Over the weekend, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) offered a particularly acute and mind-bending example of this when it comes to the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol — and on multiple fronts.
In January, McCarthy offered some pretty serious criticisms of Trump’s handling of the riots, especially given McCarthy’s perch as the top House Republican. He didn’t support impeachment, but he did float the idea of a historic censure of the president, saying Trump “bears responsibility for Wednesday’s attack on Congress by mob rioters.”
Contrary to the claims of some critics of McCarthy’s impeachment stance, he didn’t blame Trump for inciting the riot. Trump’s sin, in his estimation, was in not doing more to quell the riot after it began unfolding.
“He should have immediately denounced the mob when he saw what was unfolding,” McCarthy continued. “These facts require immediate action by President Trump to accept his share of responsibility, quell the brewing unrest and ensure President-elect Biden is able to successfully begin his term.”
For this, McCarthy suggested that Trump become the first president in more than a century to be censured.
On Sunday, though, McCarthy pulled something close to a 180 on this, at least in his emphasis. “Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace asked McCarthy about Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler’s (R-Wash.) claim that Trump had told McCarthy during the riot, “Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are.” McCarthy declined to confirm or deny it. What he did do, though, was suggest Trump had in fact responded sufficiently to his pleas for action.
“I was the first person to contact him when the riots” were going on, McCarthy said. “He didn’t see it. [How] he ended the call was saying — telling me, he’ll put something out to make sure to stop this. And that’s what he did, he put a video out later.”
As Wallace correctly noted, the video was hardly a firm disavowal of the rioters. Trump told them that he loved them and that they were “very special,” while urging them to go home.
It also came hours after the phone call, according to McCarthy’s own claims. We know that Trump spoke to Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) at 2:26 p.m. that day, so for McCarthy to have been the first person Trump spoke with, their conversation would have taken place before then. Trump’s video was released at 4:17 p.m.
More than anything, though, it’s almost impossible to square this account with McCarthy’s comments from January. And to be clear, these weren’t heat-of-the-moment remarks. McCarthy said Trump bore responsibility during a speech on the House floor on Jan. 13 — a full week after the riot. He pointed specifically to Trump not doing enough to quell the unrest. Now he credits Trump for a widely panned video that came only after the worst of the unrest had subsided.
But it wasn’t even the only way in which McCarthy attempted to retcon the circumstances of the Capitol riot over the weekend.
In a separate interview with the New York Times, McCarthy also downplayed his party’s attempts to overturn the election — the same campaign that spurred the rioters to take such drastic action.
“We voted not to certify two states,” McCarthy said, referring to congressional Republicans’ objections to the vote totals in Arizona and Pennsylvania. He suggested that, even if those states hadn’t been certified, it wouldn’t have mattered. “And Joe Biden would still be sitting in the White House right now,” he said.
This ignores two things.
One is that, although lawmakers objected to two states, that’s at least in part because the riot took the wind out of their sails. In addition to objecting to Arizona and Pennsylvania, then-Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.) had said she planned to object to the certification of a third state — her own, Georgia — but then backed off after the riot. If Congress hadn’t certified those three states, Biden would have been shy of the 270 electoral votes he needed.
In addition, a majority of House Republicans, including McCarthy, had signed on to a far-flung Supreme Court lawsuit to void the results of four states: Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Georgia. This also would have left Biden shy of the electoral votes he needed.
In other words, it’s clear most members of McCarthy’s conference were fully prepared to play a part in invalidating Biden’s win. It was always a long-shot effort, both because of the makeup of Congress and the specious legal arguments in the Supreme Court case. Perhaps some members saw objecting to the certification of states as more of a symbolic effort than anything else, but the Supreme Court lawsuit was clearly aimed at invalidating the election. Even if they were never going to succeed, they tried, and they did so based upon no evidence of actual widespread voter fraud.
If you’ve got whiplash from all of that, it’s understandable. In both cases, McCarthy seemed to genuinely want to distance himself from what his party and the president had done or were doing, only to later jump on board when it became clear which way the wind was blowing in his conference.
That wind has now blown sufficiently toward rewriting the history of Jan. 6 and what preceded it. And McCarthy, it seems, is now quite happy to play his part in that as well.