Newly revealed recordings of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy saying he would urge then-President Trump to resign from office in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 insurrection have sparked much political heat, but so far appear not to threaten the California Republican’s hold on power, nor his relationship with the former president.
Trump and McCarthy spoke Thursday night, according to a person familiar with the call, who said the ex-president wasn’t mad about the comments.
Trump spoke publicly about the recordings Friday, saying he “didn’t like” them but telling the Wall Street Journal that he considered the House GOP leader’s reversal “a big compliment.”
In the interview, Trump said McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) had quickly changed his mind about prodding him to resign “when he found out the facts.”
For much of Friday, the GOP reaction to the recording was muted, as House Republicans seemingly waited to hear the message from the undeniable leader of the party before speaking out.
Trump didn’t exactly endorse McCarthy for speaker should the GOP win control of the House in November’s election, as the party is expected to, but the relative silence from his conference and Trump’s lack of criticism suggests he has good odds of winning the speaker’s gavel should the GOP takeover materialize.
“Well, I don’t know of anybody else that’s running and I think that I’ve had actually a very good relationship with him,” Trump said of McCarthy. “I like him. And other than that brief period of time, I suspect he likes me quite a bit.”
Still, McCarthy’s private comments could encourage challengers if the subject comes up in a conference meeting next week after House members return from a recess.
A big test will come Saturday, when McCarthy is due to speak at the California Republican Party Convention in Anaheim.
The call between Trump and McCarthy, and Trump’s public comments, followed the New York Times’ release Thursday of an audio clip from shortly after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, when McCarthy told House GOP leaders he would urge Trump to resign before Democrats impeached him.
In another clip, released Friday morning on CNN, McCarthy relayed to House Republicans that Trump had admitted he bore “some responsibility for what happened.”
Trump denied in his interview Friday that he ever claimed responsibility for the insurrection.
The clips and the reporting that coincided with their release are covered in the forthcoming book “This Will Not Pass: Trump, Biden, and the Battle for America’s Future,” by New York Times reporters Alexander Burns and Jonathan Martin.
McCarthy originally said the reporting was “totally false and wrong,” and a spokesman told the New York Times that “McCarthy never said he’d call Trump to say he should resign.” The audio, however, confirmed the reporting’s accuracy.
Former Trump campaign advisor Boris Epshteyn said on Stephen K. Bannon’s “War Room” podcast Friday that McCarthy’s leaked comments were “extremely hurtful” to his hopes of becoming speaker.
“He’s got a big problem,” Epshteyn said.
He said it was incumbent upon McCarthy to mend fences and prove himself to the former president and his supporters.
“These next several months are a test for Kevin McCarthy,” Epshteyn said. “Do I think he’s going to pass it? I don’t know. That’s a big question.”
On the opening day of the California GOP convention, many attendees seemed unaware of the dispute.
“At the end of the day, the question is, will it matter?” said Jon Fleischman, former executive director of the state party. “If Trump is really upset and goes after McCarthy, then a lot of people that are devoted to Trump will be upset at McCarthy. If Trump brushes it aside, no one will care.”
Sarah Longwell — a GOP strategist and founder of the anti-Trump Republican Accountability Project, which launched in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 attack — said Trump acolytes in Washington, such as Reps. Matt Gaetz of Florida and Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, might use the tapes to argue that McCarthy is insufficiently loyal.
Party insiders probably already knew he had briefly taken a more aggressive stance toward Trump, Longwell said.
Gaetz on Friday accused former House GOP Conference Chair Liz Cheney of Wyoming of leaking the recording, which her office has denied.
Gaetz didn’t address the tape’s content, but criticized McCarthy for initially standing by Cheney as she sought in vain to hold on to her leadership position after speaking out against Trump.
McCarthy “should have trusted my instincts, not [his] own,” Gaetz tweeted.
The Los Angeles Times contacted nearly 20 GOP House members’ offices Friday, including those of
McCarthy and other leaders, members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus and members who are retiring. Only two offices responded, though only one would do so on the record.
A spokesperson for Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) said in a statement: “Millions of Americans are suffering right now under President Biden and Speaker [Nancy] 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.”
“Whip Scalise’s sole focus is on working with his colleagues to stop the radical Democrat agenda,” the statement continued. “Neither he nor anyone on his team recorded or leaked private conversations among members.”
The rare House Republican to publicly address the controversy was Rep. Ashley Hinson of Iowa, who predicted a “red wave” this fall and said the House Republican Conference was “united to get America back on track.”
“Republicans are going to take back the majority in November and when we do, Kevin McCarthy will be our Speaker,” Hinson tweeted.
Democrats were much more eager to address an issue that could ultimately determine whether McCarthy would wield the speaker’s gavel in a GOP majority.
President Biden referenced the audio in a speech Friday, and said of the GOP: “This is a MAGA party now.”
Congressional Republicans nowadays are “not like what I served with for so many years,” added Biden, who spent 36 years in the Senate. “And the people who know better are afraid to act correctly because they know they’ll be primaried.”
Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Dublin) suggested McCarthy should lose access to classified materials for lying, and said the GOP leader is a “highly relevant” witness for the Jan. 6 committee.
Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank) framed McCarthy as a man “too weak to adhere to any principle” and “too hungry for power to say or do what’s right. And too cowardly to tell the truth.”
And Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D-Los Angeles) lamented in a statement that McCarthy “is so desperate to become Speaker that he chooses Trump over democracy, time and time again.”
The silence of House Republicans indicated most were waiting to take their cues from Trump, who didn’t address the reporting publicly until the Wall Street Journal interview Friday evening. Their lack of action allowed anti-Trump Republicans and former party members to fill the void.
“I met a lot of duplicitous people in Congress but none more conniving and fundamentally dishonest than Kevin McCarthy,” tweeted former Michigan Rep. Justin Amash, who left the GOP to become an independent and then a Libertarian.
“He will say or do whatever he thinks is necessary at a particular moment to obtain or maintain power,” Amash said of McCarthy.
In a series of tweets Thursday, retiring Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) said McCarthy “ought to be ashamed” for lying, and told fellow Republicans: “Your leaders think you are dumb.”
“How can you honestly feel ok with the lies?” he asked McCarthy in a tweet. “Yes, other people lie too, but you have claimed to fight for a higher purpose…. Honestly Kevin, is it worth it?”
Question for Kevin McCarthy, @GOPLeader… how can you honestly feel ok with the lies? Yes, other people lie too, but you have claimed to fight for a higher purpose. You went from one day asking Trump to resign, a day later 👇👇. Honestly Kevin, is it worth it? pic.twitter.com/0x6lSgY11i
— Adam Kinzinger (@AdamKinzinger) April 22, 2022
Times staff writer Seema Mehta in Anaheim contributed to this report.