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Image: Kevin McCarthy
Kevin McCarthy on the steps of the Capitol on Jan. 4, 2021.Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images file

Even Kevin McCarthy can't escape Trump's 11th-hour wrath

As House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy is learning, Trump sees no difference between partial loyalty and wholesale betrayal.

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Some politicians believe they must be doing something right when competing constituencies are mad at them simultaneously. But if House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) thinks that now, he's sadly mistaken.

Yesterday, for example, the New York Times' Maggie Haberman noted that as Donald Trump prepares to exit the White House, the top Republican in the U.S. House -- a man who's gone to embarrassing lengths to carry the outgoing president's water for four years -- has become the latest target of Trump's wrath.

"The president has continued to tell advisers and allies he really won the election, with less than 48 hours to go before he leaves office. On the current GOP rift, the president's anger is with every Republican who voted for impeachment but singular for McCarthy, aides say. Associates who've spoken with Trump say he's used the same vulgarity he used about [Vice President Mike] Pence to describe McCarthy, saying he bowed to pressure with his House floor speech."

I think we know which vulgarity the reporting refers to.

And why, pray tell, has Trump turned on one of his most steadfast congressional allies? It all stems from McCarthy's comments arguing against presidential impeachment on the House floor last week.

The California Republican, reading from prepared remarks, was clearly trying to thread a needle: McCarthy simultaneously denounced the idea of impeaching Trump for having incited an insurrectionist attack on the U.S. Capitol, while also trying to appear reasonable about Trump's obvious misconduct.

"The president bears responsibility for Wednesday's attack on Congress by mob rioters," the House GOP leader conceded. "He should have immediately denounced the mob when he saw what was unfolding."

McCarthy went on to say, "Let's be clear: Joe Biden will be sworn in as the President of the United States in one week because he won the election."

For those who've watched the California Republican in recent months, the words rang hollow: McCarthy has helped lead the partisan charge against the election results since November, insisting Trump won the election he'd lost, endorsing efforts to nullify election results through the courts, and even voting against certification of Biden's electoral college victory. The lies that fueled the deadly attack on the Capitol are the same lies McCarthy peddled without shame or regret.

But hoping to spare Trump the humiliation of a second impeachment, the House GOP leader tried a new posture: McCarthy asked people to see him as a grown-up, who recognizes Trump's misconduct, but who also believes accountability is an obstacle toward "unity."

Or put another way, McCarthy pretended to be some kind of clumsy centrist: sensible enough to acknowledge presidential wrongdoing, partisan enough to help lead the charge against impeachment.

The tactic appears to have failed quite spectacularly. For those who've noticed McCarthy participating in an anti-election crusade for months, his brief and grudging acknowledgement of reality was meaningless, and for those who believe Trump must be protected at all times and at all costs, the California Republican's tacit criticism was treachery.

As a result, the GOP leader's mentor, former Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), denounced McCarthy's willingness to perpetuate "phony lies," while his president rages about McCarthy having "bowed to pressure" and failing to show absolute, genuflecting fealty.

As we recently discussed, Trump sees limited loyalty as no different from wholesale betrayal. He expects and demands total allegiance, even when his requests are ridiculous.

Trump had no use for loyalty with caveats or limits. McCarthy said Trump "bears responsibility" for his own actions, at which point, he was an ally no more.

It's an updated version of the Bush Doctrine for a new era of Republican politics: either you're with Trump or you're against him, and to be with him means to be subservient to his every impulse. As the House minority leader now realizes, this includes him, too.