ORLANDO, Fla. — House Republicans are seeing an annual gathering meant to highlight party unity and accomplishments thrown off balance this week as the potential indictment of former President Trump in New York looms over the central Florida retreat.
The annual GOP issues conference — taking place at a snazzy hotel in Orlando — was supposed to serve as an opportunity for the House GOP to discuss their successes over the past two months and how to chart a path forward, but it has instead been overshadowed by Trump’s Saturday assertion that he could be arrested on Tuesday in connection with the Manhattan District Attorney’s probe into 2016 hush-money payments.
GOP leaders opened a kickoff press conference on Sunday touting their recent successes, including President Biden reversing his position on a GOP-led resolution to block Washington, D.C.’s, revised criminal code from taking effect. And they looked ahead to upcoming legislation they said would deliver on their “Commitment to America” campaign promises, such as the recently unveiled H.R. 1 “Lower Energy Costs Act” that aims to boost domestic oil and gas production.
But Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) was quickly peppered with questions about Trump, setting the tone for the three-day conference. The Speaker railed against Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg (D), but broke with Trump on whether the former president’s supporters should protest if he is arrested.
Trump indicated in a Truth Social post on Saturday that he will be arrested on Tuesday as part of the Manhattan district attorney’s investigation into hush-money payments made during the 2016 presidential election. In that same statement, he urged his supporters to “PROTEST” and “TAKE OUR NATION BACK.”
“I don’t think people should protest this,” McCarthy told reporters when asked about Trump’s call for protests, adding that “we want calmness out there,” and that there should be no “violence or harm.”
Speaker Kevin McCarthy (Annabelle Gordon)
Republicans are trying to also keep focus on pressing policy questions, with some members telling The Hill that the potential Trump arrest — which would be the first time in U.S. history that a former president is indicted — was barely mentioned during the closed sessions for members. Sessions ranged from 2024 electoral strategy to a foreign policy strategic tabletop exercise that focused on China and Taiwan.
But not even a bilingual press conference on the GOP’s successes with Hispanic voters could steer clear of the former president.
“I think you guys pay a lot of attention to him,” Rep. Carlos Giménez (R-Fla.) said after the press conference, which included questions about Trump. “We pay attention to the president and all of our leaders. But we’re really committed to the things that we talked about there – the Commitment to America.”
At a briefing about the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank, McCarthy faced a question about whether it was appropriate for Republicans, led by House Judiciary Committee Chair Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), to request testimony from Bragg and request documents during an ongoing investigation. McCarthy said that he is supportive of committees being able to ask questions at any given time.
“You guys are the ones that are making a story. The story really should be about [President] Biden, for instance, being compromised because of all the money his family has gotten from China, but nobody’s writing about that,” House Majority Whip Tom Emmer (R-Minn.) said. “We’re gonna keep doing what we’re doing.”
Rep. Tom Emmer and other House Republicans are trying to keep the focus on policy and away from former President Trump. (Greg Nash)
GOP lawmakers appear keenly aware that Trump’s weekend announcement has cast a shadow over their annual retreat despite their efforts to keep conversations policy focused.
“Why did I think you would do that?” Jordan said facetiously when asked about the Bragg letters during a news conference about border security.
While the potential indictment is sucking the oxygen out of the GOP retreat, it’s also giving Republicans the opportunity to pivot to more well-worn talking points.
Lawmakers have largely zeroed in on Bragg and highlighting crime in New York — a message that led the party to pick up a number of seats in the Empire State last year — while moving away from the calls for protests.
That strategy has allowed Republicans to support Trump — the front-runner in the 2024 GOP presidential primary — without associating themselves with the potential political violence.
“Look, peaceful protests are right of the American people. And so I support peaceful protests and if they have the right to have peaceful protests,” Rep. Monica De La Cruz (R-Texas) echoed. “If the American people want to have a peaceful protest, that is something that we support.”
McCarthy suggested on Sunday that the former president was telling his supporters to “educate people about what’s going on” when he made his weekend call to action.
“He’s not talking in a harmful way,” McCarthy said. “Nobody should harm one another … And this is why you should really make law equal because if that was the case, nothing would happen.”
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) said “Peaceful protests all of us obviously support, and we must always protect peaceful protests.”
“Well, look, we have great respect for President Trump and the work that he’s done for our country. And as my colleague said, up there, this is a — a left wing D.A. who’s going after a president,” De La Cruz said when asked about the focus on Trump during the retreat.
“We need to see what the facts are and to look at the situation closely, what comes over the next couple of days. But, look, I mean, the president did great things for our country,” she added.