Just hours after Kevin McCarthy was deposed as House speaker, the “draft Trump” movement began.
“I called him and I said, ‘Sir, I’m nominating you for the speaker of the House,’” said Rep. Troy Nehls (R-Texas), describing a Tuesday call to former President Donald Trump. “I said, ‘I think that you would do a great job fixing the brokenness we see in the Congress.’”
So began a wild 48-hour scramble that saw Trump openly pondering a quixotic bid to become the first nonmember to be elected speaker before his political advisers and House allies managed to convince him it was a terrible idea.
The Trump-for-speaker bubble officially popped early Friday morning, when he took sides in the brewing battle between Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.).
“Congressman Jim Jordan has been a STAR,” Trump wrote on Truth Social. “He will be a GREAT Speaker of the House, & has my Complete & Total Endorsement!”
It was not preordained that Trump would bless Jordan, his longtime ally and most loyal defender in Congress. Nehls and a handful of the ex-president’s loyalists in the House, including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), immediately went to work trying to turn “Speaker Trump” from fever dream into reality.
Nehls said he even researched the question of whether Trump’s criminal indictments would be a problem and assured the former president that a potentially disqualifying internal House GOP rule could be easily smoothed over.
Trump, who was busy at his civil fraud trial in Manhattan this week, was noncommittal. But as the idea took off among the MAGA base, Trump began to see the idea as a fortuitous distraction from the constant barrage of headlines about his legal woes, according to one Trump ally in Congress.
The flirtations culminated in a Thursday afternoon interview with Fox News, where Trump not only confirmed his willingness to serve as speaker for a “short period” but said he would come to Washington next week to attend the House GOP’s election.
The story triggered panic among House Republicans. It wasn’t that anyone seriously thought he’d win the 218 votes to be elected. In fact, most who were familiar with the conference’s internal dynamics believed he couldn’t even get the conference nomination, requiring a simple majority of Republicans.
Centrist Republicans running in Biden districts were dreading the prospect of being tied to Trump as speaker. And even traditional and conservative Republicans were not happy about the idea of reporters peppering them with questions about whether they think Trump should lead the House.
Moreover, many Republicans believed that Trump’s foray into the fight was going to only prolong the power vacuum ahead of another government shutdown fight.
That’s when Trump’s more senior allies stepped up, according to people familiar with the backroom maneuvering who spoke on the condition of anonymity. They argued to Trump that his pursuit of the speaker’s gavel would backfire.
Not only would he lose to Scalise or Jordan, they told him but that he could receive just a handful of votes since the nomination process is done by secret ballot — meaning Republicans were free to vote their conscience without MAGA blowback. In fact, they warned, Trump might not even be admitted to the closed-door election, which are typically held in “executive session” where outsiders and even most staff are kicked out of the room.
They also told his inner circle that the tallies are publicly released, meaning Trump could be embarrassed by a poor showing. They encouraged him to play kingmaker in the race and focus on the 2024 president race instead.
Trump took the advice and began a carefully choreographed backtrack. The pivot was first publicly teased last night by Sean Hannity, moments before interviewing Jordan on Fox News, and Trump made it official a few hours later on Truth Social.
Nehls said tried to talk Trump into it one more time last night: “I said, ‘You know, you made America great again. You can come in and make Congress great again.’”
He still thinks Trump could end up as speaker if there’s a deadlock.
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