House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy insists he’s not in the running for White House chief of staff. And the California Republican’s allies say the only job he really wants — other than the post he currently has — is speaker of the House.
But as embattled White House chief of staff John Kelly fights to stay on in the midst of the Rob Porter scandal, McCarthy has been floated repeatedly as a possible replacement. It’s a replay of what happened when Kelly’s predecessor, Reince Priebus, stepped down in July.
On Wednesday, McCarthy denied repeatedly that he’s spoken with President Donald Trump about the job or is on the verge of taking it.
“I don’t answer hypotheticals,” McCarthy told CNN on Wednesday. “General Kelly is there. I think he’s put a lot of structure in there.”
Yet when pressed on whether he wanted the job, McCarthy would not definitively rule out. Instead, the California Republican would only say, “There is no job. I’m not interested in the job that isn’t there. I’m interested in being majority leader and getting the work done. That’s where my focus is.”
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), chairman of the House Freedom Caucus and another potential Kelly replacement, says he’s not going to be Trump’s top aide either.
“I think that he’s best served by keeping his current chief of staff,” Meadows said, adding that he hasn’t discussed the possibility with Trump, either. “I think he [Trump] is better served by having someone else as his chief of staff. I’ve got the best job in the world.”
For McCarthy, the relationship with Trump has been a big plus, bolstering his standing inside the Republican Conference and quelling any complaints from Meadows and other Freedom Caucus members.
McCarthy is close to Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), and he has been a loyal No. 2 to the Wisconsin Republican.
Several GOP lawmakers said McCarthy, who ran for speaker in 2015 but pulled out in the face of opposition from conservative hardliners, still wants to be speaker someday. And with an ally in Trump — who has referred to him as "my Kevin" — McCarthy believes it’s within reach if Ryan were to leave.
There’s an open question about Ryan’s future. Ryan has rejected any suggestion he’s retiring soon, which would factor into McCarthy’s potential decision-making as well. But many House Republicans wonder how long the Wisconsin Republican will stay.
McCarthy’s allies in the House believe he should stick around and take another run at the speakership someday.
“He’d do a great job as chief of staff but he would do a better job as leader,” said Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.). “I’d much rather see him in the House…. I like him where he is.
“Kevin has really gotten good at what he does,” Rogers added. “And that’s what I’m saying: We’re happy with our team and the way they’re developing and maturing and experience matters in this town."
Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.) called McCarthy the “one of the friendliest members” and questioned why he’d give up a potential second shot at speaker.
“Obviously, he’s wanted [the speakership] before, so I’m sure he wants to try it again… What’s the upside to being chief of staff vs. being, potentially, speaker of the House?” Rooney asked. “You’re going to a staff position — although probably one of the most important ones in the world — from being third in line behind the leader of the free world.”
Trump’s unpredictability, emotional outbursts and inability to stay on message may be too much for McCarthy to handle. And if Kelly were forced out, why would there be any guarantee that McCarthy wouldn’t be next to go after six months or a year in the job?
One Republican close to McCarthy also argued that the White House needs a chief of staff who can keep order on an unruly, often dysfunctional White House — and McCarthy likes to please everyone, so he might not be the best choice.
“I don’t think McCarthy would run into the same problems that he had last time” running for speaker, said Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho). “But if he wanted to go to the White House, I could see Trump hiring him too. At least it wouldn’t be [OMB Director Mick] Mulvaney.”