WASHINGTON –House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy and his allies are scrambling to contain the damage wrought by new audio tapes in which he can be heard saying Trump should have resigned after the insurrection of Jan. 6, 2021 – comments he denied making just hours before the release of the tapes.
With Congress on recess, McCarthy, fellow lawmakers and various Republican interests spent Friday on the phone discussing the way forward amid the latest signs of friction.
The leaked audio not only revealed how Republican leaders privately described the former president as unfit for office but also how they publicly kowtowed to him for the sake of their own political futures.
Republican leaders spoke little in public, but other Republicans predicted the latest McCarthy/Trump explosion would blow over – unless Trump uses the incident to go after McCarthy’s leadership position.
“I’d be surprised if the (House Republican) conference turns on him,” said Republican strategist Alex Conant. “The one variable is if Trump goes to war on him.”
Trump told the Wall Street Journal on Friday that his relationship with McCarthy remains good, though he is not pleased with some of the comments the congressman made to House leaders. Trump noted that, just weeks after his criticism, McCarthy paid a visit to his estate in Palm Beach, Fla.
“He made a call. I heard the call. I didn’t like the call,” Trump told the Journal. “But almost immediately as you know, because he came here and we took a picture right there – you know, the support was very strong.”
McCarthy reaching out
McCarthy is reaching out to various Republicans in the wake of the revelations, seeking advice and consultation, an effort that includes his visit to a California state party meeting on Saturday, according to two people familiar with the calls speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter.
They declined to detail these contacts, including the recipients.
McCarthy did speak with Trump on Thursday night, said another person familiar with that call, also speaking on condition of anonymity.
Trump and McCarthy are still scheduled to appear together at a fundraiser next month for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
McCarthy on Saturday will address delegates at the California Republican convention and on Wednesday he will meet with the House Republican Conference.
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The blast came after the New York Times reported that after Jan. 6 the top two congressional Republicans – McCarthy and Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell – “told associates they believed President Trump was responsible for inciting the deadly riot and vowed to drive him from politics.”
The story said McCarthy told fellow Republicans he would suggest to Trump he should resign, something McCarthy denied until the writers produced a tape played on MSNBC on Thursday night.
But on Friday Republicans like Conant noted that McCarthy’s criticism of Trump after the Jan. 6 insurrection was well known at the time. The Republican leader even took to the floor to denounce Trump a few days after the riot, though he did not call for his resignation and he voted against impeaching him over the incident.
By the end of the month, McCarthy traveled to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Fla., to air out their differences and talk about the 2022 congressional elections.
CNN on Friday played another tape in which McCarthy is heard telling colleagues that Trump has accepted some responsibility for the Jan. 6 violence.
“But let me be very clear to you and I have been very clear to the President,” McCarthy said in the tape played by CNN. “He bears responsibility for his words and actions. No if, ands or buts. I asked him personally today, does he hold responsibility for what happened? Does he feel bad about what happened? He told me he does have some responsibility for what happened. And he needs to acknowledge that.”
‘I doubt it will change much’
Sarah Longwell, founder of a group called the Republican Accountability Project, said McCarthy voiced criticisms of Trump with which many Republicans agreed, especially after Jan. 6.
Longwell said some frequent McCarthy antagonists – such as Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., the House Whip and Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, an outspoken Trump supporter – might try to exploit the tapes for their own ends.
“But unless Trump comes out swinging for McCarthy I doubt it’ll change much,” Longwell said.
Stefanik and Jordan did not comment publicly on McCarthy’s tapes, a silence that some found ominous.
“Stefanik is of course maneuvering to depose McCarthy and be the next GOP Leader,” tweeted William Kristol, a conservative who left the GOP amid Trump’s takeover of the party.
Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., has repeatedly said that Trump’s leadership – and McCarthy’s acquiescence – will make Republican leadership totally ineffective. After the new tapes of McCarthy surfaced, Kinzinger called on his fellow GOPers to seek new leadership.
“McCarthy literally today said this was a lie and just a few hours later the tape with his voice from his mouth proves THAT was a lie. Incredible,” Kinzinger tweeted. “@GOPLeader ought to be ashamed. Republicans, your leaders think you are dumb. Let’s be done with them.”
A few House Republicans tweeted out support for McCarthy.
“Republicans are going to take back the majority in November and when we do,” said Rep. Ashley Hinson, R-Iowa, “Kevin McCarthy will be our Speaker. There will be a red wave & our conference is united to get America back on track.”
Trump probably loves the latest blowup, Longwell said, because McCarthy’s pullback from his initial criticism of Jan. 6 “proves how he brought McCarthy to heel” and is “a testament to Trump’s strength over the party.”
Some Republicans believe McCarthy’s aspirations to become speaker were in jeopardy long before a second audio tape leaked.
Though he is considered a frontrunner to be speaker in the likely scenario that Republicans take control of the House in 2023, McCarthy’s political future has always been contingent on Trump and his followers, according to Rick Wilson, a never-Trump conservative and co-founder of the Lincoln Project.
“The caucus he came up in is completely gone. The culture of the GOP has changed,” he said.
McCarthy was first elected to the House in 2006, joining a class of “young guns,” and was predicted to have a long and bright political future, Wilson said.
He was deputy whip and whip under former Speaker John Boehner, and he was House majority leader under Boehner and former Speaker Paul Ryan. He assumed the role of House minority leader in January 2019.
McCarthy was on track to easily become speaker until the party changed under Trump’s control, Wilson said.
Two Trump loyalists in Congress, Reps. Jordan and Stefanik, could give McCarthy competition for speaker – especially if Trump endorses them.
“McCarthy has to leave one eye open, waiting for the tweet – or email,” Wilson said.
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Sympathetic with him
But any idea that the recent leak of audio recordings will threaten McCarthy’s drive to be speaker is far fetched, according to David Wasserman, the senior editor covering the House for The Cook Political Report.
“Scores of House Republicans sympathize with him,” Wasserman said. “They’ve long viewed Trump as detrimental. It’s been that way for five years.”
But they play nice with the former president and try to win his approval because they are “afraid of losing in primaries,” he said.
“You cannot win a Republican primary without supporting Trump,” Wasserman said.
McCarthy has faced criticism from some members of his party, especially hardline conservatives, but most Hill Republicans have been sticking with him.
House Republican Whip Steve Scalise does not think McCarthy should resign after the release of audio recordings revealing his comments, according to Scalise’s spokesperson Lauren Fine.
“Millions of Americans are suffering right now under President Biden and Speaker Pelosi’s big-government socialist agenda that has given us record high inflation, with skyrocketing gas prices and a border crisis, yet the only thing the Democrat media continues to obsess over is January 6th,” Fine said in a statement to USA TODAY. “Whip Scalise’s sole focus is on working with his colleagues to stop the radical Democrat agenda.”
Democrats, seeking to maintain control of Congress, certainly enjoyed stirring the pot over the latest turmoil involving McCarthy and Trump – including President Joe Biden himself.
“This ain’t your father’s Republican Party,” Biden told supporters in Seattle on Friday. “Not a joke. All you got to do is look what has been played this morning, about the tape that was released.”
Biden added: “All kidding aside, this is the MAGA party now. … These guys are a different breed of cat.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: McCarthy scrambles to contain fallout from tape on Trump and Jan. 6