GOP Ignores Its Gosar Problem and Plots to Punish Moderates
It took less than 72 hours to demonstrate how miserable Kevin McCarthy could be if he fulfills his dream of becoming speaker of the House in 2023.
Late Friday night, 13 House Republicans defied the GOP minority leader, and bailed out President Joe Biden and Democrats by getting a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill over the finish line.
Then, on Monday, one of McCarthy’s most extreme members—Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona—tweeted out a cartoon depicting him murdering Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and attacking Biden with swords. It prompted Democratic outrage and calls for McCarthy to respond.
The GOP leader does indeed face pressure within his own ranks to respond to the events of those 72 hours—and it’s to rebuke the 13 Republicans who voted to fund roads and bridges, not the lawmaker who publicly fantasized about chopping a colleague’s head off.
In the minds of some of the most pro-Trump Republicans, handing Democrats that win amounts to treachery, far more than anything Gosar did. A group of them is preparing an internal GOP conference resolution to remove these Republicans from their committee assignments, according to an aide involved in the effort.
There are questions from both sides of the aisle about what leaders plan to do about Gosar. As one senior GOP aide told The Daily Beast, “We would be freaking out if the roles were reversed.”
But most aides feel it’s likely that McCarthy will do nothing, yet again putting Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) in the position of weighing whether to issue a partisan rebuke of an opposition member who the GOP decided to protect. In February, Democrats moved to boot Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) off her committees after a string of controversies.
How Did Paul Gosar Become Such a Deranged Meme Lord?
The split screen forming now for House Republicans is emblematic of the forces McCarthy will have to manage and tame if he takes the majority in the 2022 midterms. He is tasked with leading two wings of the party that don’t seem to follow his orders; if he moves to rein one in, he risks upsetting a delicate balance.
McCarthy also risks upsetting the person whose support he needs to become speaker: Donald Trump, who is egging on the internal effort to punish the 13 Republicans. At a fundraiser for House Republicans’ campaign arm on Tuesday night, he chastised the group for giving a win to Biden; one of them, Rep. Nicole Malliotakis (R-NY), was in the audience.
Part of the problem for McCarthy is he set expectations too high.
According to that senior GOP aide, McCarthy repeatedly told GOP members during private meetings that he had informed Democratic leaders they would have to put up the 218 votes needed to pass the infrastructure bill on their own before any Republicans supported it. That didn’t happen.
And so now, McCarthy has a faction of rabid Republicans who want to punish their colleagues because they voted for a bill that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and 18 other Senate Republicans supported—all while the GOP Conference gives Gosar a pass.
How do you solve a problem like Paul Gosar?
One of the first acts McCarthy took when he became the House GOP leader in 2019 was to remove the longtime House GOP problem child, former Rep. Steve King (R-IA), from his committees. It wasn’t one remark from King that did it. Rather, it was years of accumulated offenses that, McCarthy said, “call into question whether he will treat all Americans equally, without regard for race and ethnicity.”
The same could be said of Gosar, who has been the 8chan abscess of the House GOP for years now, pioneering a far-right posture on Capitol Hill before figures like Reps. Greene, Lauren Boebert (R-CO), and Matt Gaetz (R-FL) showed up.
Gosar has, for example, associated with the far-right activist Nick Fuentes, whom the Justice Department has labeled a “white supremacist,” and spoke to a white nationalist conference where he was given a hero’s welcome. He has called the deadly 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville a false flag set up by the left, attended meetings of right-wing militia groups, and was one of the first GOP lawmakers to downplay, even legitimize, the pro-Trump mob that stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6.
GOP leaders have ignored almost all of this behavior. Some of that is because what Gosar seems to crave most is attention, and some of that is just because Republican leadership would prefer to take a blind eye, knowing that many of their voters share Gosar’s beliefs.
Another reason is far more insular.
Multiple sources told The Daily Beast that Gosar’s chief of staff, Thomas Van Flein, is the main source of the congressman’s most toxic and terminally online social media content.
A lawyer by training, Van Flein has been with Gosar since he was sworn into office in 2011, serving as his chief of staff and lead counsel almost the entire time. The Alaska native’s close ties with Sarah Palin brought him into Gosar’s orbit: Van Flein served as the former Alaska governor’s attorney and represented her in the so-called Troopergate scandal. He also did legal work for Rob Robinson, the Alaskan dentist who ran Gosar’s 2010 campaign and introduced the candidate to Palin.
