As President Donald Trump and top Republicans dined on filet mignon at the White House this week, just hours after House Speaker Paul Ryan announced his stunning retirement, Trump and Ryan's top lieutenant found themselves with a moment alone.
Do you really want to be the next speaker of the House, Trump asked Kevin McCarthy, one of his closest allies in Congress. The Californian — the leading but undeclared contender — told the president he wants the job, according to two sources familiar with the conversation.
McCarthy emerged from the Wednesday evening chat confident he had Trump's backing to succeed Ryan, said one of the sources, a GOP operative. Trump tried not to explicitly endorse McCarthy, said the other source, but it was clear the president would be "very happy" for McCarthy to ascend to the post.
Both people spoke anonymously about the conversation because they weren't authorized to relay details of a politically sensitive but possibly critical exchange. Trump's embrace could be crucial for McCarthy, the No. 2 House Republican leader, if he wants to nail down support from conservative lawmakers who have been leery of his GOP establishment ties and could sink his bid.
But even in a contest of Republican lawmakers, a Trump endorsement is a double-edged sword. The president is unpopular in many suburban and other swing districts, and many Republicans don't want their leader to be viewed as beholden to the whims of the unpredictable president. Others bristle at the idea of presidential meddling in their contest.
"This is a matter to be decided by the legislative branch of government, not the executive branch," Rep. Leonard Lance, R-N.J., said of Trump supporting a candidate.
Still, the Trump factor will be hard to avoid. With Ryan's departure slated for January, Republicans will lose another establishment force who, at times, pushed back at Trump.
It's far from clear McCarthy intends to play the same role.
He was one of Trump's earliest supporters and has never flinched as Trump endured criticism for his comments on women, minorities and others.
Since Trump's election, the two have advertised their close relationship and a buddy-movie-style bond. Aides say the two men speak frequently. Trump sometimes calls out "my Kevin" at events.
It's a partnership that's benefited both men.
In McCarthy, Trump has a Capitol Hill confidant who fits the president's tendency to pluck allies from central casting — McCarthy looks the part of the silver-haired politician with his sharp suits and ready smile. McCarthy boosts his conservative credentials every time he is able to flash his link to Trump.
Neither man is tethered to strict GOP dogma, which creates space for the deal-making both favor. Both like to rely on gut political instincts than expertise in guiding decisions.
In one speed bump in their relationship, The Washington Post reported that a leaked 2016 audiotape included a suggestion by McCarthy that Trump was being paid by Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom Trump repeatedly praised during the presidential campaign. McCarthy aides said the remark to other GOP leaders was a bad joke.
The leadership vacancy comes at an awkward time for a GOP that could face massive losses in this November's congressional elections, perhaps losing House control. That would make the top Republican in the House the minority leader, not speaker. Many Republicans say it's crucial that the party unify behind an effort to pass additional bills on taxes and other subjects and focus on re-election campaigns, not a divisive internal contest over the next leader.
In a sign of the desire to tamp down intra-party squabbling, Ryan himself endorsed McCarthy in an interview to be broadcast Sunday on NBC News' "Meet the Press," saying, "We all think that Kevin is the right person."
Even with backing from the top, McCarthy's grasp on the top job is uncertain. In 2015, his effort to succeed Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, flopped in just a few days as he failed to corral enough votes, especially from conservatives.
As if to underscore that problem, a leader of the hard-right House Freedom Caucus said he's "open to running" and has been encouraged by colleagues to do so. A candidacy by Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, would seem all but certain to fall short and would be widely viewed as a way for that group's roughly 30 members to win leverage by trading their support for promises of leadership and committee posts.
Ryan's successor will need to secure 218 GOP votes because the entire House votes on the speaker and all Democrats would be sure to oppose the Republican candidate.
No. 3 House Republican leader Steve Scalise of Louisiana, who is viewed as more conservative than McCarthy, is seen as his top rival for the post. While Scalise has said he wouldn't run against McCarthy — a longtime friend — he's left the door open for seeking the post should McCarthy's effort fall short.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said Friday that Trump "has a great relationship" with McCarthy but declined to say whom he wants as speaker. Aides to McCarthy and Scalise declined to immediately provide comment.
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