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Opinion The other big question raised by the leaked Kevin McCarthy audio

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) at the Capitol in D.C. on Dec. 3, 2021. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Leaked audio shows that House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy seriously considered urging Donald Trump to resign the presidency after inciting the violent coup attempt on Jan. 6, 2021. The audio surfaced after the California Republican had denied doing exactly that, raising new questions about why he’s going to such extraordinary lengths to appease Trump.

But the audio also raises a separate question: Did McCarthy think Trump might have committed criminal acts in connection with his coup attempt?

On the audio, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) asked McCarthy if there was “any chance” Trump might resign. They were discussing whether a resolution might pass Congress that would call on Vice President Mike Pence to convene the Cabinet to declare Trump unfit under the 25th Amendment.

McCarthy told Cheney he thought the resolution might pass the Senate, meaning it would have some GOP support, and suggested he might prod Trump to resign.

“I’m seriously thinking of having that conversation with him tonight,” McCarthy said on the audio, which Rachel Maddow aired on Thursday night. Then McCarthy said this:

This is one personal fear I have. I do not want to get in any conversation about Pence pardoning. Again, the only discussion I would have with him is that I think this will pass. And it would be my recommendation that you should resign.

McCarthy seriously considered telling Trump he should resign, perhaps before a 25th Amendment resolution passed with some GOP support. This contradicts McCarthy’s denial of a New York Times report by Alexander Burns and Jonathan Martin that McCarthy had done this. After this denial, they released the audio.

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But also note the part about Pence. McCarthy feared such a conversation might inevitably get into whether Pence would pardon Trump if he voluntarily left office. Why would that have been on McCarthy’s mind, unless he thought Trump very well may have committed criminal acts?

“It just seems clear that McCarthy, like other members who lived through these events, understood that Donald Trump had committed grave crimes against the Union,” Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.), a member of the House select committee examining Jan. 6, told me.

The select committee has suggested that Trump’s effort to subvert the congressional count of presidential electors — first by pressuring Pence to do this, and then by inciting the mob to intimidate Pence further — might have constituted unlawful obstruction of an official proceeding.

Did McCarthy agree? The audio shows McCarthy seeming to fear that Trump would raise the topic of a Pence pardon, perhaps in exchange for resigning. This raises the question of whether McCarthy thought Trump might be criminally vulnerable in some way (which could be the case whether or not McCarthy had a specific statutory violation in mind).

At the very least, this audio means McCarthy should face increased pressure to say whether he thought Trump might be criminally exposed.

“McCarthy has a decision to make about whether he wants to tell the Congress and the country the truth about his reaction to the events of Jan. 6,” Raskin told me.

McCarthy has refused to cooperate with the select committee. This new audio underscores how much he may well be keeping buried about his own conclusions about those dark events.

“The fact that McCarthy was even talking about the pardon,” noted Stephen Vladeck, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin, seems like “pretty powerful evidence that there was at least some thought that Trump may have faced criminal exposure.”

“Otherwise, why is this even on anyone’s mind?” Vladeck continued. He added that McCarthy seemed to indicate a fear that Trump might try to demand a pardon as “leverage to convince him to resign.”

McCarthy, you will recall, pleaded on the phone with Trump on Jan. 6 to calm the rioters. Trump reportedly replied: “Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are.”

An interesting question, then, is whether McCarthy believed Trump had come to see the violence as an instrumental weapon to intimidate Pence and GOP lawmakers into delaying the electoral count. This audio provides a new hook to revisit this question.

All this gets at what’s so disturbing about this episode. The problem isn’t just that McCarthy thought Trump should resign but then changed his mind, perhaps because keeping in Trump’s good favor is essential to his hopes of becoming the next House speaker and to keeping Trump voters in the GOP coalition.

Rather, the problem is this: Despite thinking Trump’s offenses against our constitutional order were so grave that they probably merited resignation, McCarthy and other Republicans have spent the past year concertedly downplaying, hand-waving away and minimizing the full truth about those offenses, and even trying to keep them from coming to light.

That McCarthy might have also thought Trump committed crimes makes this ongoing coverup even worse. The pressure on him to come clean on what he really concluded about Trump’s offenses should now be fierce and relentless.