Trump’s Triangle of Sadness

Former president Donald Trump will headline CPAC.
Former president Donald Trump will headline CPAC. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

There’s a whole vibrant political economy that spins into life every year around CPAC, which has transformed over time from a circus-like political conference at a dated complex hotel in D.C., where Rand Paul used to win every straw poll, to a huge money-making enterprise with regular events around the world. Naturally, there was a lot of money on the line when CPAC chairman Matt Schlapp, the high-powered conservative lobbyist, was accused of sexual assault. Of course, if there was any doubt about whether attendance would be impacted by the metastasizing scandal, that was put to rest by Donald Trump’s announcement that he’d be a headliner again this year. (Schlapp was accused in a lawsuit of groping a man who worked for Herschel Walker, an accusation he vehemently denies.) 

CPAC, now a hallmark of Washington life just like the cherry blossoms, is just around the corner. But its very contours may look different in a Trump-DeSantis world, with Kevin McCarthy’s Taliban Twenty newly empowered, and the MAGA movement spiraling in many different directions. I chatted about this, and more, with my partner Tina Nguyen.

Tara Palmeri: Rep. Matt Gaetz, former leader of the Never Kevins, is a CPAC mainstay. He goes every year, but has criticized Schlapp for accepting donations from corporate sponsors. Is this a real split or just politics?

Tina Nguyen: Well, it’s complicated. There’s the Schlapps and then there’s the American Conservative Union, the group that hosts CPAC, which has been around since the 1970s. It was a powerful group long before Schlapp took over, and even though he’s arguably remade CPAC around his and his wife’s interests, it’s still the lodestar of the conservative activist world. Everyone goes. Everyone has to go, if they care about networking with powerful activists. And though there’s been several attempts to create an alternate MAGA version of CPAC, no one can match its legacy and pull. 

Not that MAGA world wouldn’t be happy to drive Schlapp into the wilderness wearing little more than a loincloth—it’s difficult for them to trust someone who once partnered with Google and Facebook as sponsors. The problem, as everyone knows, is that the A.C.U.’s board is stacked with handpicked Schlapp loyalists. You want to get rid of Schlapp? Easier said than done.

Tara: There has to be some reputational liability for serious 2024 candidates, though, after the assault allegation. Will we see DeSantis, Trump, or any other 2024 hopefuls on stage with Schlapp? 

Tina: They’ll be on stage and probably have to speak, though I doubt they’ll want to run into each other. And Schlapp still runs the whole show. The only way anyone can actively snub Schlapp is if they have their own center of gravity. Trump, for instance, pulled out of CPAC in 2016 and was even more powerful as the invisible elephant in the room. But again, easier said than done.

Tara: How does MAGA feel about Trump’s lackluster campaign launch? Are they willing to wait for him to come out with a vengeance? Do they miss the rallies and are they skeptical, like the rest of us, that he’s even truly running? 

Tina: Here’s my game theory after seven years of following this movement: Trump is at his best whenever he’s fighting. And there’s no one to fight at the moment. Why does he need to hold rallies when there’s nobody to rally people against? Biden, who’s presumably running again in 2024 but hasn’t announced, doesn’t really get the base’s blood flowing. But the narrative and the calculus changes the moment that a G.O.P. challenger steps into the race and Trump starts cluster-bombing the media with pithy nicknames. And that probably starts this summer.

In the meantime, Tara, what impact does Trump’s campaign have on McCarthy’s majority? 

Tara: Well, if you’re one of the moderate Republicans from New York who was just elected, like Brandon Williams or Mike Lawler, who dethroned D.C.C.C. chair Sean Patrick Maloney, you probably don’t want Trump on the top of your ticket in 2024. I would think that down-ballot candidates in districts that Biden won would prefer a nominee like Glenn Youngkin or Chris Sununu or even a Nikki Haley, who David Drucker reports will announce next month. McCarthy has those 18 Republicans from Biden districts to thank for his majority and I’m sure they are not looking forward to the debt ceiling fight. 

