Newly released audio showing that Kevin McCarthy wanted Donald Trump to resign in the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection has prompted allies of the former president to question whether McCarthy is fit for the top job in the House.
While the GOP leader is still seen as the overwhelming favorite to be speaker in 2023, given Republicans’ likelihood of taking back the House, it could endanger McCarthy’s chances to win over a necessary block of pro-Trump Republicans — particularly if Trump comes out against McCarthy’s speakership bid.
Though most House Republicans remained silent Friday — and some indicated they believed the controversy would abate — several of Trump’s close allies said they believe McCarthy would need to spend months proving his pro-Trump bona fides. Most of Washington awaited a public signal from Trump himself about how to respond to the McCarthy audio, or further clarifications from McCarthy about his Jan. 10, 2021 comments, including why he initially denied making them.
There were early indications that Trump aides were downplaying the impact of the new revelations on Trump and McCarthy’s relationship.
“I would be highly surprised if President Trump allowed these left-of-center journalists and pundits to gain a victory by engaging in this warfare,” Jason Miller, a former Trump spokesman, told POLITICO.
McCarthy and Trump spoke Thursday night about the new revelations, first revealed in audio obtained by the New York Times, according to a person familiar with the situation. The person familiar with the matter said Trump “was not upset” at the initial New York Times story on the remarks but that they did not know how he would feel about the revelation of the audio tape that substantiated it. The Washington Post first reported on the conversation between McCarthy and Trump.
The recording shows McCarthy preparing to formally break from Trump in the aftermath of the deadly riot, just as House Democrats started drawing up an impeachment resolution.
“Again, the only discussion I would have with him is that I think this will pass, and it would be my recommendation you should resign,” McCarthy said of the impeachment resolution. “Um, I mean that would be my take, but I don’t think he would take it. But I don’t know.”
McCarthy also suggested he was concerned Trump would ask him about obtaining a pardon from Mike Pence, who would have ascended to the presidency if Trump resigned. Joining McCarthy on the call was Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), who was then the third-ranking Republican, along with other Republican leaders. They briefly discussed the prospect of Trump’s Cabinet invoking the 25th Amendment, which would allow Trump to be immediately removed from office, and McCarthy revealed he had spoken to Trump within the previous “couple days.”
Spokespeople for Cheney and House Minority Whip Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) denied recording the call or leaking the audio. A spokesperson for Rep. Tom Emmer (R-Minn.), who heads House Republicans’ campaign arm, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. McCarthy’s office has not responded to repeated requests for comment after the release of the tapes. Earlier Thursday, his aides labeled the New York Times reporting “totally false and wrong,” a statement that has now been refuted by the audio.
The call underscores the degree to which GOP leaders were preparing to abandon Trump in the aftermath of the attack — only for McCarthy to rapidly veer back into Trump’s fold. McCarthy, who sharply denied plans to recommend Trump’s resignation before the tape was released, has since become one of Trump’s staunchest defenders and worked to stymie congressional investigations into the Jan. 6 attack. He warned tech companies of potential retaliation if they cooperated with House Jan. 6 investigators and he pulled the plug on the prospect of a 9/11-commission-style investigation of the attack, despite having deputized a Republican lawmaker who forged a bipartisan proposal.
For McCarthy, the appearance of the audio recording from the days following the attack could weigh on his bid to become the next speaker of the House. Trump still commands great sway over House Republicans and his reaction to McCarthy’s newly public comments could ripple across the caucus, as well as among the candidates likely to help Republicans take control of the House next year.
One member of the pro-Trump House Freedom Caucus, granted anonymity to speak candidly, said they weren’t willing to offer comment yet and wanted to “give Kevin a chance to FULLY respond.”
And at least one GOP lawmaker, Iowa Rep. Ashley Hinson, tweeted full-throated support for McCarthy, saying, “Republicans are going to take back the majority in November and when we do, Kevin McCarthy will be our Speaker.”
Plus, people familiar with Trump’s response to the audio believed the former president had overall positive feelings about the entire episode.
“Trump couldn’t give a fuck and thinks it’s funny and makes him look strong and powerful,” said a person familiar with the former president’s reaction. “I’ve had enough people who have talked to him say that he thinks it’s funny and he thinks it makes him look good and told Kevin, ‘Don’t worry, you’re all good.’ Trump’s mercurial and can always change his mind — see some coverage he doesn’t like, change his mind — but as of now, he’s just like this makes me look powerful.”
Still, other Trump allies who had previously been critical of McCarthy were quick to pile on the GOP leader — at the very least for attempting to deny the comments when the reporters clearly had receipts.
Speaking on his podcast, former Trump adviser Steve Bannon — who worked with Trump in an effort to overturn the election and received a presidential pardon on charges of defrauding Trump supporters who thought they were donating money to help build a southern border wall — called it a “cardinal sin” for McCarthy to have denied the remarks when tape existed.
Joining Bannon, Trump associate Boris Epshteyn described the audio as “extremely hurtful to hopes that Kevin McCarthy has to become speaker.”
“Kevin McCarthy’s got a big problem,” Epshteyn said. “If he can do something to mend fences and prove himself to the MAGA movement … that’s upon him to do.”
The release of the audio also served as a reminder that McCarthy rejected a call from the Jan. 6 select committee to describe his interactions with Trump on and shortly after Jan. 6. McCarthy at the time ripped the panel and said he had nothing new to add to what was already publicly known. The tape underscores that there was still information McCarthy had that was not widely known.
The Jan. 6 committee’s letter inviting McCarthy to testify noted his public statements on the Capitol attack had “changed markedly” since he met with Trump on Jan. 28, 2021, at Mar-a-Lago in Florida. Congressional investigators sought to ask him whether Trump or his allies discussed what the Republican leader should say publicly about Jan. 6 during the impeachment trial or in later investigations.
Olivia Beavers contributed to this report.
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