Speaker Kevin McCarthy on Tuesday declared Donald J. Trump the “strongest political opponent” against President Biden, rushing to make clear his loyalty to the former president just hours after suggesting in a televised interview that Mr. Trump might not be the Republican presidential candidate best positioned to prevail in the 2024 election.
The hurried attempt at ingratiating himself to Mr. Trump underscores Mr. McCarthy’s fear of alienating the former president as he struggles to keep together his fractious House majority and withstand mounting pressure from right-wing lawmakers loyal to Mr. Trump. And it reflected the precarious position of Mr. McCarthy, who has not endorsed Mr. Trump or any other candidate, as the G.O.P. presidential primary takes shape.
His latest difficulties began on Tuesday morning when, during an interview with CNBC, Mr. McCarthy wondered whether it would be good for the party to have Mr. Trump as its presidential nominee given his legal troubles.
“Can he win that election? Yeah, he can win that election,” Mr. McCarthy said. “The question is, is he the strongest to win the election; I don’t know that answer.”
The comment irked Mr. Trump’s allies, setting off an urgent effort by Mr. McCarthy to walk it back. He contacted Breitbart News, the right-wing news outlet, to offer an exclusive interview in which he said the former president was “stronger today than he was in 2016” and blamed the media for “attempting to drive a wedge between President Trump and House Republicans.”
Mr. McCarthy also called Mr. Trump Tuesday, according to three people familiar with the exchange, two of whom characterized the conversation as an apology.
The immediate damage control reflected how dependent Mr. McCarthy remained on Mr. Trump as he faced criticism from his right flank, and how his alliance with the conservative media ecosystem has helped to insulate him. In the past, Breitbart has helped wage public campaigns against mainstream Republican leaders, including Mr. McCarthy’s predecessors John A. Boehner and Paul D. Ryan, who refused to bend to the will of the party’s hard right.
But Mr. McCarthy has cultivated a relationship with the website. Its story on Tuesday highlighted Mr. McCarthy’s full-throated defense of Mr. Trump and accused mainstream media of taking his comments out of context.
Mr. McCarthy has not officially endorsed Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign and has been advised by people like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a frequent outside adviser, not to do so.
Still, his speakership at critical inflection points has depended on the support of Mr. Trump, who could easily exacerbate tensions between Mr. McCarthy and hard-right lawmakers by encouraging them to defy his leadership. Mr. McCarthy has been careful to show no daylight between him and the former president.
In trying to keep his fragile majority together, Mr. McCarthy has at key moments allowed the House to become Mr. Trump’s instrument of revenge and retaliation.
Mr. McCarthy has a cordial, if not close, relationship with Mr. Trump, whom he has credited with helping him win the fraught race for speakership.
Tuesday’s dust-up recalled another, far more dramatic instance when Mr. McCarthy rushed to paper over a potential rift between himself and Mr. Trump.
After taking to the House floor after the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the Capitol to say that Mr. Trump “bears responsibility” for the attack, Mr. McCarthy famously sought to mend his relationship with the man who remained the most popular political force on the right.
Just over a week after Mr. Trump left the White House, Mr. McCarthy paid him a visit at Mar-a-Lago, smiling and presenting what has continued to be a united front.