WASHINGTON – The two men who now lead the Republican Party usually join during political crises. But the Trumpian chaos that the G.O.P. not only tests Kevin McCarthy, the Minority Leader of the House, and Mitch McConnell, the Senatorial Minority Leader, but also reveals their differences in dealing with the former President and hinders a unified strategy for retaking Congress the next year.
A period of 24 hours in the past week illustrated the challenge facing Mr. McCarthy. In a conference call Wednesday, he directed the House Republicans to “cut the crap,” according to two officials attending. Although he didn’t specify what he was up to, there were many options, from Republicans’ attempt to punish Rep. Liz Cheney for voting on the indictment of former President Donald J. Trump, to Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s extremism in the QAnon supporter whose The Paper Trail of the Conspiracy continues to grow.
Then Mr McCarthy made a pilgrimage to Mar-a-Lago on Thursday to meet with Mr Trump and explain that the former president was “committed to helping Republicans in the House and Senate in 2022”. Hours later, two of Mr. Trump’s most enthusiastic lieutenants, his eldest son and Representative Matt Gaetz, took advantage of a rally in Wyoming to highlight a Republican they want to help vote for next year: whoever challenges Ms. Cheney in her elementary school .
For Mr. McConnell, the path to recovery of the majority is definitely not through Mr. Trump. Mr. McConnell and other prominent Senate Republicans have stopped speaking to Mr. Trump fearing he may be in control of the G.O.P. it will lead to the opposite result that Mr. McCarthy foresees: catastrophe in the party primaries and losses in important Senate races like those in Pennsylvania and Arizona.
Mr. Trump may not be on Twitter and the golf course, but even in his political life after death, he makes life difficult for Republicans in Washington. Just over a week after he left office, a president who during his tenure cared little about the intricacies of Capitol Hill politics devastated the House and Senate. G.O.P. Gatherings that slow down the party’s attempt to unite against the democratically controlled capital.
While few Republican Senate leaders are out to follow Mr McCarthy and join Mr Trump for a photo opportunity, they have so far been unable to break away from the former president. The impeachment process, which begins February 8, and the growing debate over whether the Senate should at least reprimand Mr Trump, set the stage for a Trumpian loyalty test in the same chamber raided by a violent mob earlier this month.
On this front, the two Republican leaders have taken very different approaches, but still managed to irritate their colleagues. Mr McConnell’s hope that the Capitol riots would provide an opening for Mr Trump’s purge from the party has been rejected by the crowd of Senate Republicans, and he has annoyed those in his caucus by not giving them private guidance has offered to deal with the party imminent negotiation. For his part, Mr McCarthy has caused the House of Representatives Republicans to roll their eyes by broadcasting his internal monologue as he alternates between criticizing and defending Mr Trump and Ms. Cheney.
Taken together, the two leaders’ drama has created a dilemma before lawmakers that many of them fear – whether, if defeated, they should continue to adopt Mr. Trump and a demagogic style of politics that delights millions of right-wingers but costs Republicans control over whites House and Congress.
“There are certain elements of the party who are unwilling to move on and are unwilling to say Donald Trump lost,” said Senator Lisa Murkowski, one of only five Senate Republicans who voted against a motion that Declare impeachment proceedings unconstitutional. “That’s a problem.”
Many Republicans, including some in the party’s donor class, have agreed and have put pressure on Congress leaders to distance themselves from Mr Trump. On another trip to Florida last week, Mr. McCarthy told a group of contributors that he was upset that the president had not moved quicker to stop the attack on the Capitol, according to a Republican familiar with the conversation.
Ms. Greene, the newly minted Georgian lawmaker who has been under fire for her years of hateful and bizarre comments, believes the problem is with old guard Republicans failing to see what they think is the new reality.
“The vast majority of Republican voters, volunteers and donors are no longer loyal to the G.O.P.,” she said this month. “Your loyalty now rests with Donald J Trump.”
The vast majority of Republican Congressional lawmakers are somewhere between Ms. Murkowski and Ms. Greene – they are uncomfortable bowing to Mr Trump forever, but equally unwilling to step over the base of the party by joining in the effort to get him from the GOP
As it has been since the presidential election in 2016, the answer for dozens of G.O.P. Members of Congress should vote with their feet and step back. This week, Ohio Senator Rob Portman announced that he would do exactly what he was doing in 2022, which puts many Republicans in a deeper state of dismay.
“I’ve been in Republican politics for 40 years – just after Watergate – and I’ll tell you this was the worst time in all of this,” said Tom Cole, Oklahoma representative, a longtime friend of Mr. Portman .
This is especially true of Republican leaders in the two houses of Congress.
