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What the House speaker election fiasco says about Trump's power

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Republican infighting over the House speaker has ended, but it hasn't stopped the debate over the role that former President Donald Trump played in picking that new leader. The new speaker, Congressman Mike Johnson, is already being called MAGA Mike by Trump and others. But many here in Washington say the three weeks of chaos that led to Johnson's new position revealed more about Trump's limitations than his power. NPR's Franco Ordoñez reports.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: It wasn't long after the removal of Kevin McCarthy as speaker that former President Donald Trump was inserting himself into the speaker's race.

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DONALD TRUMP: If I could help them during the process, I would do it.

ORDOÑEZ: He talked about traveling to the Capitol to weigh in. He flirted with the idea of taking over the role himself. Then he endorsed Jim Jordan, one of his top allies on Capitol Hill.

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TROY NEHLS: Excuse me. Excuse me.

ORDOÑEZ: But Trump's championing was not enough to unify the increasingly angry conference.

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NEHLS: Can we find somebody here? Can anybody here tell me we got somebody in here who can get to 217?

ORDOÑEZ: That's Congressman Troy Nehls, who voiced the frustrations of so many Republicans. And once Jordan flamed out, Trump said he would try to stay out of the race, but that didn't last long at all. Just hours after representative Tom Emmer won the nomination next, Trump went on the attack. He called Emmer a globalist RINO who was out of touch with Republican voters and his Make America Great Again movement.

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TRUMP: He was in Baghdad. Most people are MAGA in the Republican Party. They want to see our country be great again.

ORDOÑEZ: But while many people in Washington saw him or his downfall as a sign of Trump's growing power, others like Michael Short, who worked for Trump at the white House, saw the limits of his old boss's strength.

MICHAEL SHORT: The speaker debacle shows that, you know, Trump's grip on the conference isn't, you know, ironclad, right?

ORDOÑEZ: Short said Trump can play the spoiler for Emmer, but he could not play the kingmaker for Jordan.

SHORT: You know, he has the ability to cause problems for people and knock people out, but getting his preferred candidates, you know, where he wants to get them has been something he has not been successful at doing.

ORDOÑEZ: It's not like Emmer didn't already have troubles before Trump torpedoed the nomination. Emmer won the most support, but he was still short 26 votes when he could only afford to lose four.

DOUG HEYE: Trump did not kill Emmer. He's taking credit for it, but he didn't kill him. Emmer was done.

ORDOÑEZ: Doug Heye used to work for Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. He said Emmer had too many problems with too many Republicans.

HEYE: One member in conference told him he had to get right with God because of gay marriage - right? - which is insane.

ORDOÑEZ: Heye said Johnson's election reflected more on the exhaustion in the Republican Party rather than Trump's influence, and Trump waited until the 11th hour to endorse Johnson, when it was already clear he had the support to win the race. But if you look at Johnson's resume, he does have a long list of Trump bonafides. Johnson pushed Trump's false claims about election fraud, and he was a key architect of the effort to overturn the 2020 election. And Trump world is claiming Johnson as one of their own.

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MATT GAETZ: MAGA is ascendant.

ORDOÑEZ: Matt Gaetz spearheaded the effort to oust Kevin McCarthy. He went on a podcast hosted by Trump's old campaign chair, Steve Bannon. He claimed Johnson's victory proves Donald Trump continues to dominate the Republican Party.

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GAETZ: If you don't think that moving from Kevin McCarthy to MAGA Mike Johnson shows the ascendance of this movement and where the power in the Republican Party truly lies, then you're not paying attention.

ORDOÑEZ: It's pretty clear everyone is paying attention now. The question is how much power Trump will wield over Johnson and the House, especially going into the election in 2024. Franco Ordoñez, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Franco Ordoñez
Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.