How House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy and his team tamed impeachment

Dec 06, 2019
In The News

How House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy and his team tamed impeachment

Written by: David M. Drucker
Published by: Washington Examiner

When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi greenlighted the impeachment proceedings in September, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy made a key tactical decision: He would not worry about blocking it but focus instead on shaping public opinion and influencing lawmakers poised to sit as jurors in a Senate trial.


The California Republican spent four-plus years as whip, his party’s chief House vote counter. He intuitively understood that if a previously reluctant Pelosi had opted to put her political muscle behind impeachment, there was little Republicans could do to stop her 233 Democrats from voting for it.

McCarthy began huddling with his leadership team and top committee lieutenants, while consulting closely with former congressman Trey Gowdy, to develop a strategy that would unify Republicans in opposition and sow public distrust in the process. Together, they calculated that convincing voters the Democrat-run investigation was unfair, as McCarthy’s brain trust initially suspected and came to believe, it would sully the outcome no matter how compelling were the allegations against Trump.

“It is our responsibility to ensure the jury and the American people understand how unfair and unprecedented this impeachment has been,” McCarthy said in an interview with the Washington Examiner, explaining his approach.

Pelosi on Thursday said the House will vote on articles of impeachment against President Trump. She initiated the process on Sept. 24 amid revelations Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate political rival and possible 2020 challenger Joe Biden, the former vice president’s son, Hunter Biden, and Democratic operatives. Democrats charge that Trump withheld $400 million in military aid from Ukraine to pressure Kyiv. The president says he did nothing wrong, that the aid was delivered, and that Ukraine began no new investigations.

Shortly after Pelosi’s September announcement, McCarthy convened a strategy session in the conference room of his suite of offices on the second floor of the Capitol, looking east to the Supreme Court. In the room were his leadership team, the ranking Republicans on relevant committees, and rank-and-file members with expertise in intelligence, diplomatic, and legal matters.

McCarthy’s first major decision was to draft a letter to Pelosi outlining conditions for a “fair” process. The letter was his idea, but Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, formulated most of the demands. Written as questions, McCarthy asked Pelosi if Republicans would have subpoena power and whether Trump’s lawyers would have rights, among other requests.

Democrats mocked Republicans for advancing a process message, saying it was an attempt to distract from strong evidence against Trump. But House Republicans credit the strategy with maintaining unity in their ranks and turning initially uncertain Senate Republicans against impeachment. They argue it also worked with independent voters, a critical 2020 voting bloc.

“Every American that has served on a jury knows that every side has to be represented,” said Rep. Devin Nunes of California, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, the panel with jurisdiction over the impeachment investigation.

Nunes made another move Republicans consider crucial in a defense of Trump that they view as overwhelmingly successful. Once it was clear the House Intelligence Committee would dominate the process, the congressman asked McCarthy, a friend of 25 years, to temporarily add at least one conservative pit bull to his panel.

McCarthy was wary. The leader wanted methodical inquisitors who would not grandstand on national television, and he thought the existing roster was sufficient. He also was concerned about fostering an atmosphere of exclusion that might fray unity.

But he agreed with Nunes that Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, the top Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, would make a positive addition, and Rep. Rick Crawford of Arkansas agreed to step aside. Rep. John Ratcliffe of Texas, another Republican on the panel viewed as an aggressive questioner, said this unusual willingness by a politician to cede the spotlight was a significant development.

“I was beneficiary, throughout these hearings, of other members yielding me their time because my background might be more suited to cross-examination,” said the former U.S. attorney.

Another strategic element Republicans cite is the dress rehearsals they hold before every public hearing. McCarthy, who attends, does not give his members marching orders or a script, but he encourages them to be “efficient” with their time during testimony.

That has given Republicans ownership of the process and has minimized grumbling, which bubbles up from time to time. Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, who enjoyed a star turn during public impeachment hearings in the House Intelligence Committee for her sharp examination of witnesses, emphasized that she prepared her questions herself.

McCarthy, Stefanik said, “allowed each of us to add our independent twist and encouraged us to focus on issues we thought mattered.”

Thursday, the proportion of Americans who support impeachment stood at 47.8%, according to the FiveThirtyEight average of polls, just below the 48.5% who backed it the day public hearings began in the Intelligence Committee on Nov. 13.

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