WASHINGTON — Days after he won his gavel in a protracted fight with hard-right Republicans, Speaker Kevin McCarthy gushed to a friend about the ironclad bond he had developed with an unlikely ally in his battle for political survival, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia.
“I will never leave that woman,” McCarthy, R-Calif., told the friend, who described the private conversation on the condition of anonymity. “I will always take care of her.”
Such a declaration from McCarthy would have been unthinkable in 2021, when Greene first arrived on Capitol Hill in a swirl of controversy and provocation. A former QAnon follower who had routinely trafficked in conspiratorial, violent and bigoted statements, Greene was then widely seen as a dangerous liability to the party and a threat to the man who aspired to lead Republicans back to the majority — a person to be controlled and kept in check, not embraced.
But in the time since, a powerful alliance developed between Greene, the far-right rabble-rouser and acolyte of former President Donald Trump, and McCarthy, the affable fixture of the Washington establishment, according to interviews with 20 people with firsthand knowledge of the relationship, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss it.
Their political union — a closer and more complex one than has previously been known — helps explain how McCarthy rose to power atop a party increasingly defined by its extremes, the lengths to which he will go to accommodate those forces, and how much influence Greene and the faction she represents have in defining the agenda of the new House Republican majority.
“If you’re going to be in a fight, you want Marjorie in your foxhole,” McCarthy said. Both he and Greene agreed to brief interviews for this article. “When she picks a fight, she’s going to fight until the fight’s over. She reminds me of my friends from high school, that we’re going to stick together all the way through.”
It is a relationship born of political expediency but fueled by genuine camaraderie, and nurtured by one-on-one meetings as often as once a week, usually at a coffee table in McCarthy’s Capitol office, as well as a constant stream of text messages back and forth.
McCarthy has gone to unusual lengths to defend Greene, even dispatching his general counsel to spend hours on the phone trying to cajole senior executives at Twitter to reactivate her personal account after she was banned last year for violating the platform’s coronavirus misinformation policy.
Greene, in turn, has taken on an outsize role as a policy adviser to McCarthy, who has little in the way of a fixed ideology of his own and has come to regard the Georgia congresswoman as a vital proxy for the desires and demands of the right-wing base that increasingly drives his party. He has adopted her stances on opposing vaccine mandates and questioning funding for the war in Ukraine, and even her call to reinvestigate the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol to show what she has called “the other side of the story.”
McCarthy’s agenda, Greene said, “if he sticks to it, will easily vindicate me and prove I moved the conference to the right during my first two years when I served in the minority with no committees.”
It was a right-wing conspiracy theory that first came between McCarthy and Greene, but not in the way that many people think.
When Greene entered Congress in January 2021, Republican leaders viewed her as a headache, and McCarthy regarded her as potentially beyond redemption. During her primary, social media posts had emerged in which she embraced the QAnon conspiracy theory and warned of “an Islamic invasion of our government.”
Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the No. 2 Republican, had intervened to oppose Greene — an affront she would not forget — but McCarthy, who eschews confrontation and conflict, would not go that far. He issued a statement through a spokesperson condemning the statements, but did not endorse her opponent.
Weeks after Greene was sworn in, more conspiracy-laden posts surfaced, including diatribes in which she had questioned whether a plane really flew into the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, and endorsed the executions of Democratic politicians including Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Barack Obama.
Outraged Democrats demanded that McCarthy oust her from congressional committees, and when he made no move to do so, they scheduled a vote to do it themselves. As the pressure built, some of Greene’s far-right allies told her yet another conspiratorial story that she believed: McCarthy, they said, was secretly working with Pelosi to strip her of power.
Enraged, Greene stormed into McCarthy’s office in the Capitol late one night in February 2021 and handed him a letter signed by Republican leaders in her district, urging him to keep her on her committees. They had received “countless” messages, they said, from their voters who were intent on supporting her.
It served as a not-so-subtle warning to McCarthy that the Republican base would be outraged if he did not ensure she kept her committee seats. McCarthy tried to explain to Greene that he agreed that what Democrats were doing was outrageous, but that as minority leader, he had neither the power nor the votes to stop it.
But Greene did not believe McCarthy, a person familiar with her thinking said. After she was booted off the Education and Budget Committees, members of her inner circle told her, “Don’t forget: Kevin did this to you.”
The relationship remained fraught throughout Greene’s first year in Congress, as the same pattern played out again and again in their interactions. A controversy would erupt over an outrageous comment Greene had made, then McCarthy would summon her to deal with the matter privately.
Greene would joke to friends, “Uh-oh, I’ve been called to the principal’s office.”
But even as she continued to traffic in offensive conspiracy theories and spoke at a white nationalist rally, McCarthy refused to punish her and often refrained from even criticizing her comments until pressed by reporters. It was a calculated choice by McCarthy, who leads more by flattery and backslapping than through discipline.
