A month before Donald Trump clinched the Republican nomination, one of his closest allies in Congress -- House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy -- made a politically explosive assertion in a private conversation on Capitol Hill with his fellow GOP leaders: that Trump could be the beneficiary of payments from Russian President Vladimir Putin."There's two people I think Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump," McCarthy (R-Calif.) said, according to a recording of the June 15, 2016, exchange, which was listened to and verified by The Washington Post. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher is a Californian Republican known in Congress as a fervent defender of Putin and Russia.House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) immediately interjected, stopping the conversation from further exploring McCarthy's assertion, and swore the Republicans present to secrecy.
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When the Post reached out to the House Speaker's office, Ryan's spokesperson, Brendan Buck, initially said of the McCarthy story, "That never happened.... The idea that McCarthy would assert this is absurd and false."Told that the newspaper had a recording of McCarthy's comments, Ryan's spokesperson switched gears, saying the House Majority Leader's comment may have happened, but he was kidding.Hmm.Some context is in order. As the Post's report explained, before making the comments, McCarthy had just met with Ukrainian Prime Minister Vladimir Groysman, "who had described a Kremlin tactic of financing populist politicians to undercut Eastern European democratic institutions." There were also multiple news reports at the time about Russia taking steps to help Donald Trump's campaign.What's more, after McCarthy made the comment about Trump being on Putin's payroll, and some in the room laughed, the House Majority Leader added, "Swear to God."Is it possible McCarthy was joking? Sure. Of course, that wouldn't explain why the House GOP leadership would initially say McCarthy's comments "never happened," when they clearly did.But even putting that aside, sometimes people joke about things because they believe there's some truth behind the humor. Maybe McCarthy was kidding about Putin giving Trump money, but McCarthy wouldn't have bothered to tell the joke if he and his audience didn't have some fairly serious concerns about Trump's alarming coziness with his allies in Moscow.As a separate Washington Post analysis put it, "It is quite possible that McCarthy did not mean that he really, truly thought Trump was cashing checks from Putin. Perhaps he made the comment to illustrate his belief that Trump was metaphorically in Putin's pocket. That's not much better -- and it's a theory that would explain why Republicans wanted to keep the comment secret and then falsely claimed that McCarthy never said it."