WASHINGTON - The show of force from Donald Trump’s staunchest congressional allies began almost immediately after 13 House Republicans voted this month in favor of a massive infrastructure bill that handed President Joe Biden one of the biggest victories of his tenure.
“Traitor Republicans,” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., declared in a series of tweets where she posted their office phone numbers after vowing that all those in her party who “hand over their voting card to Nancy Pelosi to pass Biden’s Communist takeover of America will feel the anger of the GOP voter.”
Others chimed in. Rep. Madison Cawthorn, R-N.C., promised to “primary the hell” out of any Republican who voted for the measure.
Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., tweeted it was “Time to name names and hold these fake republicans accountable.” And, this past week, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., told a pro-Trump podcast that there was never a situation during the infrastructure debate in which Republicans should work with Democrats: “They were going to win it all, or we were going to win it all.”
The continuing turmoil in the House GOP conference over how and whether to punish members who back anything supported by Democrats shows how an emboldened group of far-right House members is gaining influence over the Republican Party in Congress. These representatives are positioning themselves to further purify the House GOP conference as a branch of Trump’s “Make America Great Again” movement.
This MAGA squad consists largely of a handful of recently elected members and others who lack the traditional trappings of power such as committee chairmanships or leadership posts. But they have rocketed to fame - especially on the political right - with massive social media followings, frequent appearances on pro-Trump media and growing fundraising networks that get a boost with every provocative tweet or TV hit.
Most of all, they enjoy support from former president Donald Trump, the most popular figure in the Republican Party, who praises them at rallies and echoes their incendiary rhetoric.
They have gained strength with the acquiescence of House GOP leaders who have either backed their positions or remained mostly silent when others in the party have raised objections to their approach. And they are asserting their influence as polls suggest the Republicans are on track to win control of the House next year, giving them a potentially decisive say in whether House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., becomes speaker.
Besides targeting the Republicans who backed the infrastructure bill - unleashing a wave of threatening calls placed to the offices of the 13 - these lawmakers in recent weeks have led the charge to recast the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol and the effort to overturn the 2020 election results as defiant acts by patriots, not insurrectionists, and they have defended Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., for posting an altered anime video that depicted him killing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and swinging two swords at Biden.
Their influence, or the fear of crossing them, has been apparent when Democrats have sought to punish them for violent or extremist rhetoric, with almost the entire Republican conference rallying to their side.
When the House voted to strip Greene of her committee assignments in February, only 11 Republicans voted with the Democrats even as some GOP members made clear they rejected her past violent and conspiratorial comments. This past week that number fell to two on a resolution to censure Gosar and kick him off his committees, and this time most members focused their public remarks on attacking Democrats rather than addressing Gosar’s actions.
“I think I have the support nationally, and it’s because I speak what regular people say. I speak what Republicans say at home, and you know, at dinner. I’m saying what they say in their breakfast meetings before work,” Greene said. “I’m saying what they’re saying at church and saying what they’re saying in their Bible studies. I’m saying what these parents are saying, when they’re going to their school boards.”
The Trump loyalists’ influence reflects the nature of today’s Republican Party, which treats the MAGA squad as celebrities - not the fringe they might have represented in the party of Reagan, the Bushes or McCain.
For House Republicans, this means that members who have associated with white supremacists, used violent political rhetoric, spread Trump’s false claims about the election and compared pandemic public health restrictions to the Nazis’ treatment of Jews are becoming a bigger part of the party’s public face - a role that may only grow if Trump continues to embrace and publicly boost them.
“It stuns me and surprises me that some of the voters still send these people back. But that’s their choice and, as frustrating as that is to me, if that’s who they sent, then their voices are going to be heard here,” said Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, whose views align more with the party’s pre-Trump brand of conservatism. “It’s the job of the voters to discipline - it’s the job of the voters to decide who gets to come [to Congress] and who doesn’t get to come.”
Some House Republicans pushed back against the idea that Greene, Boebert and their cohorts hold outsize influence, noting that none of the 13 members who voted for the infrastructure bill have been punished by the party in any way, even if their offices have been on the receiving end of threatening and vulgar messages from voters.
“I don’t think it represents the mainstream, and sometimes the minority part of a party is the loudest,” said Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., who voted for the roads, bridges and broadband funding.
But the MAGA squad’s elevated place in the party was on display Thursday when both Trump and McCarthy rallied to their side a day after Gosar was censured by the House.
Rather than move on from the debate over Gosar’s behavior, McCarthy told reporters that not only would he restore the committee assignments of Gosar and Greene but that he also would likely give them more prominent positions if Republicans win control of the chamber in the midterm elections.
