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BY JOHN BRESNAHAN, ANNA PALMER, JAKE SHERMAN AND HEATHER CAYGLE
WITH MAX COHEN AND CHRISTIAN HALL
Happy Friday morning. Welcome to The White House Correspondents’ Dinner weekend. Please stay safe.
We’re going to spend a few moments this morning digging into what has been a challenging week for the House Republican Conference and its leader, Kevin McCarthy.
To review: The NYT’s Jonathan Martin and Alex Burns reported that McCarthy informed other House GOP leaders he was going to tell former President Donald Trump he should resign rather than be convicted by the Senate for his role in the Jan. 6 insurrection. McCarthy denied making the comments – until JMart and Burns released the tape.
McCarthy also said that some of his GOP colleagues – namely Reps. Matt Gaetz (Fla.) and Mo Brooks (Ala.) – were endangering other lawmakers with their inflammatory rhetoric leading up the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. House Minority Whip Steve Scalise said on the tape that Gaetz may have been breaking the law by verbally targeting other lawmakers. Scalise apologized to the Florida Republican.
McCarthy and Scalise got through the week banged up yet still on track to be speaker and majority leader if Republicans take the House in November.
At this moment, though, the GOP leadership is on edge. We’ve gotten numerous queries about what else may come from the JMart-Burns book. There’s serious angst in the leadership about who taped these private phone calls. There’s also lots of finger pointing over who’s to blame for this period of upheaval.
Our focus is always on power – how it’s gained and wielded – and we’re going to dig in a bit to the dynamics McCarthy faces during the coming months. Again, we don’t have a crystal ball, but it looks increasingly as though Republicans are going to win the House majority, so we’ll work under that hypothesis.
The four dynamics working in McCarthy’s favor
→Fundraising. McCarthy’s life is, and has been, the House Republican Conference. He’s a prolific fundraiser, and his members know that. Not only does McCarthy raise a lot of money for himself and the National Republican Congressional Committee, he also raises money for the Congressional Leadership Fund and American Action Network (under strict limits), as well as GOP candidates and state and local parties. Put simply, the House GOP political operation is kept flush because of McCarthy’s fundraising and travel. If Republicans win the majority, McCarthy will have a lot of chits with a lot of members who are coming to Washington on the back of his hard work.
→Any opposition is small and unorganized. McCarthy doesn’t really have formal opposition among Republicans at this point. Questions and doubts? Yes, sure. There’s a lot of chatter right now among members, and between lawmakers and reporters. But are Republicans committed to voting against McCarthy? No. Gaetz is the only GOPer actively agitating against McCarthy probable ascension to speaker. Gaetz, though, is under federal criminal investigation for child sex trafficking, so his position doesn’t really carry a lot of weight inside the conference.
Yet as we’ve seen in recent House GOP history, in order to knock off a speaker (or speaker to be), you need to have an alternative candidate for the job, plus a large bloc of GOP lawmakers organized around that alternative. Scalise is backing McCarthy, as is House Republican Conference Chair Elise Stefanik (N.Y.). Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), who has opposed McCarthy in the past, is his close ally at the moment. Remember the old maxim of leadership races – you can’t beat someone with no one. As of right now, there’s no one but McCarthy.
→History is on his side. If Republicans take the majority, McCarthy will have led the GOP to two consecutive winning cycles. The majority would be his, in a large sense. This isn’t 2015, when the then-50-year-old McCarthy was trying to succeed then Speaker John Boehner during the middle of a cycle. It’s incredibly difficult to see the GOP dumping McCarthy after he led them to the majority. As McCarthy says, it really doesn’t make sense to change the coach after the Super Bowl.
→Time is on McCarthy’s side. The reason this week was so filled with drama is because Congress was in session. The House GOP had a conference meeting and reporters were at the ready with questions. But now the House is gone until May 10. And when McCarthy is out of Washington, good things happen for him. The majority – and the speaker’s gavel – will be won out there, not in D.C.
Consider this: The House will only be in session for eight weeks – 32 legislative days – between now and the start of the August recess. There are only 43 legislative days until the midterm elections. In other words, there isn’t a ton of time left for hijinx.
