New Revelations Complicate Kevin McCarthy’s Bid for Speaker
This article is part of The D.C. Brief, TIME’s politics newsletter. Sign up HereSubscribe to receive stories similar to this in your inbox
Here’s the thing about absolute denials: you can make them, but only once. The follow-up denial, usually offered as a caveat, a nuance, or even an update, simply doesn’t cut it. D.C. denials can be a one-and done proposition. Smart politicians often send their lackeys or avoid the question entirely.
Washington noticed that Kevin McCarthy, House Minority leader, had released an excerpt of a book from New York City. McCarthy called McCarthy’s book an excerpt of two New York Times. Times reporters “totally false and wrong.” He didn’t hide behind his staff or issue a vague denial with wiggle room in the language. He was absolute in his certainty; he had never said “I’ve had it with this guy,” as the journalists published.
Double-dog dare, if there was one. This double-dog dare is right up there as Gary Hart challenging journalists to prove that he had an affair with Donna Rice. Nine hours after McCarthy took to Twitter to attack the reporting as “corporate media … obsessed with doing everything it can to further a liberal agenda,” New York Times writers Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns were on Rachel Maddow’s MSNBC show. And they had the receipts—in this case, the actual audio recording from inside McCarthy’s close-circle call with just three of his top lieutenants.
The House was actually calling for the call.
McCarthy committed two mistakes strategically. First, it is impossible to declare anything completely false without supporting your claim. Washington is a place where only the paranoid are allowed to survive. You should not assume that everyone on your team will be rooting for and supporting you. That clearly was not the case back during the Jan. 10, 2021, call given at least one party—either a lawmaker or a staffer who may have been on the line—decided to preserve it for posterity.
McCarthy is now in doubt about his future. He could claim the Speakership next Year if Republicans mount a competent and even partially qualified campaign. Yes, he wasn’t forthright, but character is seldom disqualifying on its own, especially in Washington. Unproven rumors of McCarthy’s personal life derailed his first bid for Speaker back in 2015, but he’s still the favorite to take the House’s top post this time.
More damning in his party, McCarthy dared question—however briefly—Trump’s supremacy after Jan. 6. On the recording of the Jan. 10 call among McCarthy, Minority Whip Steve Scalise, Conference Chair Liz Cheney and House Republicans’ campaign chief Tom Emmer, McCarthy is heard telling his Leadership team that he would call the White House and tell the President the impeachment charges against him in the House were going to pass. His colleagues then heard him tell his fellows that he’d call the White House and inform President Obama it was time to quit. Times’Audio evidence and excerpt.
In the aftermath of attempted rebellion and violent riots, such doubt was temporarily acceptable. However, the feeling quickly faded. That Jan. 10 call gave way to a Jan. 27 meeting—and accompanying photo—down at Trump’s Florida club between him and McCarthy. In the interim, McCarthy had clearly realized his hopes of claiming the Speaker’s gavel lie in Trump’s hands. If Trump didn’t go along with his candidacy—and the campaigns of a narrow handful of pick-up races Republicans need to return to the majority after four years of Nancy Pelosi’s second turn as Speaker—then McCarthy’s hopes of his own second race for Speaker would be dashed. (It wasn’t the first time McCarthy had resorted to unbelievable acts of sycophancy. Trump preferred certain Starburst colors, the reds and pinks. McCarthy once sent Trump a jar of segregated candies after witnessing Trump’s predilections aboard Air Force One, which confirmed to McCarthy’s critics he would stop at nothing to climb to power.)
Also, after New York Times article came out, McCarthy may have felt his future as Speaker depended on him denying he had pledged to suggest Trump’s resignation. That could not have been the right calculation. It’s now entirely possible McCarthy joins the likes of John Boehner and Paul Ryan as top Republicans cast out of the Speakership for not hewing to the most extreme—but loudest—voices in the GOP.
One of the most important unknowns is what Trump will demand as penance. It’s not logical that Trump would openly gun for McCarthy at the moment. But neither was Trump’s declaration he would destroy the 10 House Republicans who dared vote for his second impeachment. Trump continues to be skeptical that Trump’s primary choices at all levels may cost Republicans valuable seats. Trump’s future is hard to predict. The only thing that we do know about Trump is his preference for a counterpunch, and how he often dismisses evidence from the empirical side of politics. His ego prevails over calculation.
McCarthy’s initial denial hit just enough of the right votes of victimhood, red herring, and paranoia to maybe assuage Trump. But the audio gives McCarthy’s troubles teeth. And, unlike the audio released on the eve of the 2016 election in which Trump bragged about sexual assault, no one in the Republican Party is ready to give McCarthy the benefit of the doubt, so complete is Trump’s current hold on the party. McCarthy could still win with a Trump endorsement. All eyes are now on McCarthy to see how far he’ll chase penance.
His early, full-throated denialism is hard to ignore. It is possible McCarthy, in the heady days after his office was sacked and his security detail left a colleague hiding on the Leader’s private toilet with a Civil War sword for protection against the Jan. 6 rioters, didn’t remember some details of that week. It’s also entirely possible that McCarthy this week panicked, realizing the consequences of even a momentary break with Trump, and did what came easiest, ethics aside: deny the accurate report. It was an unfortunate mistake to believe that anyone could have proven the denial. Ask any fallen politician how it usually ends.
Washington is the place to be. Register for D.C. Brief Newsletter.
Here are more must-read stories from TIME