then clearly there’s no real philosophical opposition to Kevin, it’s all personal.

Why isn’t Donald Trump weighing in on this? The Freedom Caucus are his people. Why is he all in for McCarthy? 

Because I don’t think he has the same objections that Gaetz has. He likes Kevin. Kevin’s not objectionable and Kevin gets the job done. And Kevin has been sufficiently loyal to the president. Has he said things against the president? Yes. But most of the president’s supporters have. You’d be hard pressed to find even the biggest Trump supporter that hasn’t said some things critical of him in the past, including his children for goodness’ sake. So, no, the president doesn’t have the same motivation because the president doesn’t hate McCarthy. It’s not personal for him. It’s business, and McCarthy is good for business.

Do you think these five public “Nos”—Matt Rosendale, Andy Biggs, Matt Gaetz, Bob Good and Ralph Norman—are really hard Nos? 

He only needs to peel off one of them to be speaker. Of the bunch, who could it be? 

I think it’s hard to sit there and have this battle because somebody else has a personal problem with Kevin McCarthy. That’s not like standing for a principle, that’s sort of standing up for something that is a lot more difficult to get your head around, and to explain to people back home. Ralph Norman could draw a primary for this, especially if it leads to the election of a speaker that is wholly unacceptable to the Republican base. The primary voters back home don’t understand the issue. 

Is there anything that McCarthy is not doing that he could be doing to win these members over? 

Representation—not just on various committees, but the steering committee. Certain rules he could give that would allow them more input into what amendments get offered. The behind-the-scenes stuff that the smart members know is important. This is what we were asking for when Boehner left. This is what we were asking of Paul Ryan. We wanted rules changes. We wanted more regular order. We didn’t want to feel like the leadership was shoving bad policy down our throats. We wanted to participate in the process. 

Again, the thinking men and women don’t want to have their way. That’s not how a legislative body works. What you’re looking for is a way to participate in the process, so at least you can tell the folks back home you represented them well. And that can be worked out through rules changes and procedural changes and stuff like that. 

Why do you think that McCarthy is willing to take it all the way to the House floor even though he doesn’t have the votes?

It’s really easy to say no and really hard to vote no. It just is. And we knew that, by the way: That’s why we had those signed pledges 10 years ago. We thought that would give people a little iron in their spine, and it didn’t work.

Do you think that the Freedom Caucus would prefer Steve Scalise, his No. 2, over McCarthy?

Again, it depends on what their objections are to McCarthy. If it’s policy driven, no, they’re the same. If it’s personality, it would be different. I mean, Steve’s not actively working the job. I don’t think Steve would want it like that, at Kevin’s expense. Again, that goes back to have they thought through if Kevin’s not going to be the speaker, who is going to be the speaker? I’m not sure they thought that through.

Do you think McCarthy will end up being speaker? 


Will he have the votes to govern? 

Keep in mind that you’re going to have a mixed control of Congress anyway, so it’s not like any hardcore right-wing legislation is gonna pass. It could pass the House, but it’s not gonna pass the Senate, and it’s certainly not gonna get signed by Joe Biden. If there are really people who think that getting a different speaker is gonna get you a different outcome, then they’re crazy. You might get it with the Senate Republican leader and the president, you know, which is why I’m so disappointed that we weren’t able to do more on spending when we were actually in charge. We’ve got control of one of the three votes, so at least we can stop some things from happening, but if anybody thinks it’s gonna be a conservative sort of fantasy world, they’re living in a fantasy world. 

How does McCarthy maintain his speakership? 

Just by making sure everybody’s involved in the process. That’s all you can ask for. That’s all we were asking for with John Boehner, just include us in the process. Give us equal time, give us equal representation. The 750,000 people we represent are just as important as the 750,000 people you represent, give us our say. We get it if we lose, we understand that the party is more centrist than we are or whatever, but let us at least have our say. If Kevin does that, then I think he’ll be a tremendously successful speaker. 

You said that Trump is the only candidate who can lose in 2024. Is there any way he can win? 

Sure, if Donald Trump can get into a binary-choice election—him versus somebody else—he can win. Okay, so him versus Bernie Sanders, him versus Joe Biden, him versus Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, he can win those elections. If he makes it all about himself, I don’t think he can win an election of Donald Trump versus Donald Trump. 

I don’t think anybody really voted for Joe Biden. My guess is the number one motivator for voting for Joe Biden was that they couldn’t stand Donald Trump. Elections tend to be binary choices. The 2020 election was a referendum on Donald Trump. Do you want four more years of Donald Trump? And I think he lost the election for that reason. It wasn’t, Look here’s what I stand for, here’s what Joe Biden stands for. It was, Here’s what I stand for, vote for me. Enough people said that they didn’t want that. That’s why I think that he can lose. If he makes it about himself like he did in 2020, that’s his weakest argument. If he can somehow bring it back to where he was with Hillary Clinton, which is, You may not like me but look at the other person, then he’s got a chance.