The four dynamics working against McCarthy
→ Trump. Remember the president who sent his team to Capitol Hill to negotiate legislative packages, only to threaten to veto those packages when Fox News said something nasty? Yes. Trump is simultaneously McCarthy’s biggest asset and liability. Trump presumably knows that McCarthy is likely to win the speakership, and that’s why he’s backing him. But maybe McCarthy’s grip weakens in the coming month, giving Trump an opportunity to play games. Sure, Trump and McCarthy have been useful to each other during the last six years. But also remember that Trump has absolutely zero loyalty to anyone besides blood relatives.
There’s one human being who knows what Trump is really thinking, and that’s Trump. Oftentimes, as we all know, even Trump doesn’t seem to know what he’s going to do until he does it. Team McCarthy and its allies took pains to get the message out this week that the 45th president was feeling just fine about McCarthy. But who knows what Trump really feels? Trump is susceptible to – how do we say this nicely – outside influences. So, in the heat of the moment in November, December or January, who knows if Trump plays up McCarthy’s by then two-year-old musings that he should resign.
→ The other shoe. The House Republican Conference has given McCarthy a pass here. But who knows what else will come out in the next few months? If anything does drop, it’s feasible to think that McCarthy’s fellow GOP colleagues won’t be as charitable to him as they were this time. This isn’t 2015 for McCarthy. But he’s also got to carry the burden of that as well.
→ Why McCarthy? McCarthy’s spent decades in politics, as a staffer, state legislator and member of Congress. He has a solid conservative voting and leadership record.
Yet McCarthy isn’t known for any major legislative achievement or victory. He’s not an expert in any one policy area or topic, and he’s never chaired a major House committee – or a minor one either. Consider the last three speakers: Nancy Pelosi was an appropriator, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee and served on the Ethics Committee. Paul Ryan chaired the House Ways and Means and Budget committees. Boehner chaired the Education and Workforce Committee and was responsible for negotiating No Child Left Behind, in addition to being a successful businessman before entering Congress.
McCarthy’s specialties are politics and relationships. Every party leader must have the ability to build those alliances, but in many ways, this is McCarthy’s chief claim to the top rung of leadership. He understands members and politics, he has good instincts, especially on how members will vote. What would McCarthy do if he were in charge? And what would he be like?
→ The press. Let’s put it simply – McCarthy’s once cordial relationship with the D.C. press corps has deteriorated badly. There are lots of reasons for this, and we don’t need to review all of them. The last three speakers – Pelosi, Ryan and Boehner – all had generally good relationships with reporters. Not all the time, of course. All three went through ups-and-downs with the Hill and broader national press corps.
McCarthy, though, is definitely on a downward trend with reporters right now. He can stick to friendly interviews on conservative media, but the mainstream press is still going to write about him all the time, like it or not. And other members – the Republicans who will have to vote for him in January – have to deal with the press. Donors read what the press writes. There’s also that one very notable consumer of all things TV and social media – Donald Trump.
Remember this: Politics – especially congressional politics – isn’t a morality game. At least not right now with the Trump-aligned GOP. At worst, McCarthy lied. At best, McCarthy is guilty of making declarative statements when he shouldn’t have. Either way, today’s House Republican Conference wants him as its leader. For now.
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WHAT IN THE WORLD?
Cawthorn hit with new ethics complaint
Embattled GOP Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.) is facing a new ethics complaint alleging that he’s involved in an inappropriate personal relationship with his scheduler and personal aide that could violate House rules put in place following the #MeToo movement.
The group “Fire Madison Cawthorn” filed a complaint with the Office of Congressional Ethics, the independent ethics watchdog, alleging a number of violations by the first-term lawmaker. You can read the complaint, which was first reported on by the Daily Mail, right here. You should read the full complaint, let’s put it that way.
The Daily Mail report includes a video showing Cawthorn in a car reportedly with Stephen L. Smith, who served as Cawthorn’s scheduler and American With Disabilities Act aide during 2021, according to House disbursement records. Cawthorn was paralyzed in a 2014 car accident.
Smith also reportedly lives in Cawthorn’s North Carolina home. The two have a relationship so close that Smith “joined Cawthorn on his honeymoon to Dubai in 2021.” Cawthorn’s marriage ended after eight months.
Fom the Daily Mail report:
Cawthorn sits in the driver’s seat apparently filmed by Smith as he adopts an exaggerated accent and says, ‘I feel the passion and desire and would like to see a naked body beneath my hands.’
The camera then pans back to Smith who says, ‘Me too’ as Cawthorn can be heard laughing. Smith then films himself reaching his hand over and into Cawthorn’s crotch.
