The two stayed close over the years, as McCarthy would invite Kinzinger to exclusive fundraising getaways and charmed Kinzinger’s mother by complimenting her on Instagram posts.
Now, as Kinzinger serves on the committee investigating former president Donald Trump’s role in inciting the Capitol riot, he is no longer the baby-faced 32-year-old whose future seemed limitless.
Forced into early retirement later this year, he reserves his deepest anger for cohorts like McCarthy and other Republican leaders who keep falling in line with an ex-president whose actions they privately, and sometimes publicly, condemn.
“It’s been the biggest, kind of, sad point in my career because I considered him a friend, like a true friend,” Kinzinger said of McCarthy during an hour-long interview Friday, just 12 hours after he helped lead the committee’s review of Trump’s actions on the afternoon of the attack.
While Trump might actually believe the 2020 election was stolen in some deranged fantasy, these other Republicans know Joe Biden won fair and square but will not dare say so in public, he said. “These people, who could have stood up and know better, are the ones I’m more angry at. I know it’s kind of dumb, a little bit, but they’re the ones that make me pretty upset.”
Kinzinger has lived a bit in the shadow of the only other Republican on the panel, Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.), whose familial roots in a Republican dynasty have made her turn to anti-Trump insurgent a more dramatic storyline. But Cheney is just in her third term. Kinzinger’s 12 years more closely represent the evolution of the modern Republican Party.
Without that tea party-infused class of 2010, which shifted the Republican Party on a course toward this nativist and nationalist ethos, Trump’s presidential ambitions might never have lifted off that escalator back in 2015.
Kinzinger served in the Air Force, piloting fueling tankers and reconnaissance planes, including missions in Iraq. He launched a long-shot bid for a Democratic seat south of Chicago in 2009, epitomizing the “Young Guns” brand that McCarthy honed.
These freshmen flexed their muscle to get key committee assignments and deputy leadership posts, as well as demanding the repeal of Obamacare at a time when the health law’s namesake served as president and would never agree to that.
As outside groups placed ideological litmus tests on obscure votes and divided the freshman class, he stayed close to party leaders. After redistricting in 2012 threw Kinzinger into a primary with a veteran Republican incumbent, McCarthy and former Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), then the majority leader, vociferously backed Kinzinger.
He steered clear of the 2010 class rabble rousers as they nearly caused a default on the national debt and fueled a long government shutdown in 2013. He instead focused on building allegiances with traditional Republican hawks on national security.
A picture with one of his closest friends from that time, Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.), still sits behind Kinzinger’s desk even though he hasn’t spoken to Trump’s secretary of state since shortly after the 2021 insurrection.
Kinzinger couldn’t bring himself to vote for Trump, and by late January 2017, when the new president visited Republicans at their legislative policy retreat in Philadelphia, the single 30-something lawmaker found temporary salvation in the bottle.
“I got super drunk,” he recalled, laughing at those who mocked his bleary-eyed performance during a CNN interview the next morning. “Trump’s president, how do we deal with this?”
In truth, Kinzinger dealt with it like most Republicans: compartmentalizing a few good policy positions while politely disagreeing with Trump on his erratic moves.
Kinzinger wanted lower taxes, more defense spending and conservative Supreme Court justices. After he flew on Air Force Two, Kinzinger happily posted a picture with Mike Pence, then vice president. “The President wants to talk to ya,” he wrote on Instagram, bragging about their in-flight call with Trump.
When the sitting president tried to shake down Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to boost his 2020 reelection, Kinzinger found an excuse to oppose impeachment.
Democrats had rushed their case and not fully investigated the charges, he said at the time. But now, looking back, he admits that he was afraid of the conservative voters in his exurban district that wraps around Chicago. “It’s like I knew, if I voted for that, I was done,” he said.
By the fall of 2020, Kinzinger pulled off the worst rationalization of his political career: He voted for Trump. “That way I can say with a straight face I voted for him,” Kinzinger explained, thinking about future discussions with voters. “I know he is not going to win, but I can say I did it. And so I have credit with the base.”
Didn’t that make him the sort of political coward he now despises? “Yeah, I was. Yeah, absolutely,” Kinzinger admitted, saying he felt “dirty” casting that ballot. “It’s not something I can square away in my soul fully.”
But as Trump moved deeper into conspiracy theories, Kinzinger made a hard break. On New Year’s Day in 2021, when House Republicans convened a conference call to discuss the Jan. 6 presidential certification, he gave a blunt warning.
“Kevin, you have convinced half of the country that the election was stolen. There’s going to be violence,” Kinzinger said, according to his recollection, prompting an unfazed response from McCarthy: “Thanks, Adam, next caller.”
McCarthy declined to comment for this story. A few weeks later, Kinzinger launched a political action committee to support anti-Trump Republicans just days after McCarthy visited the ex-president at his Palm Beach resort to pledge his allegiance again.
After House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) launched the select committee last summer to investigate the Capitol attack, she refused to seat two of the Republican minority leader’s selections, so McCarthy pulled all his members off the panel.
Kinzinger then gladly accepted Pelosi’s offer to be on the committee. Once Illinois Democrats drew new lines that put him into the same district as a more reliable conservative, he decided to retire rather than go out in certain defeat.
On the Jan. 6 committee, Democrats lean on him to explain right-wing media so certain issues can be tamped down before they turn into conservative feeding frenzies.
“Nobody understands the GOP power structure better than Liz Cheney, but nobody understands the right-wing media infrastructure better than Adam Kinzinger,” Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), a fellow committee member, said. “We don’t even know how to find those channels.”
Kinzinger grew up in a religious culture where “the end times” was frequently discussed. He learned how that could sometimes tip into “black helicopter” conspiracy, something he recognized when watching video of rioters blowing shofar horns as they marched through the Capitol.
“That is all the Jericho March, this is calling forth basically the new kingdom,” he said. During the Jan. 6 riot, some insurrectionists were blowing shofar horns on the Senate floor. “It’s all prophetic stuff,” he said.
The committee’s biggest break came from Mark Meadows, Trump’s former chief of staff, who initially handed over thousands of text messages but has since refused to cooperate. “Our star witness, even though he never cooperated, is Mark Meadows, because his texts that he did produce is the thing that really gave us the road map for where to go next,” Kinzinger said.
Still a pilot in the Air National Guard, he can’t avoid the aviation metaphor when it comes to the biggest dispute among committee members. “How do you, to use the stupid term that everybody’s using now, how do you land the plane? How do you say, we’ve got enough, we’re good to go?” he said.
Kinzinger’s job ends at the end of the year. He’ll be retired at the age of 44, married with a baby boy. Of the 87 Republicans who first won in 2010, only about 15 will take the oath in the House next January.
Of the 10 Republicans who voted to impeach Trump, just one has secured his party’s nomination for November. Kinzinger and three others decided to retire, while another lost a primary in June. Cheney and three more face tough primary contests next month.
For Kinzinger, the battle will continue. He hopes to run for office again years from now if his side can win the long-term fight against those who still choose Trumpian adulation.
“Trump is now secondary to the cancer. Trump is like a cancer of the liver. Now we have cancer in the whole body, and the next person that can mimic Trump can still pull his magic tricks,” he said. “We’ve got to stand up against this.”