There was only one way the chaos in the Republican-led House – likened Thursday by one of its members to a “stupid clown car” – could get more extreme.
Enter Donald Trump.
On a day of drama that recalled the pandemonium inside the Trump White House, the ex-president’s camp floated rumors of his potential first visit to the US Capitol since his mob ransacked it on January 6, 2021. Then Trump teased the possibility that he could even step in as speaker himself on an interim basis.
Ex-GOP lawmaker reacts to Trump saying he would accept becoming House speaker
But the ex-president’s biggest bombshell was still to come – shortly after midnight, he endorsed Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan for the job.
“He will be a GREAT Speaker of the House, & has my Complete & Total Endorsement!” Trump wrote on his Truth Social network in a post that spent more time lauding Jordan’s prowess as a student wrestler than his political career.
The Ohio Republican, who is one of the most polarizing figures in Washington and one of Trump’s most loyal attack dogs, is playing a key role in an impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden.
Jordan, who is running against Republican House Majority leader Steve Scalise of Louisiana for the top job, would likely augur a new period of fierce combat with the White House if he wins the speakership. He has opposed the US lifeline of arms and ammunition to Ukraine, and a Republican House majority led by Jordan would likely increase the chances of a government shutdown next month in a showdown over spending with Democrats.
But Jordan’s candidacy – and a Trump endorsement – will likely alarm more moderate Republicans on whose seats the thin GOP majority was built and who fear voters in their districts will be alienated by Trump on the top of the ticket in 2024.
The backing of these and other centrist Republicans could be critical in the race between Jordan and Scalise, the latter of whom may have more appeal, especially with major donors, outside the far-right of the party than Jordan.
Scalise, who survived a 2017 shooting at a congressional baseball practice and has recently been treated for blood cancer, is widely popular in the conference. He has also voted in favor of more aid to Ukraine – a factor that is important for some of the moderate Republicans who are closer to the GOP’s traditional hawkish internationalism than Trump’s “Make America Great Again” nationalism.
Plans to hold a joint interview between Jordan and Scalise on Fox News on Monday – a day before a scheduled meeting with the House GOP conference – were quickly upended after several House Republicans reacted angrily to the plan, with one calling it “insanity” and another saying it will turn the speaker’s race into a “circus,” CNN’s Melanie Zanona reported.
Facing blowback, Jordan said he’ll speak to the conference before participating, throwing the timing of the Fox event into question.
Jordan “believes it is crucial to meet with the GOP conference before the event,” a spokesman said Friday.
Trump’s decision to throw himself into the fray as the speaker’s race escalates capped a wild week that started with Washington counting its blessing after a sudden weekend gamble by then-Speaker McCarthy headed off a government shutdown that had seemed inevitable.
But it was the ultimate false dawn.
As the next weekend looms, American governance is paralyzed because McCarthy has been toppled by GOP right-wingers after only nine months in a post he’d pursued for years.
No one knows when the House will have a new speaker, or who exactly it will be.
A precious week of the temporary spending bridge, which McCarthy engineered Saturday with Democratic votes, has already been wasted ahead of the next deadline on November 17.
The unsolved cause of the near-shutdown – extremists demanding massive spending cuts that a Democratic-run White House and Senate won’t accept – means a new crisis is only weeks away.
And the US lifeline of arms and ammunition for Ukraine is suddenly on life support amid growing opposition from GOP lawmakers for bankrolling a sovereign nation’s fight against an unprovoked onslaught by Russia.
If Republicans choose Jordan in the speaker’s race, they would yet again likely be aligning themselves with an ex-president who sought to overthrow democracy following his false claims of electoral fraud and who is promising to win a second term that he would devote to “retribution” against his enemies.
In a sign of the peril that the party courts in continuing to lionize the ex-president, ABC News reported Thursday that Trump allegedly gossiped about potentially sensitive information about US nuclear submarines with a member of his Mar-a-Lago club, who then allegedly passed on the information to foreign officials and journalists. A Trump spokesperson slammed “illegal leaks” and “baseless witch hunts” and said the ex-president did nothing wrong, though did not specifically deny the report.
The revelations will renew disquiet about the possibility of a twice-impeached former president – who is awaiting trial in four criminal cases, including on charges of mishandling national defense information – returning to the Oval Office.
“He shouldn’t be anywhere near the Oval Office ever,” William Cohen, a former Republican senator from Maine who served as Defense Secretary under Democratic President Bill Clinton, told CNN’s Anderson Cooper.
The shock that greeted the ouster of McCarthy – who was felled by just eight Republicans voting with Democrats – has now shifted to thoughts of vengeance.
Some Republicans want the ringleader of the revolt, Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, to be kicked out of their conference. Others are warning that the rule that allows one member to call a vote to eject the speaker must be wiped out if the GOP is ever to emerge from the mayhem.
The interim GOP leadership, at McCarthy’s direction, already took its revenge, lashing out at Democrats who declined to come to the California Republican’s rescue (a big ask since he opened an impeachment probe into Biden) by kicking Speaker Emeritus Nancy Pelosi and former Majority Leader Steny Hoyer out of their offices in the Capitol.
The two declared candidates to be the next speaker, Scalise and Jordan, spent Thursday canvassing fellow members behind the scenes in the quest for the votes needed to win a majority of the House. Such is the division in the party, it’s not certain that either veteran could reach that number. But there’s boiling frustration among the rank-and-file about the events of the week and a yearning for the next leader to finally rein in hard-right political arsonists.
“If we don’t change the foundational problems within our conference, it’s just going to be the same stupid clown car with a different driver,” Rep. Dusty Johnson, a Republican from South Dakota, told “CNN News Central,” branding Gaetz a “saboteur” and his acolytes as “chaos artists.”
Johnson warned, “I don’t think the pyromaniacs are going to be satisfied after they have burned down one house. I think they are going to have an itching to go burn down a couple more.”
Farcical scenes in the House generated by the GOP majority often belied the seriousness of the situation. One half of one branch of the US government has effectively shut down, and will remain so until Republicans manage to elect a speaker – a process that could start early next week. The consequences of a failure to pass year-end spending bills, or in a worst case scenario, a government shutdown, could hurt millions of Americans and pose a grave threat to an uneven economic recovery.
The stakes are even higher for Ukraine. Both Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky have expressed concerns that the the multi-billion dollar pipeline of US aid could dry out – because of rising Republican opposition in the House and the fact that the next GOP speaker might be loath to enact new arms and ammunition packages with Democratic votes, given what happened to McCarthy.
Many Republicans have asked why the US should be funding Ukraine when the US has its own problems, including over crime and the Southern border. Rep. Matt Rosendale of Montana, one of the eight Republican rebels who ousted McCarthy this week, voiced a now frequent argument that the US should get Russia and Ukraine together to enforce a peace accord. “I, for one, don’t want to participate in continuing to see Ukrainians get killed, to see Ukraine soil be destroyed,” Rosendale told Jim Sciutto on CNN Max on Wednesday.
Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered his own answer as to why Ukraine so badly needs the help: Russian missiles slammed into a village cafe and a grocery store on Thursday, killing at least 51 people, including a six-year-old boy.