ORLANDO, Fla. — They came to a sunny, secluded golf resort here to brainstorm about policy and campaign messaging and how to use their new majority.
Instead, House Republicans are, once again, spending a lot of time talking about Donald Trump.
At the annual House GOP issues retreat, Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., has faced a barrage of questions from reporters about Trump’s possible indictment over a hush money payment to adult film actress Stormy Daniels and his calls for mass protests if the New York County district attorney charges him.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, and other GOP committee chairs fired off a letter Monday asking the DA, Alvin Bragg, to testify before Congress about what they called a “politically motivated” decision to prosecute Trump.
At a bilingual news conference titled “Delivering on our Commitment to America,” Republican members touched on topics like border security and the economy before they fielded questions about Trump. And rank-and-file GOP lawmakers walking through the sprawling resort could be overheard discussing the latest Trump controversy.
“It is what it is — hush money for a porn star. I mean, I couldn’t survive that,” Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Mike McCaul, R-Texas, joked in an interview at the JW Marriott Orlando, Grande Lakes, 160 miles north of Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort.
“It looks a little political, but I think we’re all exhausted from the drama of Trump,” he added.
After they seized control of the House majority this year, Republicans have had a bit of a reprieve from Trump. They've passed bills to reverse funding for the IRS, block Washington, D.C., legislation that reduced sentencing for some crimes and roll back a Biden administration rule on environmental, social and governance investing. Biden vetoed the ESG bill Monday.
"Yes, we did win the majority ... and we're carrying out that promise," McCarthy said.
But now, it seems, Republicans have fallen back into the same pattern they found themselves in during the four-year Trump presidency: trying to focus on important policy issues like China, the bank collapse and debt while dealing with the latest Trump controversy.
An NBC News report that New York law enforcement agencies were preparing for a potential Trump indictment as soon as this week spurred Trump to lash out on his social media platform, Truth Social, calling on supporters to “protest” and “take back the country!”
Pressed about those remarks, McCarthy and other Trump allies urged people not to protest or resort to violence. But the majority of Republicans here are rallying behind Trump, the 2024 GOP front-runner, painting his potential prosecution as a political attack against him.
“DOJ wouldn’t take the case. The federal district of New York didn’t take the case. [Former Manhattan DA] Cy Vance wouldn’t take the case. Bragg didn’t want to take the case, and then what changed? President Trump announces he’s running for president and shazam!” Jordan told reporters after he sent the letter seeking testimony from Bragg.
“We don’t think President Trump broke the law at all, but what concerns me is what they’re going to do based on what’s been reported," he added.
At a news conference about border security, he called Bragg's investigation a "sham."
At the bilingual English-Spanish news conference, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., blasted Bragg as a “rogue, left-wing, radical prosecutor who, by the way, refuses to prosecute serious crimes in [New York] who now has decided for political reasons to go after a former president.”
“We’re used to seeing that in Third World countries,” said Diaz-Balart, whose family fled Cuba decades ago.
But Diaz-Balart suggested that McCarthy — not Trump — is the current leader of the party.
“I have great respect for the former president of the United States, but … I will tell you right now, the leader of the party is the speaker of the House, the highest-ranking elected, second in line to the presidency,” he said.
Other Republicans said Trump’s name is not being uttered inside the closed-door breakout sessions of the GOP retreat.
Financial Services Committee Chairman Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., hosted a discussion about the economy, which focused largely on the Silicon Valley Bank collapse. Later, GOP Conference Secretary Lisa McClain, R-Mich., moderated a panel with Jordan and Homeland Security Committee Chairman Mark Green, R-Tenn., on border security.
“This hasn’t come up. This hasn’t come up,” Ways and Means Committee Chairman Jason Smith, R-Mo., who joined a panel on fiscal policy, insisted when he was asked about Trump. “Foreign policy was yesterday. We did banking stuff today. And then we were budget and debt limit.”
Rep. August Pfluger, R-Texas, said he’s focused on securing the border and on H.R. 1, the GOP’s new package of energy policies — not Trump.
“That has not come up,” Pfluger said of whether he'll endorse Trump this cycle. “And as I tell my constituents at every town hall, we’ve got legislative work to do. We’re busy doing that.”
CORRECTION (March 20, 2023, 10 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misidentified Rep. Mark Green, R-Tenn. He is the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, not the secretary of homeland security.