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Kevin McCarthy Is a Disaster

Have you ever read a poem called "The Snake"?
February 1, 2021
Kevin McCarthy Is a Disaster
(Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

It’s a dark time for Kevin McCarthy. In the space of four years, his party lost the White House, House, and Senate—a trifecta of #Losing unseen since Herbert Hoover presided over the onset of the Great Depression. Instead of licking its wounds or trying to figure out what went wrong, McCarthy’s party is now flirting with violence, binging on brain-washing conspiracies, and white washing an insurrection.

But even in the midst of this disaster, Kevin McCarthy is trying to make us laugh. Bless his heart.

There McCarthy was, posing for that picture at Mar-a-Lago last Thursday like an eager pledge who has no idea what the frat brothers are about to do to him. Scared, sure, but also totally psyched.

McCarthy’s sin is well known. He acknowledged Trump’s incitement of violence. McCarthy was actually horrified by the January 6 attack on the Capitol. He pleaded with Trump to send reinforcements and urge the insurrectionists to stand down. He told the president that, no, Antifa and left-wing agitators were not the attackers. Days later McCarthy said the president bore some responsibility for the violence.

All of which caused Trump to lash out at McCarthy, calling him an insulting vulgarity. With a break up looming, “My Kevin”—as Trump affectionately calls him—walked back his truth-telling within days. He said that not only did Trump not “provoke” violence on January 6, but that “Trump continues to have that ability to lead this party and unite.” The “unite” part is extra-cute, in that cheeky way McCarthy talks. Like when he told Greta Van Susteren that “everybody” has “some responsibility” for the insurrection that killed five Americans.

Following McCarthy’s apology tour of Palm Beach, official statements were released to show MAGA world that My Kevin was back in the Trump fold. “Today, President Trump committed to helping elect Republicans in the House and Senate in 2022,” McCarthy said. “A Republican majority will listen to our fellow Americans and solve the challenges facing our nation.”

CNN reported two sources close to McCarthy told him that going to kiss up to Trump would make him look weak. And this is a man who once brought Trump’s favorite pink and red Starbursts to him in a jar (free of the other colors Trump isn’t fond of)—so McCarthy’s dignity is long gone.

McCarthy looks weak because he is weak.

McCarthy knows Trump won’t share his money, and all the Stop the Steal scam donations the ex-president has amassed since Election Day will be spent on Trump, his family, his travel and his staff. But not members of Congress. McCarthy remembers 2018, when Trump campaigned in Senate races, not House races.

Come 2022, Trump might send out some helpful tweets, if he’s out of Twitter jail. Failing that, he could, in theory, issue some perfunctory press releases about his “complete and total endorsement” of House Republicans. And McCarthy knows even this mild level of “support” means that Trump expects a relentless and total defense waged on his behalf, beginning with the impeachment trial and extending into the indefinite future and any criminal matters that may arise in the months and years to come.

And that’s all cool with McCarthy because he was perfectly suited to be Trump’s Apprentice all along. He knew the game even before he joined the show: To survive in Trump World you have to be purely transactional and devoid of shame.

Lest anyone think McCarthy just knuckled under Trump’s demagogic charms, recall he once posited that Trump is compromised by the Russian Federation. “There’s two people I think Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump,” McCarthy was heard saying in a recording made June 15, 2016. When colleagues laughed nervously McCarthy said “swear to God.”

So what did McCarthy get out of the meeting? Well, he’s in a spot of trouble back home in the swamp.

McCarthy’s conference is currently facing the ongoing trainwreck Marjorie Taylor Greene for . . . [gestures expansively] . . . all of this.

And simultaneously there is a mounting effort to dump Liz Cheney from her position as GOP conference chair, a move McCarthy claims to be trying to head off even as Trumpy members ignore his warnings.

On Wednesday the House GOP conference will meet and Cheney will have the chance to defend her vote to impeach Trump. Roughly 115 Republicans seem to want her out of leadership. What McCarthy will do at that meeting is a mystery. Like GOP Whip Steve Scalise, McCarthy said he supports Cheney in her leadership post. But Trump hates Cheney, so McCarthy is trying to walk that back, too. He now says that “questions need to be answered,” such as the “style in which things were delivered.”

