On a quiet February morning, before most lawmakers had returned from recess, House majority leader Kevin McCarthy gathered a handful of reporters in his Capitol Hill office. He was in a good mood, bantering about the prior week’s spell of snow, his posture relaxed.
A few minutes later, his shoulders stiffened. A reporter, breaking the chain of questions on House budget negotiations and the upcoming legislative calendar, had asked: “Is Donald Trump conservative?”
“Yes. Is he a conservative?”
The majority leader twisted his wedding band. “I think he is a conservative. He’s a Republican.”
“He identifies himself as a Republican,” McCarthy said. “He’s been in the business world, I’ve seen his actions that he’s taken. . . . Maybe on his television show he’s made conservative decisions, too. But I take him as a conservative.” He moved on to the next question.
At the time McCarthy spoke, tip-toeing around the elephant in the room may have seemed harmless or even prudent. But in the month since, as Trump has marched ever closer to the nomination despite his refusal to disavow the KKK and the violent atmosphere at his rallies, he’s sparked a full-blown backlash from grassroots activists in the #NeverTrump movement and from establishment heavyweights such as Mitt Romney. Those anti-Trump forces are now expressing frustration that they’ve been met with a wall of silence — or worse, a rationalization of Trump’s candidacy — from Capitol Hill. They say lawmakers have willfully turned a blind eye to the long-term wreckage Trump could inflict on the GOP, concerning themselves only with the short-term costs of alienating his supporters in an election year.
McCarthy and other top lawmakers suddenly find themselves at odds with prominent party elders such as Romney.
So it is that McCarthy and other top lawmakers suddenly find themselves at odds with prominent party elders such as Romney. The chasm widened on Thursday when McCarthy touted the benefits of Trump’s candidacy at a Public Policy Institute event in Sacramento. As the Sacramento Bee reported, the majority leader argued that Trump has inspired a slew of intensely motivated new Republican voters to turn out and that those voters would ultimately help GOP incumbents down-ballot.
Trump endorsed the sentiment via Twitter. “Thank you Kevin,” he wrote. “With unification of the party, Republican wins will be massive!”
The exchange riled party insiders lobbying lawmakers against Trump. According to interviews with nearly a dozen Republican operatives, McCarthy’s comments and the otherwise deafening silence inside the congressional GOP indicate a willful disregard for the “existential threat,” as one top strategist puts it, that Trump poses to the party, especially as other leaders such as Speaker Paul Ryan refuse to condemn the front-runner by name.
The early rationale for begrudgingly backing Trump, especially over Ted Cruz, made sense: Ryan’s House is attempting to advance a new policy agenda after years of internecine warfare, and Trump represents something of a blank slate policy-wise. Without a clear agenda of his own, the thinking went, Trump would be less likely to derail the GOP conference’s priorities. Moreover, as McCarthy noted in Sacramento, echoing an argument advanced by New York representative Chris Collins and other colleagues, Trump could fare better with independents in November, providing a boost to lawmakers in their purple-state reelection bids.
One top GOP strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to preserve his relationship with McCarthy, says he was once firmly in the same camp. But recent controversies on the trail — particularly Trump’s refusal to disavow the KKK — tipped the scales into “dangerous” territory for him. “We’re talking about the unilateral crackup of the party of Lincoln and the party of Reagan,” the strategist says. “Kevin is a concierge. He wants to take care of his members. But I don’t think he understands the existential threat Trump poses to the institution.”
Even if that’s not the case — even if they do recognize the long-term dangers of a Trump candidacy — McCarthy and his colleagues have a stubbornly compelling reason to continue toeing the #MaybeTrump line: They need to win reelection, and they’re reluctant to risk alienating the large swath of Republican voters Trump commands by standing against him. “Politics has this bad habit of being about winning,” says Representative David Schweikert, who has endorsed Cruz.
“I’m surprised there’s not more discussion around here,” he adds, if not on how to stop Trump, then at least on the circumstances that gave way to his meteoric rise. “Is Trump a reaction to Obama? Is Trump a reaction to our failings? Or is Trump just a historical anomaly? We don’t talk about it.”
Instead, many lawmakers are even more reluctant to risk their political careers by speaking out because it presents an unappealing alternative: backing Cruz.
“We’re watching in real time how personal politics come into play on Capitol Hill,” says GOP strategist Ron Bonjean.
McCarthy and his colleagues have a stubbornly compelling reason to continue toeing the #MaybeTrump line: They need to win reelection.
On Tuesday night, as Trump inched closer to the nomination with a fresh round of primary victories, Senate majority whip John Cornyn told CNN that he’s urged Cruz to make amends with his colleagues and earn their support. But that is no easy task. Cruz has long been a persona non grata in the halls of the Capitol — a state of affairs his campaign brags about, and one his Senate colleagues seem to have little intention of changing. At the GOP policy retreat in Baltimore earlier this year, a group of senators reveled in the just-broken news that Cruz had failed to disclose a Goldman Sachs loan to his Senate campaign. According to Schweikert, the senators, huddling over a table in a Marriott hotel, passed around a phone with the Politico story glowing on the screen. They laughed and took turns scrolling through it. “These senators were giddy . . . that Cruz was in trouble. I’ve never seen anything like it,” he says.
There was a time when party insiders would have joined in the Cruzenfreude. Ryan Williams, a former Romney spokesman, is one of them.
“Everyone felt burned by Cruz” during the government shutdown in 2013, Williams says. “And yeah, maybe he bumped into them another time at Tortilla Coast and spilled a margarita on their suit.
“But here’s my message to them: Get over it. Look at what Trump is doing. There are riots now. And say what you want, but Cruz’s staff would never manhandle a reporter and then smear her. People on the Hill need to step back and see the bigger picture.”
The tonal shift signifies just how much the Republican primary has changed since February, when Iowa governor Terry Branstad helped launch something of an “ABC” — Anybody But Cruz — movement, a development that found favor among many inside the Beltway who believed Marco Rubio could ultimately prevail as the nominee. For many of those who subsequently joined #NeverTrump, the tipping point was a CNN interview where the front-runner refused to outright denounce former KKK leader David Duke. And the riotous images spilling over from Trump’s aborted Chicago rally last weekend sealed the deal.
It was no longer enough that Trump could turn out more voters, potentially siphoning off working-class whites from the Democratic party: Trump’s campaign had simply become indefensible. A general election loss with Cruz now seemed preferable to a potential victory with a candidate who danced around white supremacy.“We’ve gotten to the point where the stakes are bigger than who you personally do and don’t like,” says Brian Walsh, a former spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee and Senator Cornyn. “I’m not personally a fan of Cruz, but there’s no doubt that he is a conservative, and Trump is not.”
The outside pressure is building for lawmakers to break their silence and join forces with rare Trump detractors such as Senator Ben Sasse, or to actively back an alternative such as Cruz. But as congressional primaries begin to catch fire, and many lawmakers face pro-Trump constituents back home, there’s doubt as to whether that will happen. It’s fitting that on that February morning when McCarthy tried to rationalize Trump’s candidacy, Washington, D.C., was an unusually bright 54 degrees: If Trump has created a storm within the Republican party, lawmakers see little reason to leave the eye.
— Elaina Plott is a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism at the National Review Institute.