WASHINGTON - On the morning the House Jan. 6 committee held its second public hearing, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., was across town, echoing an instruction he has repeatedly given fellow Republicans: Ignore it.
Speaking to donors gathered at the Georgetown Four Seasons, McCarthy instead recommended Republicans talk about other issues that could help them regain the majority in both chambers of Congress, according to people familiar with the meeting, such as the soaring inflation rate and record-high gas prices - all under Democrats watch.
While most rank-and-file members in the Republican House conference have heeded his direction, another influential Republican has tuned into every hearing and has grown increasingly irate - to “the point of about to scream at the TV,” according to a close adviser - with what he views as the lack of defense by his Capitol Hill allies.
Former president Donald Trump has said privately for months that McCarthy’s decision to pull pro-Trump Republicans from sitting on the Jan. 6 select committee was a mistake, one that has become clearer as Trump watches the hearings that are working to build the case that he should be criminally charged for conspiring to overturn the 2020 presidential election.
According to a close adviser, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to detail private conversations, Trump has made it clear to anyone who will listen that “there’s no one to defend me” on the dias before, during or after the hearings. The blame is falling squarely on McCarthy’s shoulders, according to some Republican congressional aides and advisers close to the former president.
Several Trump advisers said they were particularly frustrated they had no insight into the committee’s discussions, plans and divisions so they could better prepare for what was coming.
McCarthy’s bet to exclude the pro-Trump GOP perspective from the investigative committee could prove costly as he works to secure Trump’s support for his eventual speakership bid if the GOP regains the House majority. While most in the conference have brushed off Trump’s anger, any brash reaction from him could inflame his allies in the GOP conference who have remained noncommittal on whether they would vote for McCarthy to be the top leader - a small but significant group who could quickly jeopardize his chances.
McCarthy has acknowledged his ascension to the speakership is not assured without the support of Trump’s base. According to a person familiar with the discussions, he has approached Steve Bannon in recent months to stop him from pushing the idea of Trump being speaker.
McCarthy allies argue he had no other option but to pull Republicans from the committee after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s move to bar Reps. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, and Jim Banks, R-Ind., from being seated on the panel because they could be called as witnesses by the committee. McCarthy also tapped GOP Reps. Troy Nehls of Texas, Rodney Davis of Illinois and Kelly Armstrong of North Dakota to participate, choices that Pelosi, D-Calif., approved.
Trump has pushed allies to make it clear that he has not endorsed McCarthy for the speakership whenever they can, and he told conservative talk show host Wayne Allyn Root over the weekend that he has only backed McCarthy’s reelection campaign.
“No, I endorsed him in his race. But I haven’t endorsed anybody for speaker,” he said in the interview.
Asked Tuesday about Trump’s displeasure with the lack of Republicans on the panel, McCarthy acknowledged speaking with the former president the day before after that talk show interview. He skirted around the question and another about Trump trying to overturn the election, saying the most important issue on people’s minds is rising prices.
“We’ve watched what Nancy Pelosi has done with this political committee. One thing I know is that since Nancy has appointed to this political committee, gas has gone up $1.86,” he said at a Tuesday news conference. He added that Democrats are “focused on an issue that the public is not focused on. The public is focused on why is inflation so high, why is the border insecure, crime is rising, everything is costing more.”
McCarthy’s office did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this story.
McCarthy is no stranger to overcoming potential trouble with the former president, most recently when leaked audio revealed he was intent on asking Trump to resign after Jan. 6. While Republicans waited with bated breath about how Trump would respond, many were surprised to discover that he reveled in knowing McCarthy never actually asked him to step aside, which he saw as a source of his lasting influence over the party.
But in recent weeks, Trump allies, including Bannon, have been repeatedly telling Trump that McCarthy’s decision not to seat Republicans was a “strategic failure” that shows he could be weak in directing oversight hearings on the Biden administration if he’s chosen to be speaker, according to two people familiar with the conversations. That perception has stuck with Trump, as has the recognition that there are few options of who else could replace McCarthy as the top leader.
Once it became clear that Pelosi would not budge on allowing Jordan and Banks on the panel, all five gave McCarthy their blessing to withhold participation on the committee. Shortly thereafter Pelosi announced she would seat Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, R-Ill., to join the eight other picks she made for the committee that already included Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo.
Their participation, McCarthy told donors in Georgetown, has somewhat undercut the argument that the committee and its findings are “illegitimate” given that they can argue bipartisanship.