Because suddenly Kevin McCarthy is deeply concerned about the style in which Republicans express themselves.

Cheney would be a big scalp to MAGA world. They are polling in Wyoming and delighting in numbers showing voters there oppose impeachment. Matt Gaetz went there to campaign against Cheney last week.

Meanwhile McCarthy, who knew Marjorie Taylor Greene was a nut but did nothing to stop her in the primary last year, seated her on the House Education and Labor committee. He claims to have found reports of newly uncovered posts “deeply disturbing” and plans to “have a conversation with the Congresswoman about them.”

Probably about the style in which things were delivered.

That’s a tall order for any man to handle and Team McCarthy wants us to know that we ought to feel for the guy.

“We’re eating sh*t for breakfast, lunch, and dinner right now,” Axios quoted one of his aides saying last weekend.

And that hardly seems fair. McCarthy is a super-friendly, cheery, upbeat guy. Members will tell you he’s such a charmer he’ll talk to your mom before you do on her birthday.

But he isn’t terribly reliable. “Kevin never tells members the truth. He tells them what they want to hear,” said one GOP leadership aide. “If he wanted to call off Rep. Andy Biggs he could. If he wanted to deal with Marjorie Taylor-Greene he could. And they would listen to him.” As for Cheney, this aide said, McCarthy is clearly not asking members to stand down.

Former Rep. Eric Cantor—who co-wrote a book in 2010 with McCarthy and Paul Ryan, called Young Guns—seemed to be taking a direct shot at McCarthy last Friday when he published a piece in the Washington Post insisting that Republicans owe voters the truth.

“Political parties and their leaders have two options: Engage in the competition of ideas and solve problems while moving the country forward, or continue to promote disinformation and false narratives designed to undermine our democracy. The choice should be obvious,” Cantor wrote.

Former Rep. Bill Thomas, who McCarthy worked for as a staffer before winning his seat in Congress, issued a public rebuke of McCarthy after the attack on the Capitol, calling McCarthy out for voting to decertify the election. McCarthy’s mentor called him a “hypocrite” who nurtured the “phony lies” Trump perpetuated. “I look at it in terms of what you did, how you did it, and when you did it. What is more important ? Ending any kind of continuation of massive lies after the Capitol was torn apart—which [McCarthy] didn’t do…and then finally after months of supporting those outrageous lies of the president, he decides that actually Trump lost and Biden won.”

And it’s important to remember that McCarthy hasn’t just been giving aid and comfort to the liars. He was a proponent of the Big Lie. Days after the election, and one day before the networks called the election for Joe Biden, McCarthy went on Fox on November 6 to spread the Big Lie himself: “President Trump won this election, so everyone who’s listening, do not be quiet,” he said. “We cannot allow this to happen before our very eyes.”

So yes, Kevin McCarthy is a victim of the crazies in his caucus. But he’s also a perp. He did this.

The big takeaway from all of this is that Kevin McCarthy isn’t actually the leader of the Republican House caucus. Donald Trump is.

McCarthy blamed Trump for the insurrection; then he didn’t. He encouraged a vote of conscience on impeachment and told his caucus to leave Liz Cheney alone. They ignored him. With his caucus turning into an insane asylum—some Republican members bringing guns to the House floor and blowing past magnetometers, other members fearing for their lives, a freshman senator who believes in Jewish space lasers—McCarthy left Washington to scurry down to Trump’s residence so that he could beg forgiveness and proclaim that Trump was the past, present, and future of his party.

Even more frightening, is that some of his conference members literally fear for their lives, barraged with threats from deranged wackos, because they voted to impeach Trump.

Kevin McCarthy is not a leader of the Republican party. He’s just another Republican following the Trump cult and hoping for the best.

Maybe there won’t be too much more violence. Maybe he’ll get to be speaker.

Maybe the snake won’t bite him.

Correction, February 1, 2021, 11:18 a.m.: An earlier version of this story erroneously attributed the statement “President Trump’s popularity has never been stronger than it is today” to Kevin McCarthy. That statement, following the Trump-McCarthy meeting, came from Trump’s office.

A.B. Stoddard

A.B. Stoddard is a columnist at The Bulwark. Previously, she was associate editor and columnist at RealClearPolitics.