Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American
April 27, 2022
Last night, New York Times reporters Alexander Burns and Jonathan Martin released more of the audio recording of Republican leadership that they obtained in the process of writing their forthcoming book. This recording features a conversation among the House leadership on January 10, 2021. In it, the two top Republicans in the House of Representatives—House minority leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and House minority whip Steve Scalise (R-LA)—agreed that the Trump loyalists calling out other Republicans as “anti-Trump” were endangering lives, including that of the third-top House Republican at the time, Liz Cheney (R-WY), who was also on the call.
McCarthy noted that Representative Anthony Gonzalez (R-OH) had just sent him a recent tweet from Representative Matt Gaetz (R-FL) about Cheney and that McCarthy was going to talk to Gaetz to get him to stop. “We saw what people would do in the Capitol,” he said. “These people came prepared with rope, with everything else.” Scalise agreed, saying “it’s potentially illegal what he’s doing.”
McCarthy singled out Representatives Gaetz and Mo Brooks (R-AL) as key culprits, but he and the others on the call also discussed Representatives Louie Gohmert (R-TX), Lauren Boebert (R-CO), and Barry Moore (R-AL). McCarthy said he was going to be talking to those people because “this is serious sh*t,” and they needed “to cut this out.” “The country is too crazy,” he said. “I do not want to look back and think we caused something or we missed something and someone got hurt. I don’t want to play politics with any of that.”
And yet, of course, they did not cut it out. Instead, McCarthy did play politics with it. He caved, Cheney lost her position in House leadership, and Gonzalez, once seen as a rising star in the party, announced in September 2021 he would not run for reelection. Gonzalez’s vote to impeach Trump for inciting an insurrection and his support for an investigation into the events of January 6 led Trump supporters to threaten him and his family. In his announcement that he was leaving Congress, Gonzalez called Trump “a cancer for the country.”
Last night, after news broke of the recording, Gaetz issued a statement saying that McCarthy and Scalise “held views about President Trump and me that they shared on sniveling calls with Liz Cheney, not us. This is the behavior of weak men, not leaders…. While I was protecting President Trump, they were protecting Liz Cheney from criticism…. On the bright side, you no longer have to be a lobbyist with a $5,000 check to know what McCarthy and Scalise really think. You just have to listen to their own words as they disparage Trump and the Republicans in Congress who fight for him.”
Gaetz is clearly throwing himself entirely behind Trump. Even his language here is like that of the former president. While Gaetz’s political loyalty is part of a larger story, it is also worth remembering that Gaetz is still under investigation for sex trafficking, and two of his associates have pleaded guilty in that case. One admitted to sex trafficking, and the other admitted to drug and fraud charges. Both are cooperating with authorities. Seeing Trump back in power could smooth Gaetz’s potential legal troubles.
Fox News Channel personality Tucker Carlson also went after McCarthy, calling him “a puppet of the Democrats…a man who, in private, turns out sounds like an MSNBC contributor. The chyron under his monologue read: “KEVIN MCCARTHY HATES PEOPLE LIKE YOU AND THIS SHOW.” News broke today that Carlson, who has openly supported Hungary’s rising authoritarian Viktor Orbán, will speak this summer at the Iowa Family Leadership Summit, a gathering traditionally used to launch presidential campaigns.
Meanwhile, excerpts from that same new book say that early in the morning of January 7, after the January 6 insurrection, then–Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell told Martin: “I feel exhilarated by the fact that this fellow [Trump] finally, totally discredited himself.” McConnell said of Trump, “He put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger,” adding, “Couldn’t have happened at a better time.” McConnell vowed to crush the extremist “sons of b*tches… in the primary in ’22.”
And yet now, a year later, the Trump loyalists are running strong, having abandoned the democratic ideology of the U.S. and replaced it with white Christian nationalism. They are embracing the same idea that Russian president Vladimir Putin advances: that the democratic principle of equality is immoral because it does not privilege white, straight, Christian men. They are trying to stop public discussion of race or gender, end the constitutional right to abortion, and center schools around the Christian religion.
While pro-business Republicans could live with these ideas in the past if it meant getting the economic legislation they wanted, Florida governor Ron DeSantis and Texas governor Greg Abbott have illustrated that the Trump wing of the party has abandoned Republicans’ traditional support for business. DeSantis infuriated Republicans as well as Democrats when he demanded a new—and evidently illegal—law to break up the independent governing zone under which the Walt Disney Company operates in Florida unless Disney stops supporting LGBTQ rights. And Abbott’s recent shutdown of trade to and from Mexico in order to “search” for drugs and undocumented immigrants cost the U.S. an estimated $9 billion in gross domestic product while turning up no drugs or immigrants.
Meanwhile, 18 House Republicans, led by Jim Jordan (R-OH), warned Twitter that it could be investigated if it didn’t accept an offer from billionaire Elon Musk for its purchase. This is an uncanny echo of the techniques of the Ukrainian leaders who worked for oligarchs: those leaders used “investigations” to punish opponents, just as Trump hoped to do to Hunter Biden in 2019.
The business Republicans appear finally to be fighting back, at least a little, likely recognizing that the extremes of the Trump loyalists will hurt them with the “suburban” voters they badly need. (By “suburban voters” they usually mean white middle-class voters, although the last census showed that in 2020, about 54% of Black residents within the 100 biggest American metro areas lived not in the cities themselves but in suburban areas.)
This week, they went after Representative Madison Cawthorn (R-NC), in what sure looks like a strategic move to distance the party from the Trump loyalists without actually losing the religious base. Cawthorn’s remarks about being invited to orgies with drugs made headlines a few weeks ago, and he has been embarrassed since by photos of him in lingerie, drinking with women, at a party. Perhaps to distract from that story, Cawthorn tried to take a loaded gun on a plane and was caught—this was the second time he was caught doing this—and then complained that the “political establishment” was out to get him.
Senator Thom Tillis (R-NC) called for a “thorough and bipartisan” investigation of Cawthorn’s potential involvement in an insider trading scheme involving the “Let’s Go Brandon” cryptocurrency, which appears to have been a pump-and-dump scheme. (But former president Trump and his son Don, Jr., also promoted the coin, and no one has complained about their participation.) Cawthorn called Tillis a “RINO,” a Republican in Name Only.
Today, 17 Republicans were the only lawmakers to vote against a House resolution expressing support for Moldova’s democracy. As CNN reporters Melanie Zanona, Manu Raju, and Gabby Orr noted, when Trump loyalists do such a thing, they might be reminding McCarthy of their power to force more concessions on him if he becomes speaker with a small majority, enabling them to move the country in their direction no matter how unpopular they are.
The chaos in the Republican Party inspired Democratic political consultant Tim Hogan to tweet: “At this point I’m willing to believe Kevin McCarthy accidentally turned on a voice memo for the month of January and when he tried to delete it he accidentally forwarded it to the New York Times.”