On January 6, Kevin McCarthy was scared, Liz Cheney told millions of Americans watching the January 6 committee hearings. Mr McCarthy, who had joined 146 other Republicans in the House and Senate to overturn the 2020 presidential election, had reportedly tried to talk some sense into Donald Trump.
Mr Trump did not seem phased by the threat, and told the then-House minority leader, “Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are,” to which Mr McCarthy said “Who the f*** do you think you are talking to?” In the days after, Mr McCarthy had a chance to unhitch his wagon to the man for whom he had once prepared a bowl of strawberry and cherry Starbursts. Behind closed doors, he told his fellow Republicans, “I’ve had it with this guy.”
Had he performed the exorcism of Mr Trump from the GOP body politic, he would never become Speaker, a position he had coveted since at least 2015 when he failed in his attempt to win the gavel after John Boehner fell. But he would probably be remembered as the man who made the hard call to help the GOP move on and would earn the gratitude from his party in the succeeding years.
Instead, he made a decision that would earn him the speakership but also lead to his undoing: he chose to accommodate the most extreme factions of the GOP. But in doing so, Mr McCarthy wound up making too many promises he could not keep to the most extremists factions, trying to appease extortionists who never would be satisfied and alienated Democrats by making them see him not as an opponent who was nonetheless a patriot but a snivelling quisling for Mr Trump who relished angering them.
Now, he may be remembered in history as a Speaker. He will likely get a portrait in the Speaker’s Lobby of the House. But he will hold the dubious distinction of being removed by a motion to vacate, and he will have been deposed at the hands of his longtime nemesis, Rep Matt Gaetz (R-FL), the only other member of the House who has so openly pandered to the MAGA wing of the GOP.
A week after the assault, he said solemnly with Rep Lauren Boebert (R-CO), the pro-MAGA congresswoman behind him, “the president bears responsibility for Wednesday’s attack,” all the while arguing against impeachment, saying it would “further divide this nation.” Weeks later, he flew down to Mar-a-Lago to patch things up with the man who once called him “my Kevin.”
In the weeks and months afterward, at every turn, he chose to protect not the sanctity of the instutition of the House of Representatives, but rather the MAGA extremists. When House Democrats voted to remove Marjorie Taylor Greene from her committees for spouting racist bile and antisemitic conspiracy theories, he ruefully warned “You'll regret this, and you may regret this a lot sooner than you think.”
That earned him Ms Greene’s undying devotion so that when he tried to whip the votes in the early hours of 7 January 2023, she got Mr Trump on the phone to try and save him. He reportedly told allies “I’ll never abandon that woman.”
In the same vein, when Rep Paul Gosar (R-AZ) posted a doctored animation with a character that had his head photoshopped onto it killing a character with Rep Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez ‘s (D-NY) head photoshopped on, he chose not to reprimand Mr Gosar but vociferously defend him and threaten to remove Democrats. When I asked Ms Ocasio-Cortez at the time if Mr McCarthy was being skittish about punishing Mr Gosar, she told me that Mr McCarthy “is not skittish, he is encouraging of this behaviour.”
He would make good on that promise by reinstating Mr Gosar onto his committees when Republicans won the majority, despite the fact Mr Gosar did not initially back him. He then took the additional step of removing Reps Adam Schiff (D-CA) and Eric Swalwell (D-CA) from the House Intelligence Committee for laughable reasons while staging a vote to remove Rep Ilhan Omar (D-MN) from the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Those decisions would seal his fate since they gave Democrats all the reason not to save him. Had he not exacted vengeance on Democrats on behalf of the most vitriolic and despicable voices of his conference, they might have seen a reason to preserve him in the chair by voting “present” or at least not actively voting to depose him. In the end, Mr Swalwell, Ms Ocasio-Cortez, Ms Omar and Mr Schiff all voted to vacate Mr McCarthy. None of them will lose sleep over it and if anything, it likely will bolster Mr Schiff to the US Senate while Mr McCarthy goes home in shame.
In the same respect, Mr McCarthy chose at every opportunity granted to obstruct attempts to hold MAGA Republicans accountable for their actions on January 6. After initially defending her, Mr McCarthy eventually led the charge to depose Ms Cheney from her spot as chairwoman of the House Republican conference, hoping to rid himself of this meddlesome principled Republican. He endorsed her primary challenger, which led to the ultimate defeat of the daughter of an archconservative former vice president.