And by early 2022, Greene had begun to believe that McCarthy was willing to go to bat for her. When her personal Twitter account was shut down for violating coronavirus misinformation policies, Greene raced to McCarthy’s office in the Capitol and demanded that he get the social media platform to reinstate her account, according to a person familiar with the exchange.
Instead of telling Greene that he had no power to order a private company to change its content moderation policies, McCarthy directed his general counsel, Machalagh Carr, to appeal to Twitter executives. Over the next two months, Carr would spend hours on the phone with them arguing Greene’s case, and even helped draft a formal appeal on her behalf.
The efforts were unsuccessful at the time, but they impressed Greene and revealed how far McCarthy was prepared to go to defend her. It was part of a broader and methodical courtship of the hard right by McCarthy that included outreach to conservative media figures and Trump’s hard-line immigration adviser Stephen Miller.
He had studied the two previous Republican speakers of the House, former Reps. John Boehner of Ohio and Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, a person familiar with his thinking said, and concluded that one of their fatal errors had been unnecessarily isolating far-right members, who in turn made their lives miserable. So McCarthy set out to do the opposite.
Still, the alliance between McCarthy and Greene did not truly begin to flourish for several more months. At a party in the Dallas suburbs at the home of Arthur Schwartz, a GOP consultant and outside adviser to McCarthy, Greene found herself in the corner of a great room chatting with Devin Nunes, a former top Republican on the Intelligence Committee and a committed Trump ally.
Nunes told Greene about the time he had witnessed McCarthy yelling at Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., who was then the majority leader, for his party’s decision to remove Greene from her committees, and threatening that he would do the same to Democrats when Republicans came to power.
Greene recalled it as the first time she had heard from somebody she trusted that McCarthy had defended her, rather than conspired with Democrats to blackball her.
“That conversation had a big impact on me,” she said.
From then on, the two settled into a kind of symbiotic relationship, both feeding off what the other could provide. Greene began regularly visiting McCarthy, frequently dropping by his office, and he began inviting her to high-level policy discussions attended by senior Republicans and praising her contributions.
He was impressed not only by Greene’s seemingly innate understanding of the impulses of the party’s hard-right voters, but also by her prowess at building her own brand. He once remarked to allies with wonder at how Greene, as a freshman, was already known by a three-letter monogram: MTG. “She knows what she’s doing,” McCarthy marveled privately. “You’ve got AOC and MTG.”
After Republicans underperformed expectations in the midterm elections, winning only a narrow majority and guaranteeing that McCarthy would have a tough fight to become speaker, Greene was quick to begin barnstorming the right-wing media circuit as one of his top surrogates, using her conservative credentials to vouch for his.
As her peers on the far-right flank of the party refused to support McCarthy, subjecting the Republican leader to a four-day stretch of defeats, Greene was unflinching in her support, personally whipping votes on the House floor and strategizing on calls with Trump.
Greene’s support for McCarthy created a permission structure for other GOP lawmakers to do the same.
Rep. Barry Moore, R-Ala., said in an interview that when conservatives back home sought an explanation for his support for McCarthy, he would comfort them by replying: “Well, Jim Jordan and Marjorie Taylor Greene are standing with Kevin McCarthy. And so am I.”
The relationship has also paid off for Greene, no longer the fringe backbencher stripped of her power. Republican leaders announced last week that she would serve on two high-profile committees: Oversight and Homeland Security. She is also likely to be appointed to a new Oversight select subcommittee to investigate the coronavirus, according to a source familiar with McCarthy’s thinking who was not authorized to preview decisions that have yet to be finalized.
It is already clear that she is influencing McCarthy’s policy agenda.
After Greene had told McCarthy that vaccine mandates were morally wrong and that he needed to stop them, he fought vociferously — and successfully — to include the repeal of the military coronavirus vaccine mandate in last year’s defense bill.
After she told him that the party faithful could not understand why Congress continued to send money to help Ukraine secure its borders, when the United States’ southern border was not secure, McCarthy helped pave the way for Republicans on the Foreign Affairs Committee to put forward and support a bill sponsored by Greene, who does not sit on the panel, demanding that Congress audit U.S. aid sent to Ukraine.
And after she told McCarthy that many people imprisoned for their actions during the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol were being victimized, he signaled that Republicans would start an inquiry of their own digging into the work of the panel that was investigating the assault.
“People need to understand that it isn’t just me that deserves credit,” Greene said. “It is the will and the voice of our base that was heard, and Kevin listened to them. I was just a vehicle much of the time.”
In the early hours of Jan. 7, after McCarthy had finally clinched the speakership on the 15th ballot and pallets of Champagne were being wheeled into his new office, Greene opted not to join the celebration. But she sent him a text message the next day telling McCarthy how happy and proud she was — and how she could not wait to get started.
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