The Kevin McCarthy dilemma: to expunge or not to expunge

The perpetually embattled speaker keeps making his bed, only to re-discover he has to sleep in it too

Kevin McCarthy and Donald Trump
Kevin McCarthy and Donald Trump
(Image credit: Photo by Alex Wong / Getty Images)

If there's a recurring theme to House Speaker Kevin McCarthy's year of embattled leadership so far, it's that for as much as the California Republican occupies one of the most powerful political positions on Earth, he serves less as a conservative lodestar directing the course of his majority caucus, and more as a perpetually harried traffic cop, forced to cede more and more authority to whomever he believes can help him keep his tentative grip on the speaker's gavel the longest. From bargaining away a series of concessions to the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus to ongoing threats of an ignominious ousting from his own Republican colleagues, McCarthy has not so much wielded his own internal power as he's been pushed to react to that of other conservative stakeholders — both from within and outside Congress.

"Donald Trump is angry that the speaker hasn't endorsed his campaign," Politico reported this week. "To placate him, McCarthy privately vowed to hold a vote to clear Trump's impeachments. Now, that promise is coming due."

Once again, McCarthy's short-term bid to pacify a GOP-led outburst that could threaten his speakership has evolved into a broader problem of his own making — one for which there seems no easy outs, and no one else to blame but himself. So what's really going on with this developing debate over expunging the former president's impeachment records? And what might happen next?

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"Vulnerable frontliners in a precarious political position"

While Trump has made the valorization and relitigating of the waning months of his presidency a key feature of his reelection campaign, "several moderate House Republicans are loath to revisit Trump's impeachments — especially the charges stemming from the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol," Politico said. That puts McCarthy in something of an impossible bind. Given the degree to which the speaker has made himself beholden to his most extreme (and extremely Trump-aligned) caucus members, any one of whom could trigger the process to remove him from his position, McCarthy "has no real option but to bow to the former president's whims — even if it means putting vulnerable frontliners in a precarious political position." With his barely-there majority, anything that threatens vulnerable Republicans could represent an existential threat to his leadership, and the GOP agenda at large. Conversely, "If you have an expungement, and it goes to the floor and fails — which it probably will — then the media will treat it like it's a third impeachment," one senior Republican told Politico. "It will show disunity among Republican ranks. It's a huge strategic risk."

Nevertheless, McCarthy's hand has already been forced, at least to a degree. Last month, Reps. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), and Georgia's Marjorie Taylor Greene introduced resolutions to expunge Trump's two impeachments "as if such Articles of Impeachment had never passed the full House of Representatives." In a statement, Stefanik — a member of McCarthy's leadership team — argued that "President Donald Trump was rightfully acquitted, and it is past time to expunge Democrats' sham smear against not only President Trump's name, but against millions of patriots across the country." Crucially, McCarthy has gone on the record endorsing the proposal, calling it "appropriate"

"Just as I thought before," he said, Congress "should expunge it, because it never should have gone through." When asked at the time about bringing the resolutions to the floor, McCarthy "gave no indication he would move quickly" and instead "shifted to listing other GOP goals," the Associated Press reported.

Trump, however, has reportedly made the vote a priority, bringing it up "in every call he has with McCarthy, prodding the speaker about when he will bring expungement to the floor," Politico said. "If McCarthy doesn't hold the vote soon," members of the former president's inner circle told the outlet, "there will be consequences."

"Once you are impeached you are impeached"

Crucially, no matter what McCarthy did or didn't promise Trump (he's denied vowing to hold an expungement vote before the House's August recess, claiming per Politico that "he merely indicated that he would discuss the matter with his members) it's important to note that expunging an impeachment is a wholly untested and likely impossible enterprise to being with. "It is not like a constitutional DUI," constitutional law professor Jonathan Turley told Reuters. "Once you are impeached, you are impeached." Turley, who twice argued against impeaching Trump, added that even if McCarthy were able to push through an expungement vote, "that is the view of a different Congress at a different time" than the one who initially approved Trump's impeachments.

"Both of Trump's House impeachments led to trials in the Senate, as the Constitution instructs," agreed the Washington Post's Eugene Robinson. "Is the Senate supposed to pretend that those trials, which ended in acquittals, never happened? What about the pages in the Congressional Record that chronicle the impeachment proceedings? Would they be ripped out and destroyed?"

Speaking with CBS, Rep. Dan Goldman (D-N.Y.) argued that the expungement push was less important as a legislative maneuver than it was as an intra-GOP signpost. "It's telling who is introducing them," he explained, adding that "it's essentially whoever is trying to curry the most favor with Donald Trump."

"The aim appears to be to allow Trump, the likely GOP presidential nominee in next year's election, to claim that despite the events we all witnessed, he was never impeached at all," concluded Robinson. "That lie can then become part of the fake historical record he sells to his supporters."

With Trump facing a growing slate of criminal indictments just as his reelection campaign kicks into high gear, he seems more eager than ever to use his considerable conservative influence to smooth out some of his existing political turbulence — whether the rest of the party wants him to or not.

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Rafi Schwartz

Rafi Schwartz is a Politics Writer with The Week, where he focuses on elections, Congress, and the White House. He was previously a contributing writer with Mic, a senior writer with Splinter News, and the managing editor of Heeb Magazine. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, GOOD, The Forward, and elsewhere.

Rafi currently lives in the Twin Cities, where he does not bike, run, or take part in any team sports. He does, however, have a variety of interests, hobbies, and passions.