ORLANDO — House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy spent three days urging his Republicans to stay united if they want to take back the majority. But his own relationship with one of his top deputies is breaking apart over former President Donald Trump.
At a retreat meant to craft a cohesive message, McCarthy (R-Calif.) and GOP Conference Chair Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) illustrated the exact rift the party has fought to avoid. While the former president wasn’t even invited to the House GOP’s annual policy retreat here in the Sunshine State, his presence has loomed large over the gathering.
McCarthy, when asked whether it’s difficult to have harmony in his ranks when Cheney has been so vocal with her viewpoints on Trump, offered up some thinly veiled criticism.
“There’s a responsibility, if you’re gonna be in leadership, leaders eat last,” McCarthy told POLITICO in a wide-ranging interview on Monday. “And when leaders try to go out, and not work as one team, it creates difficulties.”
The California Republican also said he’s privately approached Cheney about toning down some of her remarks. When asked whether Cheney has heeded the advice, McCarthy responded: “You be the judge.”
And at a Tuesday press conference, McCarthy — who has urged Republicans not to attack each other — took another public whack at Cheney.
Asked if she was still a good fit for his leadership team, McCarthy first said it’s a question for the House GOP conference. His members voted less than three months ago to keep Cheney in her leadership spot, at McCarthy’s own urging.
Then when pressed for his personal opinion on the matter, McCarthy told a room full of reporters that "if you’re sitting here at a retreat that’s focused on policy, focused on the future of making America next-century, and you’re talking about something else, you’re not being productive."
Cheney has addressed policy during her time in the Sunshine State but not shied away from questions about Trump. She told the New York Post on Monday that she believes support for Trump-backed challenges to the certification of the 2020 election should be disqualifying for any 2024 Republican presidential nominee.
The growing gulf between Cheney and McCarthy is emblematic of the broader split in the party right now over the former president. And while hardly new, the Cheney-McCarthy schism on full display in sunny Florida was particularly glaring — because it came amid Republican calls for unity as they plotted their path back to power.
Over the past three days, House Republicans at the retreat have been buzzing about Cheney, who has generated headline after headline since her flight touched down.
“She’s the topic of every private conversation,” said one GOP lawmaker.
To be fair, Cheney made news responding to questions from reporters. But the spectacle, whether intentional or not, is an unwelcome distraction for her party.
Cheney also told the Post that she isn’t ruling out a presidential run. And at a press conference earlier that morning, Cheney — who was one of 10 Republicans who voted to impeach Trump — publicly broke with McCarthy over the scope of a commission investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
McCarthy wants a broader scope that explores all kinds of political violence, including the protests that erupted last summer in response to police brutality. But Cheney has called for a different approach, arguing the commission needs to be tightly focused on Jan. 6.
“If we minimize what happened on Jan. 6th and if we appease it, then we will be in a situation where every election cycle, you could potentially have another constitutional crisis,” Cheney said later in an interview with POLITICO. “If you get into a situation where we don’t guarantee a peaceful transfer of power, we won’t have learned the lessons of Jan. 6."
"And you can’t bury our head in the sand," she added. "It matters hugely to the survival of the country.”
McCarthy and Cheney have insisted they have a good working relationship and there’s no bad blood. McCarthy also went to bat for Cheney when some of Trump’s acolytes tried unsuccessfully to oust her from her leadership job.
But there are clear signs the pair’s relationship is more frosty than ever. McCarthy has notably stopped appearing at GOP leadership’s weekly press conferences with Cheney ever since their awkward moment on Feb. 25, when they clashed over Trump’s role in the party. McCarthy also hasn’t committed to defending Cheney from her looming primary challenges, telling reporters in February: “Liz hasn’t asked me.”
He was asked again on Tuesday whether he’d campaign on Cheney’s behalf if she asked him, but McCarthy said he hasn’t talked to her about it.
While Trump wasn’t invited to the retreat this time around because it was more focused on policy, McCarthy isn’t ruling out inviting him to the next gathering. McCarthy also said he was trying to get Trump to film a video to play for the conference, but it didn’t pan out.
But some Republicans wish Trump had been a bigger focal point of the three-day retreat.
“Remember when Republicans lost the House in 2018 because a bunch of them distanced themselves from President Trump?” tweeted freshman Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), who hosted a Mar-a-Lago fundraiser on Saturday. “Not inviting President Trump to the GOP retreat is the same stupid behavior. Funny how they don’t understand a record # of votes and support of any R President.”