Q&A: Robert Draper Explains How Marjorie Taylor Greene Became a Force to be Reckoned With
The veteran journalist chronicles how the onetime political pariah became the leader of the House GOP's ascendant Trumpist wing
Robert Draper is a writer at large for the New York Times Magazine and a contributing writer for National Geographic Magazine. He is the author of the new book, Weapons of Mass Delusion: When The Republican Party Lost Its Mind. Draper chronicles the road from January 6 to the 2022 midterms among the Republican base and in the U.S. Congress, juxtaposing the rise of Marjorie Taylor Greene with the fall of Liz Cheney. He is the author of several books, including Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush. He lives in Washington.
In the 2022 U.S. midterm elections, Republicans won a majority in the U.S. House for the first time since losing it to Democrats in 2018. However, that majority is much narrower than expected, with Republicans led by Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) having a margin of not more than four seats. With legislating essentially impossible due to the Democrats controlling the presidency and the Senate, Draper says House Republicans are likely to focus on trying to "take Biden down a peg."
I spoke with Draper last week over Zoom. Our conversation follows, condensed and slightly edited for clarity.
Luke Johnson: The Republicans have a very narrow majority in the House, much less than expected. How effectively do you think the House majority will operate?
Robert Draper: Well, it depends on what you mean by effective. In terms of passing legislation that will be agreed to in the Senate and signed into law by President Biden, there's no likelihood that will occur. But if by effective, you mean to disrupt the Democratic message with a message that includes investigating the Biden family, stripping Democrats of their committee seats, and investigating the Biden administration, then yes, I think the likelihood is great that Republicans will succeed.
The context for all of this is the 2024 presidential campaign. What remains to be seen is how the general electorate will respond to Republicans who spend the next two years not trying to do anything of practical value, but instead trying to exact retribution against the ruling party and take down Biden a peg.
RD: I've talked to conservative members of the House Republicans, and they seem to really believe that the investigation of Hunter Biden will go somewhere, but they don't seem to feel like it requires proving that there was some kind of quid pro quo; for example, between Hunter Biden receiving money from the Ukrainian government and Joe Biden changing administration policy in return. They seem pretty content with just going down the Hunter Biden rabbit hole. It's hard for me to imagine that the American public is going to have much of an appetite because it's practically axiomatic in American politics that family members trade off the names and reputations of political figures who are in their family. It may be a bit shady, but with rare exceptions, it's not illegal. I think that Americans find the practice distasteful, but not the kind of thing that they want to see their government spend time preoccupying itself with.
LJ: Is impeachment on the table?
RD: It's on the table, but [Kevin] McCarthy would rather not be there, dragging America through a spectacle for crimes that largely exist only in the imagination of his fellow Republicans; this is not the path to the promised land. In 2024, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) began offering up articles of impeachment the day that Joe Biden took office. There's an air of dubiousness to this whole spectacle. It seems far less about establishing concern about a high crime and misdemeanor having taken place and more about ready, shoot, aim.
LJ: Marjorie Taylor Greene is a major figure in your book. Her staff was reluctant to allow you to speak with her; you spoke with her several times for the book. What did you learn about her that you wouldn't have learned through press conferences or hallway interactions?
RD: I think what one learns from seeing Marjorie Taylor Greene's Twitter feed or seeing her at press conferences is that she's something of a political performance artist. What I came to learn is that Greene is a true believer of the Make America Great Again (MAGA) agenda and has every intention of getting policy initiatives that conform with that agenda put into law. Furthermore, she recognizes that as the de facto leader of the Trumpist wing of the Republican Party in Washington, she has a great deal of leverage and she intends to use it. She has already been using it. She is one of the biggest fundraisers on Capitol Hill in the Republican Party. She has been using that money to support and endorse candidates who are like-minded. McCarthy has recognized her level of influence and has brought her into high-level policy meetings. He has promised her plum committee assignments.
