Prominent political figures are occasionally caught on tape saying or doing something provocative, but it seems no one has been surreptitiously recorded more than House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.
It was nearly six years ago when the California Republican joked behind closed doors about Donald Trump being on Vladimir Putin’s payroll. McCarthy’s team denied he made the comments, but a recording proved that the GOP congressman made the comments.
More recently, McCarthy has been at the center of a significant controversy over his secretly recorded concerns in the wake of the Jan. 6 attack. CNN moved the ball forward last night:
House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy discussed the 25th Amendment on a call with GOP leadership days after the January 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol and said the process “takes too long,” according to an audio recording obtained by two New York Times reporters and shared with CNN.
At issue is a call that took place on Jan. 8, 2021, which was recorded without McCarthy’s knowledge and which was obtained by The New York Times’ Jonathan Martin and Alex Burns for their new book, “This Will Not Pass: Trump, Biden, and the Battle for America’s Future.”
During the phone meeting, McCarthy conceded that Trump’s actions two days earlier were “atrocious and totally wrong.” The House GOP leader also sounded very much like someone who wanted the then-president out of office — criticizing the 25th Amendment option not because it was brash, but because it was slow.
To help contextualize matters, consider a brief timeline of McCarthy’s private comments to his ostensible allies, each of which have come to light in recent weeks:
Jan. 8: McCarthy condemned Trump’s Jan. 6 actions as “atrocious and totally wrong.” He also talked about options for removing Trump from office and raised the prospect of reaching out to Joe Biden in the hopes of helping create a “smooth transition” between administrations.
Jan. 10: McCarthy privately told his House Republican colleagues that he was prepared to tell Trump that he should resign the presidency. He also said the same day that some of the more radical members of his own conference were putting people’s safety in jeopardy.
Jan. 11: McCarthy privately told Republicans, in reference to Trump, “I’ve had it with this guy. What he did is unacceptable. Nobody can defend that, and nobody should defend it.”
Remember, these are just the private comments the minority leader made. McCarthy was being candid at the time, assuming the public would never hear what he was saying. (On Jan. 13, McCarthy publicly said on the House floor that Trump “bears responsibility“ for the attack.)
He was, for all intents and purposes, on the same page as then-House Republican Conference Chair Liz Cheney — except, in the months that followed, she didn’t change her mind.
And therein lies the point. While there was some speculation two weeks ago, when The Rachel Maddow Show aired the first of these recordings, about the degree to which his behind-the-scenes comments might damage McCarthy’s standing within his party, those questions have largely run their course: For now, Trump doesn’t seem to care, and the vast majority of rank-and-file House Republicans are shrugging their shoulders.
But that doesn’t make the revelations irrelevant. On the contrary, what matters is what we’re learning about McCarthy himself.
The House GOP leader’s instincts in the aftermath of the attack on the Capitol were sound: He saw Trump’s misconduct as reprehensible and wanted him gone. McCarthy was even briefly prepared to show some courage, telling his colleagues that he’d tell the then-president what he didn’t want to hear.
But it wasn’t long before McCarthy, unlike Cheney, decided to throw his principles out the window.
Circling back to our earlier coverage, it was on Jan. 21 — 10 days after the “I’ve had it with this guy” conversation — when McCarthy started hedging. Referring to Trump and the insurrectionist 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, 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: These audio recordings prove that he was well aware of reality. But the Republican congressman spent months covering for the former president anyway, despite knowing the truth.