Under House rules, “A Member, Delegate, or Resident Commissioner may not engage in a sexual relationship with any employee of the House who works under the supervision of the Member, Delegate, or Resident Commissioner, or who is an employee of a committee on which the Member, Delegate, or Resident Commissioner serves.”
The OCE complaint against Cawthorn also suggests that the GOP lawmaker provided free housing, travel and loans to Smith, a potential violation of House rules.
Cawthorn, the youngest member of the House currently and one of the youngest in congressional history, posted this comment on Twitter in response to the story: “Many of my colleagues would be nowhere near politics if they had grown up with a cell phone in their hands.”
Which, of course, isn’t a denial of anything.
Luke Ball, Cawthorn’s communications director, called the OCE complaint “ridiculous.” Ball said Smith “is his cousin – they’re family.”
“Fire Madison Cawthorn” is affiliated with Morris “Moe” Davis, the Democratic candidate Cawthorn handily defeated in 2020.
David Wheeler is president of American Muckrakers PAC, the super PAC responsible for “Fire Madison Cawthorn.” Wheeler, a longtime Democratic campaign staffer and volunteer, said the Cawthorn video “was sent to us by an anonymous source,” but didn’t respond to any further inquiries.
Cawthorn has been at the center of an enormous, even exhausting, list of controversies just in the last few weeks alone. His 15 months in Congress is one unending series of scandals. It’s kind of surprising in a way that he’s even lasted this long.
There was a Politico story last week about Cawthorn – who publicly describes himself as “straight” – wearing women’s lingerie “in a party setting.”
Cawthorn also was stopped trying to carry a loaded gun through airport security in Charlotte, N.C. That’s actually the second time this has occurred in just over a year. According to the Washington Post, “Democratic leaders on congressional panels that oversee the Transportation Security Administration are seeking answers about the agency’s handling of such incidents and urging stiffer penalties for repeat offenders.” North Carolina GOP Sen. Thom Tillis is calling for an investigation into whether Cawthorn was involved in insider trading in a cryptocurrency that mocked President Joe Biden.
The big one, of course, was when Cawthorn told a podcast in March that some of his colleagues were having orgies and doing cocaine, comments which spurred a huge backlash in the GOP Conference and earned him a lecture from House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.
OCE can initiate an investigation based on the complaint and send its findings onto the House Ethics Committee, which has the power to sanction any members or staff for rules violations. But the OCE is restricted in what it can during an election year. So this process could drag on into next year.
But we’ll also note the Ethics Committee doesn’t have to wait for OCE to finish a review. The Ethics panel can open an investigation into Cawthorn on its own authority. The secretive committee has been known to do so based on high-profile media reports.
→ Protect Ohio Values, which received a $10 million check from tech billionaire Peter Thiel last year, has a new spot up against Josh Mandel in the Ohio GOP Senate primary. The ad, running in Columbus, Dayton and Cleveland, says Mandel is “another failed career politician squish.” It also features the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and former Ohio Gov. John Kasich saying nice things about Mandel. The ad ends by saying “he’s for them, not us.”
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10:15 a.m.: President Joe Biden will get his daily intelligence briefing.
10:45 a.m.: Speaker Nancy Pelosi will hold her weekly news conference.
1 p.m.: Biden will speak with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
2 p.m.: Jen Psaki will brief the press.
3:15 p.m.: Biden will meet with inspectors general.
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→ “How N.Y. Democrats Lost a Critical Redistricting Battle,” by Nick Fandos
→ “U.S. will ‘strongly support’ NATO bids of Sweden and Finland, Blinken says,” by John Hudson and Sammy Westfall
→ “Amazon Posts First Quarterly Loss Since 2015 as Costs, Rivian Stake Weigh on Results,” by Sebastian Herrera
→ “Elon Musk Sells About $4 Billion in Tesla Stock After Agreeing to Buy Twitter,” by Rebecca Elliott
→ “UN head condemns attacks on civilians during Ukraine visit,” by David Keyton and Inna Varenytsia
→ “An Oval Office visit and a Moscow trip: Inside the Reed deal,” by Eric Tucker
→ “Dems reserve $33M in bid to hold Senate,” by Burgess Everett
→ “Rick Caruso’s campaign spending tops $23 million in L.A. mayor’s race,” by Julia Wick, Benjamin Oreskes and Iris Lee
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