The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Putin pays’ Trump: Lame joke or serious charge?

The Post’s Adam Entous discusses a 2016 conversation of GOP leaders in which House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) made an explosive claim. (Video: Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post, Photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

So, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) told fellow Republicans in a private meeting last year that he thinks Russian President Vladimir Putin pays Donald Trump. His colleagues laughed. Then McCarthy said, "Swear to God."

Was it a joke or not?

Some journalists seem to be taking McCarthy's remark pretty seriously — not necessarily saying they suspect the same thing but indicating that they believe he meant what he said.

On MSNBC shortly after The Washington Post reported McCarthy’s statement, For the Record host Greta Van Susteren said she believed the congressman was being “flip.” Other journalists agreed.

As you might expect, McCarthy’s office also says he was just kidding. A spokesman, Matt Sparks, told The Post that “this was a failed attempt at humor.” A spokesman for House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) said it was “clearly an attempt at humor.”

For his part, Adam Entous, the Post reporter who listened to an audio recording of the meeting, wrote that “it is difficult to tell from the recording the extent to which the remarks were meant to be taken literally.”

Read the transcript of the conversation among GOP leaders obtained by The Post

Here’s the problem for McCarthy and anyone else who wants to dismiss his accusation as nothing more than a quip: That is not what McCarthy’s team said all along.

When Entous initially inquired about the majority leader’s claim that he thinks Putin pays Trump, Sparks said “the idea that McCarthy would assert this is absurd and false.” Ryan’s spokesman, Brendan Buck, said “that never happened.”

Only when Entous revealed that he had heard the remark on tape did the GOP leaders acknowledge its utterance and insist that it was a joke.

If it was simply an “attempt at humor,” why deny it, in the first place?

Then there is the matter of Ryan’s apparent concern, as expressed on tape, that McCarthy’s remark would get out.

“No leaks, alright?” Ryan said. “This is how we know we’re a real family here. ... What’s said in the family stays in the family.”

Again, if it was just a joke, what would have been the big deal about sharing it?

There is, of course, a middle ground here. It is quite possible that McCarthy did not mean that he really, truly thought Trump was cashing checks from Putin. Perhaps he made the comment to illustrate his belief that Trump was metaphorically in Putin’s pocket.

That’s not much better — and it’s a theory that would explain why Republicans wanted to keep the comment secret and then falsely claimed that McCarthy never said it.

Money is not the real issue here; the issue is whether Trump is inappropriately cozy with Russia. A recording of the House majority leader suggesting that the now-president is too close to the Kremlin is bad news, even if in the context of a joke.