Column: What hath Kevin McCarthy wrought?

A man in a suit speaks at a microphone
Kevin McCarthy might be speaker of the House, but he’s leader of no one.
(Jose Luis Magana / Associated Press)

How does Kevin McCarthy live with himself? I once asked. Maybe he thinks his life is good now that he’s achieved his dream of becoming House speaker, even if it did take a humiliating 15 ballots.

Yet I’m asking again. Because already in these first two weeks of his congressional “leadership,” the soulless “My Kevin” has signaled that he not only continues to tolerate dangerous rhetoric from prominent Republicans in his fold, but he also effectively rewards them, with prime House committee assignments. What’s more, he’s proved quite capable of menacing talk himself.

Repeat after me: Words matter.

Opinion Columnist

Jackie Calmes

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

With frightening regularity, we get tragic or near-tragic evidence of that truism, plagued as our politics have been by hateful rhetoric since the ascendance of Donald Trump. The latest proof: Monday’s arrest in Albuquerque of a failed Republican candidate who allegedly paid four men to shoot up the homes of four Democratic officials, leaving a sleeping 10-year-old in one house strafed with debris in her bed.

The man had tweeted after his landslide loss in November, “I am the MAGA king.”

In San Francisco, Paul Pelosi continues to recover from the hammer blows that a home intruder intended for his wife, former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. For the first time ever, all 435 House members get $10,000 for security at their personal residences, reflecting the spike in threats to lawmakers since Trump became president in 2017. And recently the defeated president yet again took to social media to attack, by name, the volunteer poll worker in Georgia who’d tearfully testified to the House Jan. 6 committee about the threats she’d suffered after the former president publicly and falsely accused her of election fraud in 2020; his self-appointed stormtroopers even broke into her mother’s home to make a “citizen’s arrest.”

“Do you know how it feels to have the president of the United States ... target you?” she asked.

Some House members who faced her at the committee that day do know what it’s like. California’s Democratic Rep. Adam B. Schiff and former Republican Reps. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, among others, still receive death threats for their anti-Trump, pro-democracy work.


A raft of recent studies documents that political violence and domestic terrorism are disproportionately the work of right-wing extremists. The Republican Party’s continued refusal to acknowledge that dangerous reality and to rein in its provocateurs is a threat to national security.

Both Democrats and Republicans are vulnerable. Trump and his ilk are almost as likely to targetRINOs” (Republicans in name only) as Democrats: Last fall Trump wrote on social media that Mitch McConnell “has a DEATH WISH” after the Republican Senate leader agreed with Democrats on a spending bill. In Missouri, a Republican Senate candidate appeared armed in an ad with several commandos, storming a house to go “RINO hunting.”

Against this backdrop consider just some of McCarthy’s recent words and actions in making — and unmaking — House committee assignments.

Reps. Paul Gosar of Arizona and Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, stripped of committee seats in the previous, Democratic-controlled Congress because of threatening commentary, including suggestions of assassinations of Democratic lawmakers, each got coveted assignments. Greene once denied that the Pentagon was struck by a plane on 9/11, but now she’ll be on the Homeland Security Committee. She and Gosar were the draws at a white supremacists’ convention last year (without facing consequences from McCarthy), and now they’ll be on the Oversight and Accountability Committee, which will be a hotbed for investigations of President Biden and his administration and family.

Greene’s newfound prominence in McCarthy’s House is her reward for doing as much as anyone to make him speaker. Surely you didn’t think he’d hold it against MTG that she told a Republican audience just last month that if she’d been in charge of the Jan. 6 insurrection to overturn Biden’s election, “We’d have won — not to mention, we would have been armed.”

McCarthy long ago assured rival-turned-ally Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio that Jordan would chair the Judiciary Committee once Republicans took control. Now the craven speaker also has put House Freedom Caucus extremists who opposed his elevation, like Gosar, on powerful committees.


Then, to further ingratiate himself with that bunch, he began making good on his threat to oust two California Democrats from the House Intelligence Committee — former Chair Schiff and member Eric Swalwell — in promised payback for Democrats’ sanctions of Gosar and Greene in 2021. Worse, McCarthy did so with false, incendiary attacks on Schiff and Swalwell that are all but certain to stoke the threats of violence both men already suffer.

Of Swalwell, McCarthy told reporters on camera, “If you got the briefing I got from the FBI, you wouldn’t have Swalwell on any committee.” He baselessly claimed that Schiff “openly lied to the American public” to engineer Trump’s first impeachment, for suggesting to Ukraine’s president that his country would lose U.S. military aid unless it produced dirt against presidential candidate-to-be Biden.

The Washington Post’s fact-checker gave McCarthy its worst score, four Pinocchios, concluding that his indictments of Schiff and Swalwell “appear based on figments of imagination.” Schiff aptly called McCarthy’s words “partisan slander,” while Swalwell told hosts of “The View,” “It looks to me like political vengeance.”

If you doubt Swalwell, take it from MTG. In a post Monday on Trump’s social media site, Greene wrote: “Vengeance is mine declares the Lord. God will not let evil go unpunished. The @HouseGOP must do what is right for the American people and no longer serve the Uniparty and the Globalist agenda. America First!”

It’s not God who is taking revenge, though. It’s the new lords of the House like Greene and Gosar, the wrathful powers behind McCarthy’s shaky throne.