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Image: Kevin McCarthy and Donald Trump
Kevin McCarthy and Donald Trump attend a legislation signing rally with local farmers on Feb. 19, 2020 in Bakersfield, Calif.David McNew / Getty Images file

Kevin McCarthy’s ‘joke’ about Trump and Putin, six years later

Kevin McCarthy has been wrong about a great many things. But when it came to Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, exactly six years ago today, he was right.


House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s choice of words has gotten him into trouble on several occasions. Indeed, the California Republican might’ve even become Speaker of the House had he not accidentally told the truth about his party’s Benghazi committee.

But if we were creating a greatest hits collection for the GOP leader, one quote — uttered exactly six years ago today — would probably claim the #1 slot on the list. The Washington Post reported several years ago:

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.

On June 15, 2016, McCarthy told his fellow Republicans, “There’s two people I think Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump.” (Former Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher earned a reputation as one of Russia’s biggest congressional supporters.) McCarthy added at the time, “Swear to God.”

According to the recording, then-House Speaker Paul Ryan immediately interjected, insisting that the assembled Republicans — some of whom were heard laughing at the comments — not tell anyone about what McCarthy had just said.

“No leaks,” Ryan said at the time, adding, “This is how we know we’re a real family here.”

A year later, a recording of McCarthy’s comments leaked.

Initially, GOP officials swore up and down that McCarthy never said any such thing, but when told about the tape, they quickly switched gears, acknowledged McCarthy’s quote, but said he was kidding.

When the recording came to public light, a separate Washington Post analysis added, “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.”

Six years later, the House GOP leader probably prefers not to remember his “joke,” but like his line on the Benghazi committee, McCarthy’s mistake was telling an inconvenient truth. Indeed, Trump spent four years in the White House proving that McCarthy had a point, defending Putin, and aligning his administration’s policies with Russia’s wishes.

Trump’s own director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, ultimately suggested to Bob Woodward that he couldn’t shake the suspicion that Trump was beholden to Putin.

What’s more, while it’s become fashionable in some Republican circles to pretend that Trump’s Russia scandal has somehow been discredited, reality tells a different story: This was a genuine scandal about a Republican presidential candidate whose political operation sought, embraced, capitalized on, and lied about assistance from a foreign adversary — and then took steps to obstruct the investigation into the foreign interference.

Over the course of his unfortunate congressional career, McCarthy has been wrong about a great many things. But when it came to Trump and Putin, six years ago today, he was right.