Greene hired Ed Buckham as her chief of staff, who had been the Chief of Staff to Tom DeLay, the former Republican House Majority, widely understood to be one of the most cunning and effective legislators on Capitol Hill. The thinking would have been that Greene would have hired staffers who are pushing out her extreme messaging. But instead, that she's hired Buckham is further evidence that she intends to form coalitions within the Republican Party to get her agenda passed. This had not been published before I disclosed it.
LJ: You write, "Marjorie Taylor Greene knew that she had the upper hand, and so did the GOP House’s titular leader, Kevin McCarthy. The more unctuously he wooed her, the more turned off she became by his desperate quest for power." Describe their relationship.
RD: It's a decent relationship, but it's also very transactional. You'll never see them socializing. Greene has very little affection for her own party. In 2019, she told me she ran largely because when she came to Washington, as a citizen, requesting meetings with Republican senators, including from her home state of Georgia, to talk about gun legislation, no one would talk to her. It was that kind of insularity that she ran against. She also said to me that she has told members of her own conference, "You guys, when you had all the power, when you ran both sides of the legislative branch, as well as the executive branch from 2017, to the beginning of 2019, you got nothing passed, you didn't build Trump's wall, you didn't end Obamacare," as she elegantly put it to me: "You shat the bed."
Greene intends to move her party to the right. That's not necessarily what McCarthy wants to see. McCarthy is not an ideologue, and left his own devices, I think he would split the difference on a lot of legislation. Greene is likely to make McCarthy's life very uncomfortable. In the immediate, she's an ally. He wants to be the speaker. She's willing to help him get the votes to be speaker. She's doing this because she doesn't want to see a more moderate Republican become a speaker, and definitely doesn't want to see a Democrat become speaker. But just because she is an ally of his today, doesn't mean that she's going to be an ally of his after January 3, 2023.
“We should operate under the assumption that the Republican Party is still led by Donald Trump, who still is the arbiter of what the truth is. ”
LJ: She vowed "not another penny" for Ukraine, and she speaks for a faction in the House GOP conference. Will she be successful at holding up Ukraine aid?
RD: I don't know if she will succeed. She will succeed at putting it on the table for debate. Frankly, I don't think it's an unhealthy debate to have. I think that every dollar spent overseas should always be up for debate. Having said that, the Department of Defense's annual budget is $1.6 trillion, and this amounts to just a tiny fraction of that operating budget.
The MAGA wing of the Republican Party does not support our overseas efforts in Ukraine. Greene and her wing of the party can force Republicans to publicly say where they stand on this, which could prove unpopular back home, which in turn could lead to primary challenges. In an effort to prevent that, some Republican legislators may find themselves in alliance with Greene, if only to avoid a primary challenge.
LJ: You write:
In defeat, Donald Trump could claim a greater glory…Trump now controlled the party’s version of reality…Because the voters and what they believed were now in Trump’s hands, the party was faced with a choice. They could speak out against him and risk forfeiting everything but their integrity. Or they could hold their tongues, risk becoming pariahs of the truth-based world, and keep their jobs.
Is that still true after this House win, which seems like a loss based on what was predicted?
RD: The short answer is, yes, until we have any reason to believe otherwise. We should operate under the assumption that the Republican Party is still led by Donald Trump, who still is the arbiter of what the truth is. It's not as if tens of millions of people, the people who were deluded en masse, woke up sometime after the November midterms and said, "Oh, you know what, I guess elections aren't stolen."
Quite to the contrary. In Arizona, there continues to be the belief among a lot of Republicans, that Kari Lake and Mark Finchem [the GOP gubernatorial and secretary of state candidates] are the rightful winners of those elections, when in fact, they both were defeated. They're fanning the flames of election fraud, refusing to concede, and a lot of Republicans in Arizona and beyond are with them. Trump, of course, is saying the same thing too.
I know that a lot establishment Republicans are looking at the midterms and saying this is proof that when you have all these extreme candidates who are running in completely winnable seats, who are defeated, because they are Trumpy candidates, then the message is clear: move the party back towards the center. But that's easier said than done.