It could cut both ways, of course, with 2024 ticket-splitters opting to give both moderate Republicans and Biden another cycle. But clearly if the Republican majority is relying on New York and Hudson Valley voters, it’s not a great situation for the party. The future of the Republican party is not through New York. At the same time, I think nut-jobs at the top of the ticket really hurt Republicans in the last election in Illinois, Michigan and Pennsylvania where maybe they could have won.

Tina: Speaking of which… The debt ceiling fight is weighing on everyone: Democrats worry that the right wing could drive the country into default, while McCarthy is surely concerned about his own personal calamity if the right wing doesn’t get a scalp and decides to take his, instead. I’ve heard rumblings that Democrats could use a discharge petition to force a budget bill onto the House floor without McCarthy as long as they could come up with 218 votes. What is the likelihood of that happening? 

Tara: Well, I spoke to a Democratic member on the Budget committee who sort of waved me off thinking that it’s a serious option. It has only happened once successfully in the last decade, in 2015, when House Democrats used the rare procedure to vote to extend the Export Import Bank’s charter. Before that was in 2002, for a campaign finance bill. It just takes a long time and they still haven’t heard from Hakeem Jeffries about if this is something that he wants them to start on. 

It’s a long, wonky process, and Democrats would still need six moderate Republicans to join them to cross the magic 218 vote threshold.  I spoke to Mike Lawler in his office last week, and when I asked him about the discharge petition, he didn’t rule it out. “For me, it’s not a function of I’m going to [vote on a bill that’s discharged by Democrats], it’s a function of working within the conference and the House,” he told me. “The White House has to realize they’re no longer a one-party rule and the president needs to be reasonable. The negotiations need to start in earnest, now.” 

Of course, there are no specifics from Lawler. But, in fairness, like the rest of the conference, he hasn’t received word from McCarthy on what exactly they’re going to demand. This likely explains why McCarthy has delayed his meeting with Biden to this Wednesday. The White House is, of course, posturing, saying they refuse to negotiate (for now). Even if there are no major concessions for Republicans and a bill comes to the floor via discharge petition, I could see pressure building on moderates to vote on it, especially if it’s sitting there with 211 votes. That’s when I suspect you’ll see moderates budge. 

Here’s how I predict it will go down: There will be kabuki for months, with Democrats saying they won’t negotiate with Republicans, that they want to raise the debt limit “without conditions,” and then in the end, Democrats will come up with an acceptable off-ramp or concession for the Republicans. This will probably happen right before the country is headed straight into a default around June or July. It’s interesting that Financial Services Committee Chairman Patrick McHenry has already said they’re going to have to raise the debt ceiling. Now, I don’t think he would engage in a discharge petition with Democrats to get around McCarthy because they are very close, but this indicates to me that there will be many in the party seeking that off-ramp and that’s when the infighting starts with the House Freedom Caucus. 

Tina, is there any likelihood that the MAGA crowd, like Andy Biggs, who repeatedly humiliated McCarthy during the speaker vote, would take that off-ramp? 

Tina: There is, but it would have to involve truly meaningful concessions to the MAGA agenda. The thing about the House Freedom Caucus, and the “Taliban Twenty” in particular (I’m sure they’re secretly proud of that name), is that this class was elected to Congress from districts that fully endorse their by-whatever-means-necessary tactics. 

That said, I’m not sure this is the best use of the party’s time, from a strictly political perspective. The public isn’t as bothered by the federal debt as they were in, say, 2010, when even the liberal media was fixated on the deficit and Obama created Bowles-Simpson to get the country’s finances under control. Trump, as big a deficit spender as any president in memory, recently warned Republicans not to touch Social Security or Medicare. 

In fact, when I talk to my sources on the Hill and in activist conservative circles, I get the impression that they’re more focused on 1) impeaching D.H.S. Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to make a statement about the border; 2) investigating the origins of Covid and the C.D.C.’s response; and 3) launching their own committee to investigate the January 6 committee. 

I predict there ultimately will be fewer investigations into the Biden family than the average cable news viewer may expect. Sure, there will be some hay to be made over Hunter Biden, but there’s a sense that if Republicans attempt to wrist-slap Biden for keeping classified documents in his garage, they’ll end up strafing Trump for his own documents snafu at Mar-a-Lago, too. One scandal largely negates the other.