During a crowded, competitive GOP primary for the seat—which unfolded at the height of the Tea Party movement—this unlikely contingent of Alaskan Gosar supporters helped deliver Palin's endorsement, which was crucial to Gosar’s victory.
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Through the last decade, Gosar has “always been kind of crazy,” and his office often “a dumpster fire,” said a former aide to the congressman, who recalled that Gosar and Van Flein often egged each other on in terms of how outrageous their messaging could be.
The former aide, who was granted anonymity by The Daily Beast to detail their experience, suspected that Gosar’s glorification of political violence on Twitter was driven by staff, but that the congressman surely signed off on the content and tone. He is not known as an anime fan, but is understood to have an “obsession” for communicating through video, the former aide said.
Van Flein, Gosar, and Gosar’s office all never returned a request for comment.
Neither Gosar nor his chief struck the former aide as truly extremist in their views. Instead, Gosar’s outrageous behavior is seen as a reflection of a desire for popularity and attention that he has been unable to attain through his work in Congress.
“He’s trying to get approval where he can find it,” the former aide said. “He’s found a spot where he can be a star.”
McCarthy now faces a tough decision. On his right, he has members calling for retribution for the Republicans who handed Democrats a win. Trump, whose favor McCarthy desperately needs, is out for vengeance, too.
But McCarthy also has centrist Republicans who are disgusted by Gosar’s video—and his long-running list of offenses—and want McCarthy to do something. Not to mention the fact Democrats might actually act as they did to Greene. On Wednesday night, nearly 30 Democratic lawmakers announced they would introduce a resolution to censure Gosar during the next House session.
“As the events of January 6th have shown, such vicious and vulgar messaging can and does foment actual violence,” said the lawmakers, led by Reps. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) and Jackie Speier (D-CA), adding that Gosar’s actions amounted to a “clear-cut” case for censure. “Minority Leader McCarthy’s silence is tacit approval and just as dangerous.”
Many Democrats would prefer to keep pressure on McCarthy to act, but some privately say that there would be plenty of support for censuring Gosar if he does nothing. Pelosi’s office pointed The Daily Beast to a recent statement from the Speaker in which she called for probes into Gosar by the House Ethics Committee and by law enforcement.
A senior GOP aide described the dilemma this way: If Democrats force a vote on censuring Gosar or removing him from his committees, McCarthy will have to decide if he wants to allow a vote that would connect every Republican, and the GOP brand, to a far-right gadfly, or if he’ll throw him to the wolves of the Democratic caucus.
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The latter outcome could embolden calls from the far right to punish the 13 Republicans who voted for infrastructure as a sort of “tit-for-tat.”
McCarthy likely doesn’t want to remove those 13 Republicans from committees. Some of them are the most vulnerable in the GOP conference, and he would be hard-pressed to build a majority in 2022 without them.
Within many House GOP circles, few expect that any of these lawmakers are at risk of facing any formal rebuke at the hands of their colleagues, and several sources downplayed the seriousness of the push.
The potential targets also dismissed it. “This is a small group of members who are making loud noises,” Rep. Don Bacon (R-NE) told the Washington Examiner.
There is real frustration within the GOP ranks over the yes votes, however, and a sentiment the 13 lawmakers gave Biden a win when they could have easily handed him an embarrassing loss. Still, according to another senior House Republican aide, the episode is not worth dwelling on and risking narratives of GOP dysfunction.
“They took a stupid vote and bailed out the Speaker,” the aide said of the 13, “but to say they saved Nancy Pelosi’s majority is a joke.”
But McCarthy may have trouble ignoring the calls for blood, especially when Republicans know that Democrats can force their hand on Gosar by moving a censure resolution or legislation to strip him of committees to the House floor.
At the beginning of the year, when Greene faced similar punishments in the GOP conference, McCarthy tried to appease everyone by defending Greene while also defending then-No. 3 Republican Liz Cheney (R-WY), who had just voted to impeach Trump.
That gambit worked for a bit, until Cheney kept disparaging Trump. If past is prologue, McCarthy will delay any decision as much as possible, until enough Republican members—or Trump himself—force him to act.
In any event, there is probably one winner in McCarthy’s lose-lose situation: Gosar. And it’s likely the same will be said of any of the MAGA champions whose antics force a similar situation going forward.
The congressman’s former aide expressed doubt that he harbors any concern about retribution from the GOP leader over his latest stunt. For a lawmaker who has staked his brand on combative, extreme politics, it could even be a good thing.
Gosar, the former aide said, “would view it as a badge of honor.”
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