A person familiar with McCarthy’s argument said he has told Trump that had he cooperated with the committee and installed members, it would be harder to attack the committee as political and they would be responsible for more of the committee’s findings. McCarthy also argued that he could not be viewed as weak by letting Pelosi dictate his decisions. But Trump has not relented in growing angry about him, regularly asking why no one is defending him on television, this person said.
In hindsight, some of those members said they would have preferred to have participated but did not blame McCarthy for his decision, because he chose to stand up to Pelosi rather than bend to her request.
“I’m not going to sit here and question leader McCarthy’s judgment whether he should have, shouldn’t have. He made a judgment call,” Nehls said. “But boy, if I did get on that panel, I could have asked some very, very serious deep questions.”
Jordan said they were left with no option, emphasizing that Pelosi would have probably denied other Republicans from replacing him and Banks.
“The hindsight is always wonderful,” Jordan said. “It would be nice if we could cross examine witnesses, if we can see other documents, but that decision was made a year ago when Nancy Pelosi said for the first time in American history, she wasn’t going to let the minority leader put on the committee who he had selected.”
Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., did not directly say whether he wished his colleagues would be on the panel to defend Trump and him. On Tuesday, Arizona Secretary of State Andy Bowers, a Republican, testified that Biggs had tried to get him to sign a letter acknowledging he would support the decertification of electors who would cast a representative ballot for Biden who won the state in 2020.
“I don’t think this was designed to, to get to truth. And as a guy who litigated a lot, you’d never get to the truth if you don’t cross-examine anybody,” he said.
The scenario may have never played out had Senate Republicans approved the creation of an independent commission with five Republicans and five Democrats who would equally share subpoena powers to file a report by the end of last year. Only 35 House Republicans supported the measure, some of whom still believe an independent commission would have saved a lot of headache.
“Until he came out against it, we would’ve have at least 100 votes more in the House to support that bipartisan initiative. But they all bailed when Trump came out against it the night before,” said Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., who voted to impeach Trump.
The lack of Trump-aligned Republicans participating on the panel has allowed committee members to investigate and present their findings without the distractions that have become commonplace in the House hearings regardless of which party is in the majority.
“I think McCarthy’s decision not to recommend responsible people to the select committee was another huge disaster,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., a Jan. 6 panel member who has seen his share of incendiary hearings as the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. “I think it was a strategic blunder of historic proportions. It’s been a good thing for the country because we’ve been able to operate in a nonpartisan fashion without, you know, political disruption.”
Republicans privately argue that their participation would have been limited in similar ways because the minority’s requests are often ignored in established committees, making it pointless to have them on the panel.
“In a new majority, Congress is going to have a robust duty of oversight and all kinds of things that have gone on over the last couple of years,” said Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., who the committee has accused of requesting a pardon from Trump for his role in pushing the president’s false election-fraud claims. Perry denies the allegation.
The five Republican members McCarthy originally appointed are running a “shadow committee” that will center on “the real true story about what took place on Jan. 6″ largely focusing on alleged security failures under Pelosi’s watch, Nehls said. Their report is expected to be released before the August recess.
Davis has pledged to continue investigating security lapses if he survives his primary next week and becomes chairman of the House Administration Committee in a GOP majority. He recently sent a preservation request to Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., for all records currently in possession by the Jan. 6 committee to quickly launch his investigation next year if Republicans take control.
But most members are taking McCarthy’s cue of ignoring the hearing. Numerous members interviewed said they have barely watched them, if they tuned in at all. In one example of the lack of desire to speak about the Jan. 6 committee, Rep. Randy Weber, R-Texas, smacked his forehead when a reporter asked McCarthy about his reaction to Trump’s complaint that no Republicans were coming to his defense at a news conference about Rep. Mayra Flores, R-Texas, who scored an upset victory in the Rio Grande Valley last week.
Dan Conston, who leads the McCarthy-backed Congressional Leadership Fund, said he believes it is fundamentally the right approach for McCarthy to ignore the committee and talk about other topics. He said focus groups and surveys repeatedly show it does not register as a major issue with voters.
“It reflects that the leader and Republicans in Congress are focused on issues that are far more concerning to voters all across the spectrum,” Conston said. “You would be hard-pressed to find swing voters that are saying Jan. 6 is a decisive consideration in their vote.
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The Washington Post’s Paul Kane and Leigh Ann Caldwell contributed to this report.