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Donald Trump speaks as he joined by House Minority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy in the Rose Garden of the White House on January 4, 2019 in Washington, D.C.
Donald Trump speaks as he joined by House Minority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy in the Rose Garden of the White House on January 4, 2019 in Washington, D.C.Alex Wong / Getty Images, file

McCarthy’s willingness to cover for Trump takes an ugly turn

Kevin McCarthy spent much of 2021 excusing Donald Trump’s Jan. 6 misconduct. That was awful at the time, but it’s quite a bit worse now.

When it comes to understanding House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s perspective on Donald Trump and the Jan. 6 attack, consider a brief timeline from early last year.

On Jan. 6, during the attack on the Capitol, McCarthy and Trump reportedly had a tense conversation in which the minority leader pressed the then-president to tell the rioters to stand down. According to a different GOP lawmaker, Trump said, “Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are.”

On Jan. 10, McCarthy privately told his House Republican colleagues that he was prepared to tell Trump he should resign the presidency.

On Jan. 11, McCarthy said he’d spoken to Trump, and the then-president had told him that he accepted some responsibility for the insurrectionist violence.

On Jan. 13, McCarthy said on the House floor that Trump “bears responsibility“ for the attack.

If we were to simply stop here, this timeline would seem to offer a complete, week-long story in which McCarthy had taken a series of morally defensible stands.

The problem, of course, is that we can’t stop here.

The former president was reportedly infuriated by the Californian’s Jan. 13 remarks, because Trump expected his ostensible allies to show absolute, genuflecting fealty at all times. And with this in mind, on Jan. 21, just eight days after his pre-written remarks on the House floor, McCarthy started hedging. Referring to Trump and the violence, the Californian told reporters, “I don’t believe he provoked [the riot] if you listen to what he said at the rally.”

A few days later, the minority leader added that instead of holding the former president responsible, it’d be fairer to say “everybody across this country has some responsibility.”

A few days after that, McCarthy traveled to Mar-a-Lago to effectively kiss the ring, and an even more ridiculous pattern soon followed.

In April 2021, for example, the House GOP leader argued that Trump “put a video out” on Jan. 6 in the interest of curtailing the violence, which not only mischaracterized what happened, it also contradicted McCarthy’s own earlier comments.

In July 2021, the minority leader refused to stand by his earlier criticisms of Trump. In September 2021, McCarthy claimed the FBI had exonerated Trump of any Jan. 6 wrongdoing — which wasn’t even close to being true.

We need not speculate about whether McCarthy knew better: The audio recording from his Jan. 10 meeting proves he was well aware of reality. But the Republican congressman spent months covering for the former president anyway, despite knowing the truth.

The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent summarized this nicely:

The problem isn’t just that McCarthy thought Trump should resign but then changed his mind, perhaps because keeping in Trump’s good favor is essential to his hopes of becoming the next House speaker and to keeping Trump voters in the GOP coalition. Rather, the problem is this: Despite thinking Trump’s offenses against our constitutional order were so grave that they probably merited resignation, McCarthy and other Republicans have spent the past year concertedly downplaying, hand-waving away and minimizing the full truth about those offenses, and even trying to keep them from coming to light.

Quite right. McCarthy spent much of 2021 excusing Trump’s Jan. 6 misconduct. That was awful at the time, but it’s quite a bit worse now.