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Do you remember who Kevin McCarthy was two years ago?

The House Jan. 6 committee’s final report exposes McCarthy as a chameleon with ambition — and highlights why his own GOP caucus trusts him so little.


Today is the second anniversary of the attack on the U.S. Capitol, a shocking, sickening tear in the fabric of our democracy better known by a simple shorthand: Jan. 6.

In Joe Biden’s White House, that anniversary was commemorated today by the awarding of the Presidential Citizens Medal to 12 people. Through their “courage and selflessness” surrounding the 2020 election and Jan. 6, the recipients “made exemplary contributions to our democracy,” a White House official said.

And then there is Kevin McCarthy, who has gained more than a dozen votes since yesterday but just lost a 13th bid for speaker of the House of Representatives. McCarthy already has served in the House for eight terms. He has been a profile in courage in none of them. On the contrary, the honor for which McCarthy, who has reinvented himself over the decades on a Lady Gaga-like scale, might be most deserving is Best Congressional Chameleon. 

As The New Yorker put it last month, McCarthy’s “ambition has always been his defining characteristic,” with Jonathan Blitzer writing that the Republican’s “main strength has always been his malleability. There are no red lines, core policy beliefs, or inviolable principles, just a willingness to adapt to the moods of his conference.”

In the California GOP’s internecine 1990s, McCarthy served as a young staffer for the powerful moderate Rep. Bill Thomas. Decades later, having succeeded Thomas in Congress and having watched fellow “Young Guns” Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan fall prey to the Tea Party and then MAGA, respectively, McCarthy survived by clinging to Donald Trump. 

In some respects, McCarthy’s shape-shifting makes him the right man to lead the House GOP as the party settles into its “post-policy” era.

Less than two weeks after the Capitol attack, Thomas publicly distanced himself from his protégé, blaming McCarthy for echoing Trump’s phony lies about the election. But McCarthy, who initially placed blame for the insurrection at Trump’s feet, was unmoved by Thomas’ critique. Just three weeks after Jan. 6, McCarthy made a pilgrimage to Mar-a-Lago to kiss Trump’s ring when many thought he could — and should — have driven a stake through the former president’s political heart.  

In some respects, McCarthy’s shape-shifting makes him the right man to lead the House GOP as the party settles into its “post-policy” era. That malleability, however, has also led to deep mistrust of him throughout his caucus. As the title character asks Aaron Burr within the first minutes of “Hamilton”: “If you stand for nothing ... what’ll you fall for?”

In McCarthy’s case, we know what he will fall for — and from the final report of the House Jan. 6 committee, no less. As the report recounts, McCarthy was terrified and enraged by the violence at the Capitol that day — and knew just whom to hold accountable.

On Jan. 6, McCarthy called White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson as Trump was in the middle of his Ellipse rally speech. His message was clear: “Figure it out. Don’t come up here,” meaning the Capitol.

After the Capitol was breached, McCarthy tried to reach Trump, and upon making contact with Jared Kushner, McCarthy sounded “nervous” and “scared,” in Kushner’s account. McCarthy later acknowledged to CBS that he had spoken to Trump, told him “this has to stop,” and implored the president to send that message to Americans.

When Trump tried to convince McCarthy that the people invading the Capitol were antifa, McCarthy pressed back forcefully, saying: “No, they’re your people. They literally just came through my office windows and my staff are running for cover,” according to former Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Wash., who spoke with McCarthy soon afterward.

Beutler relayed that conversation to constituents at a town hall in her district, saying that Trump replied: “Well, Kevin, I guess they’re just more upset about the election, you know, theft than you are.”

Once the idea of invoking the 25th Amendment was floated, McCarthy even contemplated calling Trump and suggesting he resign, as captured in a tape recording of a conversation among House GOP leaders.

And when the House voted on Trump’s impeachment on Jan. 13, 2021, McCarthy voted against it in favor of “durable, bipartisan justice.” Yet McCarthy also stated unambiguously that Trump “bears responsibility for Wednesday’s attack on Congress by mob rioters.” McCarthy then said that the “continued rhetoric that Joe Biden is not the legitimate president” was not the American way, noting that Joe Biden would be “sworn in as president of the United States in one week … because he won the election.” McCarthy then called on Congress to establish a bipartisan, fact-finding commission about the causes of Jan. 6.

Yet after McCarthy’s fateful Jan. 28 visit to Mar-a-Lago, he began capitulating to Trump and the “big lie.”

Despite his initial insistence on a bipartisan fact-finding effort, McCarthy opposed the proposal for a bipartisan commission developed and negotiated by his and then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s designees.

He then sabotaged any chance of a truly bipartisan select committee. After that committee was established primarily by a party-line vote, McCarthy first selected two election deniers (Reps. Jim Jordan and Jim Banks) for the GOP’s five seats, and then, after Pelosi rejected those two members, he pulled his three other appointees from the committee.   

He also personally refused to cooperate with the committee’s investigation, not only ignoring calls to informally speak with the committee but also ultimately flouting a subpoena for his testimony, too. That intransigence earned McCarthy a referral from the Jan. 6 committee to the House Ethics Committee

Of course, while McCarthy accuses the Jan. 6 committee of neglecting to investigate the real issue, the Capitol is vulnerable once more.

And he perpetuated what became the dominant GOP counternarrative for Jan. 6: The violence that day was not Trump’s fault, but rather a dramatic, tragic failure by the intelligence community and law enforcement to secure the Capitol. McCarthy even warned the Jan. 6 committee’s chair, Bennie Thompson, last month to preserve all his committee’s records, because the new GOP majority would hold hearings to examine “why the Capitol complex was not secure” on Jan. 6 and would vigorously enforce the federal statute that criminally punishes false statements to Congress. The implication was unambiguous: Once we’re in charge, we’ll investigate your investigators and accuse your witnesses of lying.

Of course, while McCarthy accuses the Jan. 6 committee of neglecting to investigate the real issue, the Capitol is vulnerable once more. Why? Because without a speaker, “there are no rules,” as McCarthy himself said on the House floor this week. And without rules, it’s unclear who would be in charge, and how, if the Capitol were attacked. Even the House chaplain understands this, praying at the start of yesterday’s session that “in this imbroglio of indecision, we do not expose ourselves to the incursion of our adversary.”

But the health of the House, let alone our national security, has never been Kevin McCarthy’s priority. Nor have consistency and bravery been his strong suits. And that’s precisely why, after 13 rounds of votes, the House GOP is commemorating Jan. 6 quite differently than the Biden White House (or House Democrats, who held a ceremony of their own on the Capitol steps this morning).

While the president celebrated real-life heroes, House Republicans appear to be on the verge of electing a speaker few of them trust to do anything but tell them which way the wind is blowing.