Column: Kevin McCarthy would do anything to be House speaker. That’s the problem

A man holding his hands together and standing in front of a backdrop on a stage.
Instead of becoming speaker of the House of Representatives, McCarthy should face an ethics sanction and a subpoena in the federal criminal investigation of former President Trump.
(John Locher / Associated Press)

Leave aside the opposition to House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy from a few right-wing lawmakers whom even far-right pundit Mark Levin calls “boneheads.”

McCarthy should not be speaker of the House.

Just days before the new Republican-majority House is set to choose its speaker, McCarthy still lacks enough votes. The party defectors vow to join all Democrats to oppose the Californian for reasons not altogether clear — and Donald Trump’s endorsement notwithstanding.

Yet no plausible alternative is running, and certainly no Republican who’d be a better choice than the spineless, shape-shifting McCarthy. My guess is his lieutenant, the second-ranking House Republican, Steve Scalise of Louisiana, might be dragooned for the job, much as a reluctant Paul Ryan was in 2015. Back then, McCarthy was the favorite to replace beleaguered Speaker John Boehner, but he couldn’t muster the votes amid a similar right-wing mutiny.

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Jackie Calmes

Jackie Calmes brings a critical eye to the national political scene. She has decades of experience covering the White House and Congress.

For now, most money remains on McCarthy. Yet since his rebuff seven years ago, he has only made it more clear that he does not deserve to hold Congress’ highest office and stand second in line to the presidency.

As House Republican leader, he has been anything but a faithful steward of the institution and the legislative branch. Instead he knuckled under to a would-be autocrat-president, bending the knee even after Donald Trump lost reelection and marshaled an attack on the Capitol in an unprecedented bid to stay in power.

McCarthy is, in short, a political hack who has put his own ambition for high office above the interests of the House and the country. Hence his fealty to Trump, a man he once privately alleged was in Vladimir Putin’s pocket.

“Speaker McCarthy”? This purported protector of the House opposed an independent commission to investigate the Capitol assault on Jan. 6, 2021, even after the current speaker, Democratic Rep. Nancy Pelosi, agreed to his conditions. He refused to cooperate with the House select committee she created as a fallback. He declined to voluntarily provide firsthand information about Trump’s role and state of mind regarding the attempted insurrection, and then ignored a House subpoena.


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McCarthy should face both a House ethics sanction and a compulsory grand-jury subpoena in the federal criminal investigation of Trump. His election as speaker would come just two weeks after the Jan. 6 committee made those very recommendations in its final report, given McCarthy’s and other Republicans’ “willful noncompliance” with House subpoenas.

“If left unpunished,” the committee wrote, “such behavior undermines Congress’s longstanding power to investigate in support of its lawmaking authority and suggests that Members of Congress may disregard legal obligations that apply to ordinary citizens.”

Of course, in a Republican-controlled House, McCarthy and the others will indeed go unpunished. What’s more, McCarthy has vowed the House will investigate the committee’s investigation, and the Justice Department and FBI as well. So much for seeking accountability for those complicit in what happened on Jan. 6 : The mugging of American democracy, to say nothing of the loss of life, the threats to lawmakers and Vice President Mike Pence, the injuries to 140 police officers, the millions of dollars in damage.

“Attorney General Garland: preserve your documents and clear your calendar,” McCarthy tweeted in August. That snark was pretty rich considering that McCarthy, in warning Merrick Garland of a House probe to come, was objecting to the FBI search of Mar-a-Lago that retrieved thousands of government documents Trump absconded with as he left the White House. In a letter last month to the chair of the Jan. 6 committee, Mississippi Rep. Bennie Thompson, McCarthy similarly warned him to preserve all of its materials, though the committee, with a near-daily dump of documentation, has shown no inclination to do otherwise. McCarthy harrumphed that the records belong “to the American people.”

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If only he’d thrown his weight around like that with Trump.

It’s not that, in the moment, McCarthy didn’t recognize the seriousness of Jan. 6, the worst attack on the Capitol since the British burned the place more than two centuries ago. As the committee’s report noted, he sounded “scared” mid-mayhem, according to testimony from Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, when McCarthy phoned him for help in getting Trump to call off his dogs.

McCarthy implored Trump to stop the violence that day. Yet the Jan. 6 committee, without McCarthy’s cooperation, had to rely on secondhand accounts from Republicans McCarthy confided in to get the details of the call. That Trump told McCarthy, “These aren’t my people, these are antifa.” That McCarthy angrily refuted him. That Trump then chillingly replied, “Well, Kevin, I guess they’re just more upset about the election, you know, theft than you are.”

With that dig, Trump essentially confirmed that he knew the mob wasn’t antifa. He’d lied even to “My Kevin.”

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Weeks later, McCarthy made his pilgrimage to Mar-a-Lago to patch things up. In between, he opposed the House impeachment of Trump for inciting the Capitol attack, even though he acknowledged on the House floor that Trump “bears responsibility.”

That’s not grounds for impeachment? Not if, like McCarthy, you need Trump’s support to be elected speaker.

Later, McCarthy reportedly told House Republicans that Trump privately accepted some responsibility. There’s no other evidence of that; Trump has done nothing since Jan. 6 but claim that Joe Biden stole the 2020 election and that the rioters — “patriots” — were thus justified.

In any case, the Jan. 6 committee should have heard from McCarthy himself about all that Trump told him as it gauged Trump’s intent in mobilizing his supporters after the election. A true man of the House would have cooperated. As Rep. Liz Cheney, committee vice chair and Wyoming Republican, said of her shameless colleagues during one hearing, “There will come a day when Donald Trump is gone, but your dishonor will remain.”

For McCarthy, that will be true even if he bears the honorific of speaker.