Since December, Mr. McConnell has been concerned with the retirement of his closest colleague, Senator Lamar Alexander; he was blind to Mr. Portman’s decision; his wife, former Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, resigned from the Trump administration in protest; and after watching his beloved Senate desecrate, the bulk of the Senate Republicans rejected his attempt to seize the moment to purge Mr. Trump.
That Mr. McConnell failed to get his colleagues to condemn Mr. Trump and perhaps prevent him from returning to office is his own fault, say some Republicans. He made no attempt to stand up for Republican senators, only telling them that the impeachment process would be a conscience vote.
Some Republicans, like South Dakota Senator Mike Rounds, who harshly criticized the former president after the Capitol attack, began to change their tone when it became clear that their constituents were not bothered by Mr. Trump.
“He could very well be a spokesman for the conservative movement in the future,” Rounds said a few hours before the vote. Less than two weeks ago, Mr. Rounds considered the Forum News Service that Mr. Trump could be criminally charged with instigating the attack in a way that “could prevent him from running again for public office”, saying that “history will hold him accountable”.
Meanwhile, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham publicly defended the former president almost daily while organizing his legal team.
Now it is Mr. Graham who takes victory and foretells a Trump-filled Republican future. “We’re going to need Trump, and Trump needs us,” he said.
But those kinds of remarks, and Mr McConnell’s decision to side with members of his caucus in order to derail the former president’s trial, have left the small number of Senate Republicans who will publicly desperately criticize Mr Trump .
“I don’t know what his calculation was about,” Ms Murkowski said of Mr McConnell’s vote on the impeachment motion. “I wish it had been different.”
Mr. McConnell is not the only Republican Senate chairman to face challenges within the party. Florida Senator Rick Scott, the new head of the Senate campaign for 2022, has irritated some donors for refusing to confirm the election of Mr Biden or to allow Mr Trump to be responsible for the Capitol uprising. During one of his first conference calls with contributors earlier this month, Mr. Scott was asked questions about Mr. Trump, according to a Republican familiar with the discussion.
It’s even more chaotic in the house. Some of Mr. McCarthy’s coworkers complain privately that he was too eager to please the former president and that he humbled himself by posing for photos in Mar-a-Lago shortly after The Times reported that Mr. Trump used a derogatory word on Mr. McCarthy for testifying that Mr. Trump was responsible for the Capitol uprising.
But it is Trump-inspired characters and Trump antagonists that give Mr. McCarthy the most headaches. Some House Democrats are calling for the expulsion of Ms. Greene, who, among other things, advocated a conspiracy theory that the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School was a hoax.
However, Mr Trump has repeatedly praised Ms. Greene, for example at his last rally as president in her Georgia district this month. Some House Republicans fear that if Mr McCarthy strips her of committee assignments, he will only become a far-right more prominent figure and portray himself as a victim of the demolition culture.
Mr. McCarthy may find it more uncomfortable what to do with Mrs. Cheney, the third-rate Republican in the House. A number of House Republicans have called for their overthrow; Florida Congressman Mr. Gaetz spoke at the anti-Cheney rally in the state capital of Wyoming where he put Donald Trump Jr. on the speakerphone to demand their defeat in next year’s primary.
Ms. Cheney has shied away from discussing Mr Trump publicly since her vote, preferring instead to target Mr Biden in the hopes that this will remind her colleagues and constituents of their conservative good faith. In private, however, she has reached out to the Republican allies of the House and asked if she has received a letter of support from G.O.P. Legislators to avert an effort to depose them.
More notably, to some Republican lawmakers and aides, Ms. Cheney has sought to fix her post-impeachment caucus situation by fixing relationships with previous rivals. At a meeting of the House Republicans who will decide what committee will do this week, she expressed her support for the appointment of Kentucky Representative Thomas Massie to the Justice Committee, according to a staff member present. Last year, Ms. Cheney supported a Republican who tried to drop the libertarian Mr. Massie in his elementary school.
While Mr McCarthy has openly criticized the way Ms. Cheney disclosed her support for the impeachment – she failed to give him advance notice and make a blistering statement that the Democrats relied on – he has her a private one, according to a prominent Republican official Advice given with the conversation.
Speaking while both were in Washington for leadership meetings this week, Mr McCarthy told her to phone some of her critics, vent them, and allow the same expression of complaints at the full Republican caucus personal meeting next week.
On Thursday, Ms. Cheney refused to return fire on Mr. Gaetz for showing up in her home state. She was surely pleased with Mr. McCarthy and his warnings about “the crap”. Instead, she trumpeted laws she had introduced that would repeal Mr. Biden’s order to ban drilling in states.
Nicholas Fandos contributed to the coverage.