This post has been updated.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said in June 2016 that he thought Vladimir Putin had paid then-GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump. And it seems entirely possible — if not likely — that he was joking.
The problem is that even sarcasm is almost always laced with truth. And when it came to Trump colluding with Russia, June 2016 was early even for sarcasm.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from this big new McCarthy scoop from The Washington Post’s Adam Entous is that Republicans were privately talking about Trump’s too-close-for-comfort relationship with Russia even before this issue blew up with WikiLeaks and before the FBI started investigating. At the very least, it was a punchline even as they prepared to nominate Trump for president. For the next five months, they would swallow whatever suspicions they might have had in the name of electing a GOP president.
Entous reports that, in a conversation with other House GOP leaders June 15, 2016, McCarthy remarked, “There’s two people I think Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump.”
McCarthy spokesman Matt Sparks initially denied McCarthy had said this, according to Entous. But later, when The Post said it had audio of the conversation, Sparks said it was indeed a joke: "This was a failed attempt at humor."
The comment lumped Trump in with by far the most vocally pro-Russian member of Congress, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.). Before making the comment, McCarthy laughed while offering another apparent joke about Russia having hacked the Democratic National Committee (The Washington Post had reported on that hack the day before):
“I’ll guarantee you that’s what it is. … The Russians hacked the DNC and got the opp [opposition] research that they had on Trump,” McCarthy said with a laugh.
Ryan asked who the Russians “delivered” the opposition research to.
“There’s … there’s two people, I think, Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump,” McCarthy said, drawing some laughter. “Swear to God,” McCarthy added.
At that point, with some levity still apparent in their conversation, Ryan cut it off:
“This is an off the record,” Ryan said.
Some lawmakers laughed at that.
“No leaks, all right?” Ryan said, adding: “This is how we know we’re a real family here.”
“That’s how you know that we’re tight,” Scalise said.
“What’s said in the family stays in the family,” Ryan added.
But here’s the key paragraph:
At the time, U.S. intelligence agencies knew that the Russians had hacked the DNC and other institutions, but Moscow had yet to start publicly releasing damaging emails through WikiLeaks to undermine Trump’s Democratic challenger, Hillary Clinton. An FBI counterintelligence investigation into Russian efforts to influence the presidential election would open the following month, in late July, [FBI Director James B.] Comey has said in testimony to Congress.
More than anything, this just looks bad for Republicans. At this very early juncture in the Russia drama, they were already making apparent references to or jokes about collusion between Russia and Trump. Democrats will gladly point out that Republicans nonetheless showed very little curiosity about uncovering any actual collusion in the months that followed and now into the first four months of Trump's presidency.
The most charitable read on McCarthy's comments is that he was joking about Trump's overly friendly comments about Putin, which were at issue even early in the campaign. Entous's report also notes that, the day before this conversation, McCarthy and Ryan had held separate talks with Ukrainian Prime Minister Vladimir Groysman, in which Groysman talked about how the Kremlin financed populist politicians to undermine democracies in Eastern Europe.
So perhaps McCarthy was making a lighthearted reference to that. But that would still be lumping Trump in with some pretty unholy characters.
And it's pretty clear why Ryan wanted to shut this discussion down and asked participants not to leak it. Even joking about such things could one day come back to bite them. And now it has.