While the rest of the Republican establishment was in full-fledged panic that Donald Trump was marching to the nomination, Kevin McCarthy made a different calculation altogether.
The “intensity” of support for Trump and his appeal to new voters could help the GOP win, the House majority leader mused in the heat of the presidential primary in March. “Trump’s message … if you look at different pockets, he brings Democrats over,” McCarthy said at a policy forum in Sacramento, California.
Story Continued Below
Those encouraging words — and continued loyalty, as the affable 52-year-old Californian stuck by Trump when other Republicans bailed in the final weeks of the campaign — has produced one of the most unsung alliances in Washington these days.
McCarthy speaks with Trump several times a week by phone. And Trump dotes on McCarthy, too, even referring to the No. 2 House Republican as “my Kevin.”
“They have a good relationship: Trump trusts Kevin,” said Rep. Richard Hudson, a North Carolina Republican who’s close to McCarthy. “Kevin reached out early on to have a dialogue … and they just developed a trust over time.”
It’s a surprising reversal of fortune for McCarthy, who just 16 months ago had to ditch his bid for speaker in the face of conservative opposition. Now, ironically, the guy who failed to replace John Boehner has sway with the White House matched by few others in Congress.
The unlikely friendship between the “drain the swamp” president and a career politician grew in part because of Trump’s rocky history with Speaker Paul Ryan. Multiple sources told POLITICO that McCarthy acted as a conciliator between the two men during the campaign — defusing tensions when Ryan criticized Trump or Trump attacked Ryan.
Trump said as much during an inauguration luncheon last month.
“Kevin would call me in the heat of battle, right Kevin? And I’d be fighting with Paul,” Trump said. “And I appreciate it, Kevin!”
The shuttle diplomacy went both ways. McCarthy had urged Ryan to stand by Trump despite his never-ending controversies. And after the election, when Trump’s supporters were urging the new president to dump Ryan, McCarthy made the case that Trump needed the policy-savvy speaker to get his agenda through Congress.
“When Trump was waffling on Paul, [McCarthy would] call Trump and say, ‘Listen… You’re going to need traditional Republican voters, and a lot of them like Paul. … It doesn’t help rally people to your cause when you attack Paul,’” said a source close to McCarthy. “And likewise with Paul, [McCarthy] was saying, ‘You’ve got to find a way to get there’” with Trump.
“I fought hard to bring the conference together behind Trump,” McCarthy told POLITICO in an interview, when asked why Trump was fond of him. “Part of my job was helping him understand who could be his allies inside Congress. But also showing the assets of [a President] Trump to the members.”
McCarthy and Trump didn’t know each other before the campaign. That changed in March, after Trump spotted a Sacramento Bee story quoting McCarthy saying he thought the ex-reality TV star could be a boon to Republicans.
McCarthy hadn’t endorsed Trump by then. In fact, his fellow Republicans gave him flack for suggesting a few days earlier on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that Trump had momentum to win the primary. But Trump was grateful and tweeted out the story with praise: “Thank you Kevin. With unification of the party, Republican wins will be massive!”
A few weeks later, Trump called McCarthy from his cellphone. And going forward, McCarthy made a point of checking in with Trump several times a week.
The bond with Trump came at a sensitive time for McCarthy. He stumbled badly during an October 2015 TV interview when he suggested the House Benghazi investigation was designed to hurt Hillary Clinton politically. Republicans were furious, and a week later McCarthy had to drop his bid for speaker.
McCarthy used his exhaustive knowledge of the House Republican Conference — accumulated over years of corralling votes as a former whip — to advise Trump. Republicans joke that the onetime deli owner can recall not only their kids’ names but which subjects they’re failing and their favorite colors.
“He likes to reach out and has friendships … everywhere,” said Rep. Tom Graves (R-Ga.).
McCarthy would call up Trump with intel on how lawmakers were reacting to something the candidate said or proposed. When their schedules overlapped, they’d try to get together — meeting up, for example, on Trump’s private jet after one California rally.
Trump would tease McCarthy about helping him win California; McCarthy would fill in Trump on the latest in Congress.
“Kevin appreciated the larger political dynamic, which was that for Republicans to broadly be successful, we needed Trump to be successful,” said a source close to McCarthy. “He knew it wouldn’t be helpful for us to be attacking Trump or for Trump to be attacking us. The perception that would be created outside D.C. wouldn’t be good for anybody — establishment Republicans or Trump voters.”
McCarthy’s toughest test in his role as middleman between Trump and D.C. Republicans came during the low point of Trump’s general election campaign: the publication of the “Access Hollywood” video showing Trump bragging about groping women. As senior Republicans debated how to handle the situation — and a parade of vulnerable lawmakers cut bait — McCarthy urged caution.
His message, as described by sources who spoke with him: Take a deep breath, but don’t abandon our nominee.
“He thought the idea that somehow Trump would drop out, or the party would remove him, was preposterous,” said the source close to McCarthy. “So, at the end of the day, whether we had differences or not … it didn’t serve either side’s interest to be shooting at each other.”
Ryan, for his part, said he was “sickened” by the video and canceled a joint campaign appearance with Trump in Wisconsin. Ryan also told the Republican conference — on a private call that quickly leaked to the media — that he would no longer defend the candidate. Furious, Trump responded by calling Ryan a “very weak and ineffective leader.”
McCarthy again found himself playing mediator. He called up Trump to tell him that headlines about Ryan dumping him were overplayed. McCarthy explained that Ryan was trying to give moderate members of the conference cover, and he pointed out that Ryan didn’t withdraw his endorsement.
Nowadays, McCarthy talks to Trump mostly about the House legislative schedule, which McCarthy oversees as majority leader. Trump recently hired two McCarthy staffers to join the White House, including his former floor director, Ben Howard.
“The president himself has publicly said how much he likes Kevin, and that corroborates what we know to be true privately,” said Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), a close friend of McCarthy’s. “I think President Trump’s relationship with Paul [Ryan] is quite good. But I just think there is a consistency and a familiarity with Kevin — and there’s nothing wrong with having two people you can call as opposed to just one.”