GOP leader’s remarks on Fox underscore Trump’s power
Minority Whip Steve Scalise, the No. 2 House GOP leader, refused this week to say the 2020 election was not stolen from Republicans, sparking fury from Democrats and even some in his own party.
But his dubious remarks are unlikely to harm the Louisiana Republican’s growing political ambitions. In fact, Scalise likely will be rewarded for taking that position if the GOP wins the House in 2022.
It’s yet another sign of how rank-and-file and powerful veteran Republicans alike are bending the knee to former President Trump and embracing his false claims that widespread fraud led to President Biden’s election victory.
Seven years after rising to leadership, Scalise remains popular in his party and 212-member GOP conference. He’s raked in tens of millions of dollars in fundraising over the years, including more than $5 million in the last quarter.
Perhaps most important to his political future, Scalise has managed to stay in the good graces of Trump, who has tightened his grip on the party since the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol; demanded absolute loyalty from Republicans running up and down the ballot; and reportedly soured on House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).
“It’s disappointing and a little embarrassing, but not unexpected. Steve has aligned himself with Trump so it’s not a surprise he could not say the election wasn’t stolen,” said one former House Republican who served several years with Scalise and McCarthy.
“Trump wants total sycophants; he wants people to bow down. These people are worried about getting the Liz Cheney treatment,” the source added, referring to the Wyoming GOP congresswoman who was booted out of leadership for continuing to blame Trump for the deadly Capitol insurrection.
Democratic leaders were even less generous, particularly concerning Scalise’s answers to Fox News’s Chris Wallace on Sunday.
“He’s scared shitless of Donald Trump,” Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), the chairman of the influential House Rules Committee, told The Hill on Tuesday. “He certainly did not demonstrate a Margaret Chase Smith moment when he couldn’t answer that question. … It made me cringe; it’s a simple yes or no.”
“These guys are more interested in political ambition than they are about the country, and that really is sad,” McGovern added. “It really makes you wonder what the hell happened to the Republican Party.”
A Scalise spokesperson declined to comment for this story. For months, Scalise had kept his head down, maintained a low profile and managed to stay out of the headlines as Trump continued to push his election conspiracies, letting McCarthy fend off attacks from the Democrats.
But on “Fox News Sunday,” Scalise was repeatedly pressed by Wallace about whether he believed the 2020 election was “stolen” and if it was dangerous to repeat that falsehood.
Each time, Scalise declined to reject Trump’s assertion that the election was rigged. Instead, he pivoted to his talking points that Georgia and other states did not follow their own election laws, likely a reference to some states expanding mail-in voting last year as the coronavirus pandemic killed hundreds of thousands of Americans.
Democrats lashed out at Scalise, with the House Democrats’ campaign arm calling his comments “dangerous for our democracy” and proof that the GOP “has become a breeding ground for extremist politics.”
But some of the toughest criticism came from inside his own party. Cheney, who voted to impeach Trump for his role in the Jan. 6 attack and is serving on the special panel probing the violent assault that day, took aim at her onetime ally, Scalise, on Twitter.
“Millions of Americans have been sold a fraud that the election was stolen. Republicans have a duty to tell the American people that this is not true,” Cheney tweeted. “Perpetuating the Big Lie is an attack on the core of our constitutional republic.”
Republicans who have condemned Trump have been ousted from leadership posts, threatened with Trump-backed primary challenges or forced into early retirements.
For lawmakers like Scalise who want to keep climbing up the leadership ladder or make the jump to the Senate, the safer political route has been to go along with the election lies of Trump and his millions of loyal, fervent followers.
Scalise is poised to become majority leader if Republicans flip just a handful of Democratic seats next year and win control of the House. But in recent weeks, some Republicans say they’ve seen signs Trump has started to favor Scalise over McCarthy, raising some doubts about whether the California Republican would be able to secure the Speakership.
Last week, Trump, through his Save America PAC, put out a statement thanking Scalise for pushing back on a news story that alleged Melania Trump had refused to meet with Scalise at the White House after he was shot during a 2017 congressional baseball practice.
The former president shared Scalise’s tweet, which read in part: “My family went to visit the White House while I was still in the hospital and were graciously given a tour by President and Mrs. Trump.”
That Trump statement came shortly after a new book on the Trump White House by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa revealed that Trump was furious with McCarthy after he declared that the 45th president “bears responsibility” for inciting the Jan. 6 attack and backed censuring Trump. But after seeing GOP voters stand by Trump, McCarthy quickly tried to make amends, taking several trips to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago golf club.
“This guy called me every single day, pretended to be my best friend, and then, he f—ed me. He’s not a good guy,” Trump said of McCarthy, according to the book.
In 2015, McCarthy abruptly dropped out of the Speaker’s race after facing resistance from the conservative Freedom Caucus. If the top GOP leader comes up short again in his quest to be Speaker, Scalise will be waiting in the wings.
“I do know the relationship has been hot and cold over the last few months” between McCarthy and Trump, said one House Republican lawmaker close to McCarthy.
“I think he has to be careful. He needs Trump to support him. It would be terrible for Trump to come out against him.”
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