In US House Speaker fight, Trump struggles to play kingmaker

Mr Donald Trump has backed Mr Kevin McCarthy’s effort for weeks and held rounds of calls to holdouts who have opposed the move. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

WASHINGTON - After Republican representative Kevin McCarthy failed to win enough votes to become House speaker on Tuesday, former President Donald Trump held a call with him and representative Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, one of the key Republican members of Congress blocking Mr McCarthy’s bid.

Mr Trump’s goal was to break the logjam. But if he had wanted Mr Perry to quickly flip, it wasn’t to be: The next day, Mr Perry voted against Mr McCarthy three more times.

At 1.15am on Thursday on his social media platform, Truth Social, Mr Trump said the turmoil was good for the process and predicted a “big Republican victory”. But by about 6pm, Mr McCarthy had lost 10 consecutive votes in three days, with no end to the stalemate in sight.

Mr McCarthy’s inability to corral enough votes this week has underscored the limits of Mr Trump’s political potency inside a party that has not controlled the Senate since 2018, lost the White House in 2020 and failed, so far, to identify the next leader of their narrow majority in the House.

Even if Mr McCarthy is eventually successful, Mr Trump has, once again, struggled in his role as his party’s kingmaker. His hand-picked candidates failed to usher in the red wave Republicans had hoped for in the midterm elections in November. His attempt to install a new Republican leader in the Senate was crushed. His third consecutive presidential campaign, launched six weeks ago, has underwhelmed.

Now, Mr Trump’s sway over many of his own loyalists in the House has fizzled in the most public of ways and on the most public of stages – a reminder that the insurgency in Congress isn’t so much a creature of his creation but a force that predated him and helped fuel his political rise.

For over a decade, a group of House Republicans has sought to disrupt the establishment leadership. The House Freedom Caucus evolved out of the vestiges of the Tea Party, playing a key role in the ouster of then-Speaker John Boehner in 2015 and blocking Mr McCarthy’s efforts to become the Republican leader at the time.

Today, most of the 20 Republicans who have blocked Mr McCarthy’s speakership are clear Trump loyalists, including several who have already effectively endorsed his 2024 White House bid. And even among them, a small group – including Mr Perry – have been involved in negotiations with Mr McCarthy’s team.

“It’s a combination of them realising his influence is not what it was and also his heart doesn’t seem to be in it,” said Mr Peter T. King, a Republican who is a former congressman from Long Island, New York.

Representative Lauren Boebert of Colorado, who unseated a fellow Republican in 2020 who she said wasn’t supportive enough of Mr Trump, openly defied the former president from the House floor on Wednesday, saying he should tell Mr McCarthy to withdraw from the speaker’s race instead of directing his focus on the insurgents.

In an interview later with Fox News’ Sean Hannity, Ms Boebert appeared to try to soften the blow, saying, “I love President Trump. You’re not going to turn me on him; you’re not going to pit him against me.”

And in another show of belated deference, Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida, who had mocked Mr Trump’s endorsement of Mr McCarthy on Twitter, voted on Thursday for Mr Trump to be the House speaker.

Mr Trump has backed Mr McCarthy’s effort for weeks and held separate rounds of calls to holdouts who have adamantly opposed the move. The former president appeared surprised that some of his loyal lieutenants in the House were not responsive to him, according to two people familiar with the calls who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to speak publicly.

Mr Trump, who often tries to avoid limiting any options for himself, stopped making aggressive calls after that. But he was forced to be more public in his support than aides had planned when he picked up his ringing cellphone Tuesday and gave a muted comment to a reporter from NBC News, prompting questions about whether he still backed Mr McCarthy.

So he made a public declaration Wednesday morning. But even that failed to move the roughly 20 House members who have dug in against Mr McCarthy.

Heading into the votes Thursday, Mr McCarthy’s team had expressed confidence to Trump advisers that they would begin making visible progress during new rounds of voting. But that ultimately proved wrong.

One person who spoke with Mr Trump on Thursday said that the former president still preferred Mr McCarthy and that he seemed perplexed by what else Mr McCarthy’s opponents, who have extracted significant concessions, wanted.

If Mr McCarthy pulls out a victory, Mr Trump will point to it as evidence of strength, not weakness. But having thrust himself into the leadership fight with no clear strategy, Mr Trump’s failure to influence House Republicans has underscored a new political reality for him. The weapon that Mr Trump used to dominate his party for seven years – fear of him – has diminished.

Still, some of Mr McCarthy’s opponents have suggested to Mr Trump that they would switch their vote if it was of crucial importance to the former president. But Mr Trump ignored those offers and instead told reluctant lawmakers they should continue negotiating to work out their differences, according to one person familiar with the conversations.

And while Mr Trump has publicly declared his support for Mr McCarthy, the former president has privately acknowledged frustrations with him as well.

Mr Trump complained to some Republican lawmakers about Mr McCarthy’s push to censure him after the Capitol riot of Jan 6, 2021, and spoke of his support for him in dispassionate terms.

“Kevin is not perfect,” Mr Trump has privately told lawmakers.

Still, the former president has told them that he views Mr McCarthy as the only House Republican capable of winning enough votes to become speaker, the same reason advisers say he backed Mr McCarthy in the first place.

When some have asked whether they should trust Mr McCarthy, Mr Trump has responded by saying they can vote him out if they want, under the new powers Mr McCarthy has agreed to. NYTIMES

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