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Trump Is Strongest GOP Leader Standing as Johnson, McConnell Take Flak

The Dark Lord is getting stronger and...

Trump Is Strongest GOP Leader Standing as Johnson, McConnell Take Flak

House and Senate Republicans grumble and feud as nomination front-runner gains power

By Lindsay Wise and Alex Leary, WSJ

Feb. 11, 2024

WASHINGTON—A flurry of drama over the past week on and off Capitol Hill has made it clear that Republicans currently have just one dominant leader: Donald Trump.

The former president, the party’s presumptive nominee for the third straight election, is asserting himself over Washington’s policy debates as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Mike Johnson struggle to manage their raucous conferences, and as colleagues publicly question their leadership abilities.

McConnell drew open scorn from Republican colleagues who opposed a bipartisan border deal that died in the Senate last week after the Kentucky Republican endorsed it. Ultimately all but four Senate Republicans voted against advancing the deal, with McConnell joining the no votes.

But McConnell, a veteran strategist, ended up pulling a victory from defeat, rallying the 17 Republican votes needed to advance a $95 billion national security package that would fund aid for U.S. allies in Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan and replenish U.S. military stockpiles depleted from weapons transfers abroad.

Johnson, an unlikely speaker who has held the job for less than four months, suffered a double blow when his efforts to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and pass a stand-alone bill providing aid to Israel fell short in the narrowly divided House.

Meanwhile, Trump exerted control over the party, expelling Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel, who rebuffed calls to wind down the presidential primary and was criticized over election losses and fundraising.

Trump is the overwhelming favorite to defeat his remaining opponent, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley. On Thursday he gobbled up delegates in Nevada’s GOP caucuses, which didn’t include Haley, and is aiming to trounce Haley in her home state Feb. 24 en route to clinching the nomination as soon as mid-March.

Trump is also preparing to take more power over the party’s fundraising operations, according to people familiar with the discussions. The leading choice for RNC chair, several people close to the discussions said, is Michael Whatley, who heads the party in North Carolina and has echoed Trump’s false claims about widespread fraud in the 2020 election.

“Between the House dysfunction, the senators going after McConnell, the RNC implosion and poor Nikki Haley finishing behind ‘none of the above’ in Nevada, it was a disaster of a week,” said the GOP strategist Scott Reed, referring to Haley’s loss to “none of these candidates” in Tuesday’s Nevada primary.

“We live in the times of Trump,” Reed said. “He continues to have a stranglehold on the party. We’re going to see more of the same.”

That unrest reaffirms that Trump is the strongest figure in the Republican Party, but it doesn’t mean the GOP is unified. The party has been unable either to advance its own priorities on the Hill or cut advantageous deals with President Biden.

In the House, the blocking of Mayorkas’s impeachment, followed by the failure of the Israel aid bill, which needed a two-thirds supermajority, was an embarrassment for Johnson. The stunned House Republicans said after the votes that they couldn’t believe Johnson and his team put the measures on the floor without being certain they had lined up the votes to pass them. “Is it that hard? It’s not that hard to know the votes,” said Rep. Ralph Norman (R., S.C.).

Rep. Bob Good (R., Va.), chair of the hard-line House Freedom Caucus, said: “This was a mistake on behalf of the speaker. He shouldn’t have done it.”

Constrained by a historically small 219-212 seat majority, Johnson has had to rely on help from Democrats to pass stopgap spending bills and other must-pass legislation since his surprise rise to the speakership in October. The more he bypasses the right wing of his party to advance bills, the more tenuous his grip on power could become. A House rule allows a single lawmaker to force a vote to oust the speaker—a rule that was used for the first time to remove Kevin McCarthy from the role last year.

“Democracy is messy,” Johnson told reporters on Capitol Hill after the failed votes. “We live in a time of divided government. We have a razor-thin margin here, and every vote counts.” He blamed Democrats for withholding support for the Israel bill and pledged that the House would vote again soon on Mayorkas’s impeachment and that it would

Donald Trump won Iowa and New Hampshire, but nearly half of Republican voters there cast ballots for someone else. Who are these Republicans?

In the Senate, McConnell’s critics are becoming more outspoken and vitriolic, though they lack concrete plans—or the votes—to challenge his leadership.

“Mitch McConnell effectively gave the largest in-kind contribution to the Democratic Senate committee in history,” said Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas), who joined other conservatives in bashing the longtime leader in harsh terms last week. “I think we need a leader who’s in line with the American people.”

When the billionaire Elon Musk posted, “It’s time for Mitch to go,” on social media Thursday, Sen. Mike Lee (R., Utah) quoted him and added, “You can score only so many points for the other team before losing your status as team captain.”

McConnell dismissed the criticism, saying he has had a similar group of persistent critics the whole time he has been in the top Senate GOP leadership job. “I think we can all agree that Senator Cruz is not a fan,” he said at his weekly press conference.

Trump has fixated on immigration since he launched his presidential campaign in 2015, putting it at the center of the GOP’s agenda. The current crisis at the border has helped keep it in focus. Polls of Republican voters who participated in the early nominating states of Iowa and New Hampshire indicated that it was a top concern.

As Senate negotiations continued, Trump and many conservatives in the chamber were in sync in saying that the border deal was a bad idea. This past Monday, Trump warned that the legislation was a “great gift to the Democrats, and a Death Wish for The Republican Party.” By Tuesday, the border deal was scuttled.

Biden is now trying to flip his own vulnerabilities on the border to argue that Republicans failed to address the problem. Lagging behind his predecessor in battleground state polls, the president is also trying to capitalize on the disarray seen last week.

“Who do they serve, Donald Trump or the American people?” Biden asked House Democrats on Thursday.

McConnell’s detractors in the Senate say that he is out of step with most Republican voters, and that the enmity between Trump and McConnell could be problematic if Trump becomes president again. Trump has pushed behind the scenes to replace McConnell, supporting Florida Sen. Rick Scott, though such an attempt failed after the 2022 midterm elections. The Trump-McConnell falling-out dates to when the senator said Biden had won the 2020 election, despite Trump’s continuing efforts to fight the results.

The midterm elections were a disappointment for the GOP, and Trump was criticized for backing several high-profile candidates who lost. Despite signs of the party’s beginning to break with Trump, he has roared back, in good part as he has faced a litany of civil and criminal prosecutions that Republicans widely view as politically motivated.

Trump currently has a favorability rating of 84% among Republican voters, according to a new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll. Just 53% of GOP voters said they approved of the job Republicans are doing in Congress, compared with 77% of Democrats who approved of the performance of their party’s lawmakers in Congress.

Jason Miller, a top Trump adviser, said challenges are natural for a party that doesn’t control the White House. He said it should be no surprise about Trump’s influence.

“Whether Washington insiders want to admit it or not, President Trump has been the leader of the Republican Party since he came down the escalator in 2015,” Miller said.

Write to Lindsay Wise at and Alex Leary at

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