Trump and Rep. Kevin McCarthy discussed 2022 election during Florida meeting as Trump allies target pro-impeachment Republicans
WASHINGTON – Donald Trump discussed his plans to get involved in the 2022 congressional elections with House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy on Thursday, an indication the former president still has a hold on the GOP weeks after his supporters led a deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol.
At Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida, he and McCarthy "discussed many topics, number one of which was taking back the House in 2022," said a statement from the ex-president's office. "President Trump’s popularity has never been stronger than it is today, and his endorsement means more than perhaps any endorsement at any time."
Republicans lost control of the White House and Senate in the 2020 elections when Trump was atop the GOP ticket.
The Senate appears poised to acquit Trump in February when it holds an impeachment trial on a charge that Trump incited the riot. His allies stepped up attacks against Republican House members who backed impeachment – critics who may face Trump-backed challengers in Republican primaries next year.
Trump's approval ratings fell to record lows after the riot Jan. 6. More recent surveys show him regaining support among Republicans. A Morning Consult/Politico poll this week said 50% of Republican voters say he should play a "major role" in the future of the party.
A week after the invasion, McCarthy said Trump "bears responsibility" for the violence at the Capitol. Since then, McCarthy has taken a much softer tone toward Trump. "I don't believe he provoked it, if you listen to what he said at the rally" before the attack, McCarthy said a week ago. Thursday, his office released an upbeat statement about the meeting, saying Trump is "committed to helping elect Republicans in the House and Senate in 2022."
McCarthy called for "a united conservative movement" that can "strengthen the bonds of our citizens."
Impeachment has split Republicans and threatens divisive primaries that could undercut the party's prospects in elections. Allies of Trump have spoken about plans to target pro-impeachment House Republicans in 2022, attacks designed in part to warn GOP senators against supporting conviction at trial.
As Trump met with McCarthy, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., an outspoken Trump backer, traveled to Wyoming to denounce GOP Rep. Liz Cheney, the most prominent of the 10 House Republicans who voted for Trump's impeachment.
Gaetz and other Republicans seek to remove Cheney from her leadership post – she is the No. 3 Republican in the House – and pledged to back a primary challenger against her next year.
Similar threats have been made to other House Republicans who voted for impeachment and to Senate Republicans contemplating conviction.
Trump has provided few details about how he plans to get involved in next year's congressional elections.
The Trump team said he would work with House Minority Leader McCarthy, R-Calif., and noted that Republicans picked up House seats in the 2020 election – though Democrats retained the majority and won control of the Senate.
Republicans in South Florida said McCarthy's visit is a sign that Trump remains a kingmaker in GOP politics, and the party needs him before the 2022 midterms.
"(McCarthy) is the first in a long line of notables you are going to see down here," said Peter Feaman of Boynton Beach, a member of the Republican National Committee.
Blair Brandt, who served as co-chair of the Trump Victory Finance Committee last year and spearheaded fundraisers in Palm Beach, said the party needs money from donors, supporters and the party faithful who are going "through the seven stages of grief.”
“Unity is the name of the game for Republicans right now,” Brandt said. “We need addition not subtraction."
Republicans await the results of the Senate impeachment trial.
Conviction would require the votes of at least 17 Republican senators – and only five voted this week to even hold the trial. The 45 other Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., supported a motion saying the trial is unconstitutional because Trump is no longer in office. The motion failed, but the vote count showed Trump could be headed for acquittal.
If the Senate does convict Trump, it would then vote on whether to bar him from future office – action that would nullify another Trump presidential run in 2024.
Members of Trump's political team distributed a survey from John McLaughlin, a Trump campaign pollster, claiming that Cheney's impeachment vote "makes her extremely vulnerable" in next year's reelection bid.
Cheney has expressed no concern about reelection or her impeachment vote, saying Trump "summoned this mob, assembled the mob and lit the flame of this attack."
Other Republicans support Cheney, arguing the party needs to divorce itself from Trump if it's to have any hope of regaining control of Congress.
Members of an organization called the Republican Accountability Project aim to raise $50 million to defend the 10 House Republicans who backed impeachment. The group plans to speak out against GOP members who helped Trump try to overturn Joe Biden's election.
There is a "hot civil war" brewing within the Republican Party, said Sarah Longwell, executive director of the Republican Accountability Project, and members should try to resist Trump's effort "to try to own the Republican Party."
"It's bad news for the party, and it's bad news for the country," she said.
Lara Brown, director of the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University, said she is "astonished" that so many Republicans believe a Trump-led party would be successful.
The party lost the presidency and control of the Senate before the violent insurrection led by Trump supporters, she said. In 2018, Trump-led Republicans lost control of the U.S. House, rendering McCarthy and his GOP colleagues to minority status.
McCarthy would be wise to urge Trump against primary challenges to "disloyal" Republicans, Brown said. Those kinds of races would divide the party further as it attempts to win back control of the House and Senate and make McCarthy the speaker of the House.
"McCarthy is trying to say, ‘Let's all support a big tent party, so we can win back the majority,’” Brown said. "I doubt Trump will go for this because he is not a party player."