LJ: What's McCarthy's relationship like with Donald Trump now?
RD: McCarthy made the calculation well before the 2020 election that the Republican Party could not survive with Trump taking an adversarial posture towards it. He believed that Trump had the power to take down the Republicans anytime he wished, much the way we have seen Trump go after the mainstream media. McCarthy has decided better to ride the tiger than let the tiger eat you.
In 2020 and 2022, he worked in concert with Trump when it came to Trump endorsing candidates. There was at least one case where McCarthy managed to persuade Trump to support a primary challenger to one who voted to impeach him. McCarthy's argument on David Valadao -- one of the two to vote to impeach Trump and win -- was "There is no other Republican who can win that seat, sir. So please, don't support anyone else because they'll lose and we'll lose that seat."
In other cases, Trump did support more extreme candidates against a couple of people who had voted to impeach -- Peter Meijer of Michigan and Jaime Herrera Beutler in Washington State. The Trump-backed Republicans who had beaten both lost in the general election. Trump doesn't like the South Carolina Congresswoman Nancy Mace because Mace and Marjorie Taylor Greene are sworn enemies. He backed a primary challenger. Mace happens to be a favorite of McCarthy; McCarthy sat on his hands. [Mace won.]
Their alliance is real but also situational. What hasn't happened anytime since the week after the insurrection is Kevin McCarthy condemning or even mildly criticizing Donald Trump. We haven't seen a sign of that since McCarthy ultimately voted not to impeach the president, but did criticize him. If Kevin McCarthy is the speaker, we'll see whether he's taking his orders from Trump, and if he defies Trump on any level, if he's willing to suffer the consequences.
LJ: Trump announced his 2024 Run recently. What was the reaction in the House caucus?
RD: It depends on who you ask. The MAGA wing of the Republican Party -- Greene, Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) -- have immediately supported Trump. The immediacy is important because Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.), who squeaked out a victory by 550 votes in her district, had been a little more equivocal, and said that she loved Trump, but she loved Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. To Trump, that equivocation did not go unnoticed. There are a lot of other Republicans who really hope that Trump was defeated by a Republican such as Ron DeSantis, but they won't come out and say so.
Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) serves as a cautionary tale to those other Republicans that if you speak out against Trump, then you're reaping the whirlwind. If you oppose Trump, the best way to do it is in the privacy of your own home. Otherwise, you're just taking on a problem unnecessarily, causing yourself unnecessary grief. It'll mean nasty phone calls, maybe even death threats from MAGA constituents in your own district. It'll mean a primary challenge.
LJ: What are you looking ahead to in the dynamic between elected Republican officials in the House and Senate and Trump over the next two years?
RD: I think Trump is going to be less about policy initiatives and more about payback. Trump will not be interested whether Republicans go to the [border] wall, trying to enact his more extreme immigration measures. Of more interest to Trump is impeachment proceedings against Biden and against Attorney General Merrick Garland for Mar-a-Lago. The sum total of Trump's ideology at the moment is retribution.
Meanwhile, if the Republicans are in any way accommodating towards Biden, if they attempt to have a meeting of the minds regarding the debt ceiling, Trump will go after them, not because Trump has a whole lot to say on the subject of the debt ceiling, but rather, because he has a whole lot to say about the Biden administration enjoying any kind of success, particularly in partnership with Republicans.
LJ: How do you think members of the House and Senate will react to that agenda?
RD: Well, poorly. At minimum, it's a nuisance to them. Some of them have been waiting to assume committee chairmanships, and they want to do that, because they'd like to put conservative initiatives into practice, and not to have to figure into their calculus, what it's going to mean for Trump's political fortunes.
A very significant majority in the Republican House would love to see Trump go away. But they are not going to express that. They're not looking for a fight with him. They actually would like to get on with some semblance of the business of legislating, and, and not thinking every day, "How's this going to make Trump feel?"
Public Sphere is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.