“They may have other committee assignments. They may have better committee assignments,” he said. “I think with Gosar, those are the ones he wants. Taylor Greene, she was just a freshman. I know she has requested others. She has the right to serve on committees.”
That was followed later in the day by a ringing endorsement of Gosar from Trump. The former president made clear that he stood behind the embattled Republican who has stirred controversy at almost every turn, including playing a prominent role at an event this year hosted by an activist who has defended racial segregation and minimized the Holocaust.
“Congressman Paul A. Gosar has been a loyal supporter of our America First agenda, and even more importantly, the USA,” Trump said in a statement. “Paul is a Congressman who is highly respected in Arizona, strong on Crime, Borders, our Military, and our Veterans. He continually fights for Lower Taxes, Less Regulations, and our great, but under siege, Second Amendment. Paul A. Gosar has my Complete and Total Endorsement!”
Trump’s support has been key to the group’s rise and to keeping McCarthy and other GOP leaders from pushing back against their extremist and inflammatory statements.
Trump told advisers on Wednesday that he was happy McCarthy kept his members together in support of Gosar during the censure vote, even though Trump is not personally close to Gosar. He has complained at times that McCarthy does not treat Greene, who serves as an opening act at the former president’s rallies, as well as he should, according to these advisers who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe his private remarks.
In one of his final meetings at the White House, he described her to McCarthy and others as “terrific,” according to a person in the room for the meeting.
“Isn’t Marjorie Taylor Greene wonderful? Isn’t she terrific?” Trump said.
Trump has spoken with Greene the most out of the group of House loyalists, often ranting about Gov. Brian Kemp, R-Ga., and his decision not to back Trump’s false claims about election fraud in Georgia, according to two Trump advisers. The former president’s team has invited her to various rallies because she is popular with the crowd, breaking the usual rule of having speakers only from the state where the rally is held.
Others in the group have ties to Trump they can rely on as well.
Cawthorn spoke at Trump’s re-election convention in 2020 and Boebert recently went to Mar-a-Lago for a dinner and posed with Trump wearing a “Let’s Go Brandon!” dress - a phrase that is code for a vulgar denunciation of Biden. She has been at the club in the past, and Trump has described her as entertaining, though they do not speak regularly, according to people familiar with their relationship.
Gaetz has been an outspoken booster of Trump since he arrived in the House in 2017 and has been a lead defender of former Trump adviser Stephen Bannon’s decision not to cooperate with the House panel investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol and Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election results.
The House voted in October to find Bannon in criminal contempt of Congress for not complying with a subpoena from the committee, and the Justice Department announced this month that it will prosecute him for not complying with the panel’s request for information.
“Steve Bannon did nothing wrong,” Gaetz tweeted the day the former Trump adviser was charged with two counts of contempt of Congress.
Gaetz faces his own potential legal problems, with the Justice Department investigating him over an alleged sexual relationship with an underage girl, according to people familiar with the matter. The Florida congressman has portrayed himself as being unfairly targeted because of his close relationship with Trump.
Gaetz and Greene have also been leading proponents, with the backing of popular Fox News personality Tucker Carlson, of the attempt to rally Republicans to the defense of people arrested for their role in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, likening them to political prisoners and visiting the jail where many are being kept to argue they are facing harsh incarceration conditions because of their support for Trump.
House GOP leaders have avoided clashing with the group, and their reluctance to challenge the attacks on the 13 supporters of the infrastructure package led to some hard feelings within the conference.
McCarthy tried to temper the criticism being directed at the members during a closed-door meeting of the conference last week, arguing that it was a distraction from the party’s effort to focus its criticism on Democrats, according to three aides familiar with the gathering.
But that message went unheeded by the MAGA squad and like-minded Republicans, such as Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, leading some members to say the leadership didn’t do enough to defend the lawmakers who voted for the bill.
“I think that leadership needs to be more assertive about the internecine feuds. I think they need to step in and quiet that down,” said Rep. Tom Rice, R-S.C., a conservative who voted to impeach Trump and opposed the infrastructure package. “Somehow we’ve gotten this idea that we’ve got to be voting for the team no matter how it affects your district or your country.”
But McCarthy’s soft touch toward the boisterous Trump loyalists hasn’t won him their affection, and some have said they may not vote for him as speaker if Republicans retake the chamber next year.
“What’s particularly problematic is there’s no willingness to fight for people like me. ... There’s no accountability for Republicans that are helping Joe Biden pass his agenda,” Greene said. “So you know, that’s not leadership. Leadership leads and doesn’t work so hard to count up votes to be speaker when we haven’t even taken back the majority.”