A sad story but a familiar one.
The Times has a scoop today from a new book by two of its reporters about the aftermath of the insurrection, when for a fleeting moment it seemed like the GOP would be done with Trump. But even that moment was illusory: GOP leaders were eager to be done with Trump but rank-and-file Republicans never were. And as that reality dawned on Kevin McCarthy and Mitch McConnell, making it clear how steep the political price would be if they tried to oust the president, their ardor evaporated.
As I say, that’s familiar. It’s the story of Nikki Haley, who fired off some of her own “done with Trump” fireworks in interviews after January 6 only to backpedal in a manner of weeks, when she figured out that a little thing like a coup attempt wasn’t going to turn the base against Trump. It’s also the story of freshman Nancy Mace, who refused to object to the electoral college vote on January 6, said after the riot that Trump was done, and then choked a week later when it came time to vote for impeachment. Mace too had come to realize quickly that voting yes would likely make her a one-term congresswoman. So she voted no — but Trump held a grudge and endorsed her primary opponent anyway. She was last seen shooting videos outside Trump Tower in Manhattan, insisting she’s the real MAGA candidate in the race.
Once it was clear that the base’s “speak no ill of Trump” rule would remain in effect notwithstanding an assault on the Capitol that could easily have led to members of Congress being murdered, only 10 House Republicans were willing to impeach. To vote yes was to risk career suicide.
In that sense, there’s nothing truly “newsy” in the Times scoop. McCarthy and McConnell reacted exactly as we all assumed: They were horrified by the insurrection, enraged at Trump, hopeful that his career was over, and then resigned to play along when they realized that their party didn’t much care what had happened. Unlike Liz Cheney, they couldn’t bring themselves to do the right thing simply because it was right. In fact, the most striking detail in the NYT piece is McCarthy and McConnell each independently telling confidantes that they wouldn’t vote with the minority of their caucus to impeach/remove Trump because they didn’t make it into leadership by voting with the minority on big votes.
That is, rather than show actual leadership, they reconciled themselves to the worst impulses of their supporters in the name of retaining the prestige of their leadership roles.
McCarthy was reportedly especially gung ho in private to push Trump out, one way or another:
On Jan. 10, Mr. McCarthy spoke again with the leadership team and this time he had a plan in mind.
The Democrats were driving hard at an impeachment resolution, Mr. McCarthy said, and they would have the votes to pass it. Now he planned to call Mr. Trump and tell him it was time for him to go.
“What he did is unacceptable. Nobody can defend that and nobody should defend it,” he told the group.
Mr. McCarthy said he would tell Mr. Trump of the impeachment resolution: “I think this will pass, and it would be my recommendation you should resign.”
It’s unclear, and unlikely, that McCarthy ever did tell Trump that. But he wondered about invoking the 25th Amendment against Trump in a conversation with Republicans on January 8. And on January 10, he supposedly told other GOP leaders that he wished that not only Trump but MAGA members of his own House caucus would be banned by Twitter as punishment for pushing election conspiracy theories before the Capitol riot. “We can’t put up with that,” he allegedly said. “Can’t they take their Twitter accounts away, too?” This is the same guy who, a few months ago, was grumbling about Big Tech censoring conservatives by shutting down constitutionally protected speech.
In a statement today, McCarthy denied the claims in the Times story — without disputing any of the specifics:
My statement on the New York Times pic.twitter.com/PWi2WkoWzh
— Kevin McCarthy (@GOPLeader) April 21, 2022
Okay, but there’s circumstantial evidence to show how pissed off he was at Trump immediately following the insurrection. Remember that it was reported last year that McCarthy phoned Trump in desperation during the riot to plead with him for help, whereupon Trump allegedly said of the rioters, “Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are.” To which McCarthy replied, “Who the f–k do you think you are talking to?” Go figure that he might be angry afterward at how dismissive Trump was at a moment when his life was under threat from crazed “stop the steal” fanatics.
Remember too that, although McCarthy voted against impeachment, he was still sufficiently uncertain about public opinion about the insurrection on the day of the vote that he felt obliged to blame Trump in his House floor speech that day. “The president bears responsibility for Wednesday’s attack on Congress by mob rioters,” he said. “He should have immediately denounced the mob when he saw what was unfolding. These facts require immediate action by President Trump.” Trump was reportedly enraged when he heard that, requiring McCarthy to visit Mar-a-Lago a few weeks later to kiss the ring and atone.
100 percent true. McCarthy was over Trump until he wasn’t, when he realized he needed him. This picture 👇👇 literally resurrected Trumps political life. Thanks Kev. https://t.co/aF6tcJSMB2 pic.twitter.com/Gt7l9kxAFn
— Adam Kinzinger (@AdamKinzinger) April 21, 2022
As I say, the Haley and Mace stories further confirm what the reaction to January 6 was like within the precincts of Republican leadership. Of course McCarthy was mortified. Of course he thought Trump should be held responsible. But once he realized that his voters didn’t, his ambition overtook his sense of civic duty. He wants to be Speaker more than he wants a healthy party and a healthy country so he rolled over. That’s the entire story of the GOP since 2015.
Ironically, the fact that he showed just a few days of disloyalty towards Trump, and even then only privately, may be enough to ruin his ambitions. Do we think McCarthy’s chances at becoming Speaker are higher or lower today after this Times scoop?
The saddest line in the piece has to do not with him, though, but with McConnell:
“The Democrats are going to take care of the son of a bitch for us,” Mr. McConnell said, referring to the imminent impeachment vote in the House…
The president’s behavior on Jan. 6 had been utterly beyond the pale, Mr. McConnell said. “If this isn’t impeachable, I don’t know what is,” he said…
Once the proceedings against Mr. Trump moved from the House to the Senate, Mr. McConnell took the measure of Republican senators and concluded that there was little appetite for open battle with a man who remained — much to Mr. McConnell’s surprise — the most popular Republican in the country.
“Much to Mr. McConnell’s surprise.” After watching the entire Republican membership in the House and Senate genuflect to Trump for six years, culminating in a vote in which only 10 House Republicans were willing to impeach him for the insurrection, we’re to believe that McConnell was “surprised” to find that his caucus wanted to genuflect too. The punchline is that, when they did, he joined them, voting to acquit Trump as well because “he didn’t ascend to power by siding with the minority, he explained to a friend.”
All he needed to do was find 10 more Senate Republican votes to convict and the GOP would be in its post-Trump phase now. Instead, McConnell is facing the prospect of being driven from leadership in 2025 if Trump retakes the White House and insists that the MAGA-fied Senate Republican caucus install new leadership. He and McCarthy deserve what’s in store for them politically.