Inside Kevin McCarthy’s secret promise to expunge Trump’s record

After House Speaker Kevin McCarthy suggested on national television last month that Donald Trump may not be the GOP’s best presidential nominee in 2024, the former president was furious — and wanted the California Republican to rectify the slight immediately.

“He needs to endorse me — today!” Trump fumed to his staff on his way to a campaign event in New Hampshire, according to people familiar with what happened. McCarthy, after all, had indicated to Trump’s team that he would do so eventually. Why not clean up the mess and announce his support now?

But the House GOP leader — who has felt compelled to stay neutral during the primary so as to not box in his own members — wasn’t ready to do that. To calm Trump, McCarthy made him a promise, according to a source close to Trump and familiar with the conversation: The House would vote to expunge the two impeachments against the former president. And — as McCarthy would communicate through aides later that same day — they would do so before August recess.

That vow — made reflexively to save his own skin — may have bought McCarthy some time, staving off a public war with the man who almost single-handedly rehabilitated his entire career and ensured he won the gavel in January. But it has also put McCarthy in a bind — and Trump world plans to hold him to his promise.

Several moderate House Republicans are loath to revisit Trump’s impeachments — especially the charges stemming from the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. (In fact, though only 10 of their GOP colleagues voted with Democrats to impeach Trump after the Jan. 6 attack, several more wanted to but were too worried about threats to their offices and families to take the plunge.)

But should McCarthy follow through, those members won’t have a choice. Given the speaker’s tenuous position with Trump allies in the House and the threat of his ouster looming over every move, McCarthy has no real option but to bow to the former president’s whims — even if it means putting vulnerable frontliners in a precarious political position.

The speaker has denied that he made such a promise to Trump at all, according to one Hill aide. From McCarthy’s point of view, he merely indicated that he would discuss the matter with his members — putting him and Trump on a collision course.

McCarthy’s own leadership team is divided on the matter.

House GOP Conference Chair Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), who many believe is angling to be Trump’s running mate should he win the nomination, has pushed for an expungement vote. In late June, she teamed up with Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) on a resolution that would’ve cleared Trump of the impeachment charges.

But in a recent leadership meeting, moderate Republicans pushed back on the idea, arguing that any expungement vote would be poisonous to the reelections of members in Biden-won districts — particularly given that polling suggests most Americans disapprove of Trump’s actions on Jan. 6.

It’s also unclear whether an expungement vote even has enough support to pass the House, given the GOP’s slim five-seat majority. Two sitting Republicans — Reps. David Valadao (R-Calif.) and Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.) — voted to impeach Trump, and are unlikely to support expungement.

Then, beyond the skittish moderates who’d prefer not to take the vote, there’s the clutch of constitutionally minded conservatives — who, we are told, have privately voiced skepticism that the House has the constitutional authority to erase a president’s impeachments.

Some senior Republicans — even those who back Trump — worry that an expungement vote would expose divisions in their ranks and only embarrass Trump if the effort comes up for a vote and loses.

“I’m for Trump,” one senior GOP member tells Playbook. “The problem is: If you have an expungement, and it goes to the floor and fails — which it probably will — then the media will treat it like it’s a third impeachment, and it will show disunity among Republican ranks. It’s a huge strategic risk.”

For now, some in McCarthy’s leadership team are under the impression that a vote won’t happen, with one person calling it “too divisive.” And though McCarthy has publicly backed the push, senior Republicans speculate that his words were merely an attempt to curry favor with the former president.

“I think it’s more of a messaging thing to please Trump,” one senior GOP aide said.

Supporters of expungement argue that despite members’ private reservations about the vote, they will fall in line if McCarthy puts the resolution on the floor. It’s not a far-out theory: most congressional Republicans will go to great lengths to avoid anything that can be seen as a public rebuke of Trump.

Regardless of its likelihood of passage, Trump world plans to hold McCarthy to account on his promise. While the former president knows he is unable to stop the myriad indictments expected to come his way, he believes the House has the power to erase the stain of impeachment from his name.

That vote, in fact, could become even more important to him given that special counsel Jack Smith appears ready to criminally charge Trump over his role in the Jan. 6 attack.

We’re told that Trump brings up the matter in every call he has with McCarthy, prodding the speaker about when he will bring expungement to the floor. McCarthy, however, has already pushed back the timeline. Perhaps realizing how tough such a vote will be, he recently told Trump’s team that the House will vote by the end of September.

But even that timeframe doesn’t look easy: Lawmakers are in session just 12 days that month, and will be working overtime to try to clear a host of controversial spending bills that will surely split the party.

Meanwhile, in Trump’s inner circle, frustration with McCarthy is boiling. The former president and his team think the speaker should have endorsed him months ago, and are befuddled that he has not. Most recently, McCarthy told the Trump team that he can’t back Trump, because he wants to look neutral while the House clears his name on impeachment.

But Trump’s team will only buy that excuse for so long. And if McCarthy doesn’t hold the vote soon, they warn, there will be consequences.

This report first appeared in POLITICO Playbook.


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