At House Republican Retreat, the Focus, Once Again, Is on Trump

ORLANDO, Fla. — Speaker Kevin McCarthy arrived at an upscale resort here this week eager to use a Republican retreat to promote the party’s policy agenda and achievements so far, working to paper over the divisions that nearly sank his bid for his job and talk about anything but former President Donald J. Trump.

“I’m always optimistic,” a sunny Mr. McCarthy, dressed in a pair of trendy sneakers, jeans and a zip-up vest, told reporters of the prospect for resolving debt ceiling negotiations without an economy-crushing default. “I went 15 rounds to get speaker!”

But it was not long before Mr. Trump came to dominate the proceedings. With the former president expected to be indicted by a Manhattan grand jury, House Republicans rallied around him. They blasted the Manhattan district attorney, Alvin L. Bragg, as a pawn of George Soros, a longtime boogeyman of the right, and they vowed to open a remarkable congressional investigation into his active criminal inquiry.

It was the third year in a row that Mr. Trump has effectively taken over House Republicans’ annual gathering, underscoring how central the former president has remained to his party’s existence. Years after leaving office, Mr. Trump is still here, blotting out attempts to talk about any Republican agenda that does not involve him and making it all but impossible for the House G.O.P. to define itself as anything other than his frontline defenders.

It was true two years ago, when House Republicans headed to Florida desperate to talk about anything but Mr. Trump, who only weeks before had been impeached for inciting a deadly insurrection at the Capitol.

Instead, Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming, then the No. 3 Republican, made several statements firmly repudiating Mr. Trump, and the retreat’s subtext was the ire of her fellow party leaders at her refusal to keep silent about the former president.

“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,” Mr. McCarthy said at a news conference that year. Weeks later, Ms. Cheney was swiftly ousted from her leadership position.

A Divided Congress

The 118th Congress is underway, with Republicans controlling the House and Democrats holding the Senate.

  • On a Collision Course: President Biden and Speaker Kevin McCarthy need each other to govern, but a messaging battle has replaced functional legislating as the two spar over the budget and federal debt limit.
  • Biden Family: House Republicans released a memorandum asserting that Biden’s relatives received payments from a deal with a Chinese firm, as the lawmakers hunted for evidence that the president and his family profited improperly from his position.
  • Trump Inquiry: House Republicans have quietly halted a congressional investigation into whether Donald Trump profited improperly from the presidency, declining to enforce a settlement agreement that demanded that his former accounting firm produce his financial records to Congress.
  • I.R.S. Commissioner: The Senate voted to confirm Daniel Werfel to be the commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service, filling a critical position at the agency as it starts an $80 billion overhaul.

It was true again last year, when the annual gathering unfolded only weeks before the start of House hearings on the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. Republicans studiously avoided the subject, working to showcase their unity as they plotted winning back the majority in the House and predicted a red wave. They barely mentioned Mr. Trump’s name and were pleased about it. Ms. Cheney did not attend. They were pleased about that, too.

Now, Ms. Cheney no longer serves in Congress. Mr. McCarthy has risen to speaker of the House. The issues of election denialism and Mr. Trump’s responsibility for the Jan. 6 attack are in the rearview mirror for most Republican lawmakers, who prefer to talk about impending fiscal fights on Capitol Hill and a “Parents’ Bill of Rights” they plan to bring to the floor in the coming days that could limit the rights of transgender students.

At his news conference on Monday in the hotel’s “Citrus Garden,” where guests in gym clothes and terry cloth robes wandered about in the background, Mr. McCarthy kicked things off by talking about his early moves to roll back pandemic precautions at the Capitol, including ending proxy voting, and establish a select committee to investigate China.

He appeared particularly proud of the camaraderie he said he had established with Representative Hakeem Jeffries, Democrat of New York and minority leader. He stressed that he has gone out of his way to treat his counterpart the way he would have liked to be treated by Speaker Nancy Pelosi when he served as minority leader. On several occasions, he cited the economist Milton Friedman, the godfather of libertarian economic policies, a sign of the more ideas-driven discourse he planned for the three-day retreat.

“There isn’t a need that everything has to be partisan,” Mr. McCarthy said.

Why had he not invited two prominent Florida Republicans, Mr. Trump or Gov. Ron DeSantis, to join the group?

“They’re issue retreats,” he explained. “I don’t bring many people in to talk to us.”

Mr. McCarthy carefully avoided questions about whether he planned to endorse Mr. Trump, whom he has credited with helping him over the finish line in his quest to become speaker. But over the weekend, he issued a defiant tweet savaging Mr. Bragg’s investigation, and as the retreat got underway, he authorized three of his committee chairmen to insert themselves into the ongoing inquiry, demanding that the prosecutor provide communications, documents and testimony.

If Mr. McCarthy had hoped to use the annual retreat to highlight issues like the economy, the border and the banking crisis, those plans were once again overshadowed by his relationship to Mr. Trump.

It is a position he and his conference have repeatedly chosen.

“There’s this myth that Republicans in Washington want to ‘move on’ from Trump,” said Kurt Bardella, a Democratic strategist and former House G.O.P. oversight adviser. “They aren’t hostages; they are volunteers. These retreats have become an exercise in futility for House Republicans because ultimately, they ignore their own political self-interest, double-down on a loser and end up underperforming in the election.”

Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, who was supposed to brief reporters about immigration and “securing America’s border,” was instead grilled about his extraordinary letter demanding documents and testimony from Mr. Bragg, whom he accused of “an unprecedented abuse of prosecutorial authority.”

Mr. Jordan noted that the previous Manhattan district attorney did not pursue a case against Mr. Trump.

“And then what happened? President Trump announces he’s running for re-election and — shazam! — now we’re going to pursue it,” Mr. Jordan said.

Despite Mr. Trump’s provoking an attack on the Capitol and trying to block the peaceful transition of power to his successor, Mr. McCarthy has kept him close, even visiting him at Mar-a-Lago after the attack in an attempt to smooth over any divisions and seek his help in the midterm elections.

Even so, Mr. McCarthy said on Monday that one of the things he prized most about the United States was respect for the rule of law.

“As a leader, as the speaker of the House, if this shoe was on the other foot, I hope I would do the exact same thing — stand up and say it’s wrong,” he said. “I want to make the nation heal.”

Other Republicans saw the expected indictment as just the moment to stand proudly with the former president.

“I support President Trump,” said Representative Anna Paulina Luna, Republican of Florida, who until Monday had been loyal to both Mr. Trump and Mr. DeSantis. In explaining her decision to endorse Mr. Trump now, Ms. Luna said that Mr. Bragg was “trying to cook up charges outside of the statute of limitation against Trump” and that “this is unheard-of, and Americans should see it for what it is: an abuse of power and fascist overreach of the justice system.”

Representative Elise Stefanik, Republican of New York, said she had spoken with Mr. Trump on Monday morning, explaining to him the actions the House investigative committees were taking against Mr. Bragg.

“I think you’ll see his poll numbers go up,” she predicted. “This only strengthens President Trump moving forward.”

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