The announcement comes weeks after McCarthy was thrown out of the speakership in a historic vote led by hard-right members of his own party, abruptly ending his steady rise in the House.
“No matter the odds, or personal cost, we did the right thing. That may seem out of fashion in Washington these days, but delivering results for the American people is still celebrated across the country,” McCarthy wrote of his time in the House.
The California Republican’s most lasting legacy will likely be the political rehabilitation of former President Donald Trump following the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol. At first, McCarthy blamed Trump for instigating the riot.
“The president bears responsibility for Wednesday’s attack on Congress by mob rioters,” McCarthy said in a Jan. 13, 2021, floor speech. “He should have immediately denounced the mob when he saw what was unfolding.”
Trump had summoned his supporters to Washington for a “wild” protest against his loss in the 2020 presidential election. During a speech that day, he urged the crowd to “fight like hell” and to go to the Capitol, where lawmakers were certifying the electoral college results. McCarthy spoke with Trump by phone during the riot and pleaded with him to call off his mob.
Within weeks, McCarthy changed his tune, blaming “everybody across this country” for the attack and traveling to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort to stand shoulder to shoulder with him in a now-iconic photo.
McCarthy had been leader of the House Republican conference since 2019, after having served in lower-ranking GOP leadership positions under former Speakers John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). McCarthy needed support from far-right lawmakers in order to win the gavel himself, and placating Trump likely helped put him in the good graces of lawmakers like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.).
But he became speaker at the start of this year only by making special concessions to the right-wingers ― including a fateful decision to change House rules so that a single lawmaker could trigger a no-confidence vote in the speaker.
Hardliners used that power to oust McCarthy after he avoided a government shutdown in September by allowing the House to vote on a government funding bill without spending cuts that conservatives wanted. The measure passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, prompting Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) to file the resolution that led to McCarthy’s downfall.
Gaetz reacted to McCarthy’s retirement Wednesday with a one-word statement: “McLeavin.’”
In his op-ed, McCarthy said he will resign after Christmas rather than finish the second half of his term, shrinking an already tiny Republican majority.
“I have decided to depart the House at the end of this year to serve America in new ways,” McCarthy wrote. “I know my work is only getting started.”
After weeks of chaos amid a leaderless House following McCarthy’s ouster from the speakership in October, Republicans eventually elected Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.) to become the 56th leader of the chamber in late October.
McCarthy’s decision to step down early will make it more difficult for Johnson to push partisan legislation through the House, since the Republican majority will shrink from 221 members to 220. With 213 Democrats, Republicans will be able to lose only three of their own members and still pass bills without Democratic votes. If a Democrat wins the February special election to fill the seat vacated by former Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.), Republicans will have a two-vote margin. And when Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio) leaves for his pending university job, the margin could shrink to one.
In other words, McCarthy’s early departure will make it even harder for Johnson to deal with government funding deadlines in January and February than it was for McCarthy in September.
“Hopefully no one dies,” Greene said on social media.
Maybe it’s for the best. McCarthy has not been getting along well with his colleagues. Last month, he told CNN the GOP would benefit “tremendously” if Gaetz left the House. And he physically struck Rep. Tim Burchett (R-Tenn), who joined Gaetz in supporting McCarthy’s ouster, when the two crossed paths in the Capitol basement. (McCarthy denied elbowing Burchett in the kidney.)
Johnson, for his part, offered praise for his California colleague.
“Kevin has been a long and trusted friend,” Johnson told reporters. “We wish him will in his next endeavor.”