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Trump indictment could further test House GOP majority unity

High-profile criminal case for former president comes at a moment when divisions have paralyzed floor action

Speaker Kevin McCarthy speaks Wednesday during a ceremony in the Capitol.
Speaker Kevin McCarthy speaks Wednesday during a ceremony in the Capitol. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The indictment of former President Donald Trump threatens to further test the narrow majority of House Republicans this session, at a moment when divisions have paralyzed floor action and Trump still enjoys strong popularity among conservatives.

In the hours after the indictment, hard-line House GOP members called for direct action against the Justice Department, including some of the same conservatives whose revolt on the floor this week tanked a rule for the first time in two decades.

The 11 Republicans led by members of the House Freedom Caucus, in a move related to a debt limit measure that Speaker Kevin McCarthy negotiated with President Joe Biden, raised questions about how, and if, major bills get done.

Now, McCarthy will have to balance those concerns with decisions about how to respond to the federal criminal charges against the person who is widely believed to be the leading contender to be the Republican presidential nominee for 2024.

Some of the loudest defenders of the former president were those who tied up the House floor. Arizona Rep. Andy Biggs called for the dismantling of the Justice Department.

Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, tweeted that the nation has depended on the blind application of justice and rejection of the politicization of DOJ — and that “Congress must act to restore norms.”

And in a Thursday night appearance on Newsmax, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., said there should be congressional hearings to investigate Special Counsel John L. “Jack” Smith and the grand jury probe that resulted in the indictment.

Gaetz called the indictment “the most severe election interference on the part of the federal government that we’ve ever seen.”

Some of the former president’s closest allies in the House zeroed in on direct responses. Ohio Republican Rep. Jim Jordan, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, sent a letter to Attorney General Merrick B. Garland alleging the DOJ did not follow some protocols related to the search.

McCarthy and members of House GOP leadership delivered broadsides against the Biden administration in responding to the indictment. But in statements on social media, some did not outline taking a specific course of action, unlike other members of the conference.

House Majority Whip Tom Emmer, R-Minn., said on social media that Democrats have “always been eager to execute their political witch hunt” against Trump. “This is the ultimate abuse of power, and they will be held accountable,” Emmer said.

Any fervor may not go as far among moderates in the conference or in the Senate who see Trump’s actions as problematic.

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, who voted to convict Trump in the impeachment trial that followed the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, noted that the former president is entitled to a presumption of innocence and said he did not see any evidence of DOJ wrongdoing.

“Mr. Trump brought these charges upon himself by not only taking classified documents, but by refusing to simply return them when given numerous opportunities to do so,” Romney said in a statement.

Almost a full day after news of the indictment first broke, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Minority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., had not responded publicly.

The reaction to the reported Trump indictment illustrated the broader dynamics playing out among House Republicans, said Casey Burgat, director of the legislative affairs program at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management. The moment, he said, was another example of some House Republicans wanting to take hard-line positions on everything from debt limit bills to actions toward the Justice Department.

McCarthy’s “razor-thin” House majority could add to the tension, Burgat said.

“If you don’t have, basically, unanimity in exactly what [detailed] and specific response you want to have, then you don’t have any at all. You just have people talking about what should be done. But nothing actually does get done, which just leads to frustration,” Burgat said.

Biden for his part, declined to comment Friday when asked if he had spoken to Attorney General Garland. “I have not spoken to him at all and I’m not going to speak with him,” Biden said. “And I have no comment on that.”

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