In his sanctimonious address after January 6, he proposed creating a bipartisan commission regarding the attack on his workplace, only to oppose such a measure when it actually came to the floor.
When Democrats created a select committee, he appointed two major firebrands and allies of Mr Trump – Reps Jim Jordan (R-OH) and Jim Banks (R-IN) – knowing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi would not accept them, almost daring her to remove them, which she did. In response, he threw a temper tantrum and withrew the rest of his members, all the while Mr Jordan seemed to blame Ms Pelosi for the riot.
Mr McCarthy may have chosen to do so to cover his right flank. Mr Jordan had played a role in deposing Mr Boehner and proved to be a thorn in the side of former speaker Paul Ryan. He likely hoped Mr Jordan would not dole out the same fate and indeed, when the time came for Republicans to pick a new Speaker, Mr Jordan urged conservatives who wanted to nominate him – including Mr Gaetz – to get behind Mr McCarthy.
Meanwhile, he likely hoped his friendship with Mr Trump would save him, but it meant Mr Trump would back unelectable candidates, giving the GOP a much slimmer majority than they wanted and meaning he could not ignore the obstructionists.
In an attempt to appease them, he pulled the political equivalent of “putting a loaded gun on the table, and turning off the lights,” to borrow from Benoit Blanc, when he allowed for a single member to file a motion to vacate the chair. He likely hoped that would satisfy conservatives so they had a way to redress their grievances. Instead, he all but dared them to pull the trigger, at one point telling his conference “file the f***ing motion.”
All the while, he seemed to take his friends for granted. During the fracas early on 7 January of this year, Rep Tim Burchett (R-TN) tried to quell Mr Gaetz and whispered in his ear, which led to Mr Gaetz relenting in his feud with Mr McCarthy – though Mr Gaetz didn’t vote for Mr McCarthy. During those votes, Rep Nancy Mace (R-SC) enthusiastically cast her vote for Mr McCarthy, at one point doing so by saying “Only Kevin McCarthy.”
But this last week, he finally pushed his luck in seeing how far he could take his friends. After going 12 rounds with the conservatives who brawled with him earlier this year on spending bills, he realised no amount of concessions would satiate their appetite for humiliating him. So he did what he always would have to do: pass a clean spending bill to keep the government open with the help of Democrats.
That infuriated his allies, including Ms Mace, who said a continuing resolution represented “what we always do to bulls*** the American people” and when I asked Mr Burchett whether he thought this would lead to Mr McCarthy’s end, he said “You gotta find somebody to get enough votes.”
For a while, I thought they might might be bluffing. But it turned out, they had finally had enough and both of them voted to depose Mr McCarthy. For the longest time, I had criticised Ms Mace for paying only lip service to standing up to leadership, including Mr Trump. At one point, I even called her the most useless person in Washington for sucking up to Mr Trump to win re-election. But she finally hit her limit with Mr McCarthy.
On Monday, Mr Burchett told reporters he’d pray about whether to vote to oust McCarthy. On Tuesday, he voted to boot Mr McCarthy and told CNN he did so because Mr McCarthy “when I get a call from the speaker and he belittles that, to me, that shows another reason why we need a change in leadership.”
Incidentally, Mr Burchett, despite being an arch-conservative, was one of the sole Republicans who watched Ms Pelosi’s farewell address last year as Mr McCarthy ditched it, saying “she’s always been kind to me.”
When the vote finally came, Mr McCarthy’s chits that should have protected him proved to be worthless. Ms Greene and Mr Jordan voted to keep him in the chair to no avail. Democrats, who viewed him as someone who valued himself over the House, were all too willing to oust him and conservative media did not come to his rescue.
To borrow from Mr Boehner, it costs nothing to be nice, but apparently it costs a Speaker’s gavel to alienate everyone as his colleagues apparently told him, to borrow from a phrase from Mr McCarthy himself, “who the f*** do you think you’re talking to?”
During the January 6 hearings that Mr McCarthy so vehemently opposed, Ms Cheney issued a warning, “I say this to my Republican colleagues who are defending the indefensible: there will come a day when Donald Trump is gone, but your dishonour will remain.” Mr McCarthy’s dishonour will be his lasting legacy.