White House budget director Mick Mulvaney acknowledged having discussions with House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy about replacing House Speaker Paul D. Ryan before Ryan retires from Congress next year, a conservative newsmagazine reported Monday.

The Weekly Standard reported that Mulvaney made the remarks Sunday during a conference sponsored by the publication in Colorado Springs. Fox News Channel anchor Bret Baier asked Mulvaney about the prospect of McCarthy succeeding Ryan this year, before the midterm elections, and Mulvaney suggested that  it would become a referendum on the top Democratic leader, Nancy Pelosi.

“I’ve talked with Kevin about this privately but not as much publicly,” Mulvaney said, according to the Weekly Standard. “Wouldn’t it be great to force a Democrat running in a tight race to have to put up or shut up about voting for Nancy Pelosi eight weeks before an election? That’s a really, really good vote for us to force if we can figure out how to do it.”

The comment constitutes a remarkable admission from a member of President Trump’s Cabinet that could be interpreted as conspiring to remove a sitting House speaker belonging to the president’s own party. It comes against the backdrop of a freshly roiled House Republican Conference, thanks to moderate members who have recently defied both Ryan (Wis.) and McCarthy (Calif.) to force a potentially divisive debate on immigration.

In a statement issued Monday after the Weekly Standard published its report, Mulvaney spokeswoman Meghan Burris said his remarks were “purely hypothetical” and that he supports Ryan remaining as speaker.

“He is also supportive of any ideas that unite Republicans and divide Democrats, which is what his comments at the conference referenced,” Burris said. “He is not ‘working behind the scenes’ for an early Speaker’s race nor getting involved in any leadership races.”

Asked whether McCarthy has ever discussed removing Ryan with Mulvaney, McCarthy spokesman Matt Sparks said, “No no no.” Sparks reiterated that McCarthy wants any Republican leadership election to wait until after November’s midterms.

Mulvaney, who also serves as director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, is no stranger to palace intrigue in the House. As a Republican member from South Carolina from 2011 to 2017, he was a persistent thorn in the side of House GOP leadership and co-founded the House Freedom Caucus in 2015 — a group that went on to play a starring role in the intraparty drama that prompted the resignation of former speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Ryan’s ascension to the post.

Mulvaney’s suggestion that forcing a speaker election this year would put Democrats in a tight spot would seem to be at odds with electoral reality. While national Republicans think they can use the prospect of Pelosi (D-Calif.) returning to power to motivate GOP voters in November, very few of the incumbent Democrats who could be forced to take a speaker vote this year are locked in difficult reelection races.

The Cook Political Report rates only 16 of 193 Democratic seats as being in any way competitive, and eight of those seats are open and will have a fresh Democratic name on the ballot in November. Furthermore, with Republicans in the majority, Democrats would be free to vote present or for any other speaker candidate with little consequence.

Republicans, on the other hand, would risk a fresh bloodletting just as voters take stock of their effectiveness after eight years in power.

“We’d welcome the visual of Republicans cannibalizing their own speaker right before the election,” said Drew Hammill, a spokesman for Pelosi. “It is highly unlikely any Republican could get to 218 at this point. Such a colossal display of dysfunction would be a fitting end to a Congress mired in internal Republican bickering.”

Ashlee Strong, a spokeswoman for Ryan, declined to comment.

Damian Paletta contributed to this report.