In House Speaker Fight, Trump Struggles to Play Kingmaker

Donald Trump held separate rounds of calls to those opposing Kevin McCarthy as speaker and was surprised when he was met with resistance.

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In House Speaker Fight, Trump Struggles to Play Kingmaker |

Donald Trump has told Republican lawmakers that he views Kevin McCarthy as the only House Republican capable of winning enough votes to become speaker.

After Kevin McCarthy failed to win enough votes to become House speaker on Tuesday, former President Donald J. Trump held a call with Mr. McCarthy and 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 Mr. Trump had wanted Mr. Perry to quickly flip, it wasn’t to be: The next day, Mr. Perry voted against Mr. McCarthy three more times.

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 handpicked 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 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.

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 Sean Hannity on Fox News, 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.”

ImageRepresentative Victoria Spartz, left, and Representative Lauren Boebert have both blocked Mr. McCarthy’s bid for speaker.Credit…T.J. Kirkpatrick for The New York Times

And in another show of belated deference, Representative Matt Gaetz, a Florida Republican 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 authorized to speak publicly.

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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 on 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 on Wednesday morning. But even that failed to move the roughly 20 House members who have dug in against Mr. McCarthy.

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

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.

“Trump’s fear factor has dropped this week, like a rock,” said Scott Reed, a longtime Republican strategist and the former top political adviser to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Mr. King agreed, adding, “I think they realized that he can help them but he really can’t hurt them. I don’t think they’re that afraid of him right now. We’re a year, year and a half away from the next primary.”

ImageWhile Mr. Trump has publicly declared his support for Mr. McCarthy, the former president has privately acknowledged frustrations with him.Credit…Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times

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 on Jan. 6, 2021, and spoke of his support for him in dispassionate terms.

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

Still, Mr. Trump 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.


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