The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump, McCarthy talk after audio shows lawmaker was ready to push Trump to resign

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and other Republicans with President Donald Trump in December 2019. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
10 min

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy dodged immediate reprisals from former president Donald Trump this week after newly released audio captured the California Republican saying that Trump was to blame for the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and should resign, saying at one point, “I’ve had it with this guy.”

The audio contradicted McCarthy’s claim that he did not want Trump to resign after the insurrection by a pro-Trump mob. McCarthy told reporters on Friday evening that his remarks came as he “just walked through different scenarios” and that he “never thought that he should resign,” according to CBS News, even though McCarthy states in the audio that he was thinking about asking Trump to resign.

McCarthy called Trump on Thursday night, and the former president said he was not upset about the remarks from more than a year ago and was glad McCarthy didn’t follow through, according to three people familiar with the conversation who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private conversation. McCarthy said Friday evening that he had spoken with Trump twice that day.

But most House Republicans are still waiting for a firm statement from Trump, according to multiple GOP aides, and guidance from him on whether they should still back McCarthy as their leader and potential speaker if the GOP gains the House majority in the November election.

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal on Friday at his Mar-a-Lago residence in Florida, Trump said he still had a good relationship with McCarthy and suggested that he would continue to support minority leader’s speakership ambitions because he doesn’t “know of anybody else that’s running.”

“I think it’s all a big compliment, frankly,” Trump said in the interview about McCarthy and all the other Republicans who continued to back him after initially pulling away in the days after Jan. 6. “They realized they were wrong and supported me.”

While McCarthy’s speaker goal appears safe for now, the episode shows Trump’s immense and continued power over the party and his ability to influence McCarthy’s future. But even with Trump’s support, the newly revealed comments only further complicate McCarthy’s attempts to appease all factions of his conference, from pro-Trump members who have yet to say whether they would support him for speaker to rank-and-file members who have questioned his leadership approach.

The Washington Post's investigation of the Jan. 6 insurrection

The saga comes after two New York Times reporters, Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns, on Thursday released excerpts from their book “This Will Not Pass: Trump, Biden and the Battle for America’s Future” that detailed a lengthy call among top Republican leaders four days after the insurrection, during which McCarthy and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) privately pledged to push Trump out of politics after the Capitol attack.

McCarthy denied the report, calling it “totally false and wrong.” The New York Times then published a 1½-minute audio clip from the Jan. 10, 2021, call. The clip also aired Thursday on “The Rachel Maddow Show” on MSNBC. McConnell’s office declined to comment on the report.

In the audio clip, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) is heard asking whether there was any chance Trump would resign. McCarthy said he was doubtful but noted, “I’m seriously thinking of having that conversation with him tonight.”

McCarthy added on the audio clip that he would tell Trump — as Democrats pushed forward with plans to again impeach the president — that “it would be my recommendation you should resign.” McCarthy said he did not think his effort would persuade Trump.

McCarthy also said on the audio: “Now this is one personal fear I have. I do not want to get in any conversation about Pence pardoning.”

Cheney, the vice chair of the select House committee investigating the attack on the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob, has since denied recording or leaking the audio and reminded in a statement that the Jan. 6 committee “has asked Kevin McCarthy to speak with us about these events but he has so far declined.”

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Lauren Fine, a spokeswoman for Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), the No. 2 Republican in House leadership, said in a statement that Scalise’s “sole focus is on working with his colleagues to stop the radical Democrat agenda” and that “neither he nor anyone on his team recorded or leaked private conversations among members.” The statement did not defend McCarthy by name.

After the audio became public, McCarthy called Trump — who was in Amelia Island, Fla., to speak to the Heritage Foundation — on Thursday night and the former president was willing to take his call after being briefed on the situation by staffers, including those familiar with the conversation.

On Friday, Martin and Burns appeared on CNN and shared additional audio clips from Republican leadership calls in which McCarthy blames Trump for the attack on the Capitol and says the president told him he has “some responsibility” for the riot.

Pressed by The Washington Post in January about whether he had told his conference on a call that Trump had made those statements, McCarthy bluntly told the reporter, “I’m not sure what call you’re talking about.” McCarthy’s office had not responded Friday to the recent revelations.

In audio from a Jan. 10, 2021, call, McCarthy said: “I’ve had it with this guy. What he did is unacceptable. Nobody can defend that, and nobody should defend it.”

In audio from a separate call a day later, McCarthy told Republicans, “But let me be very clear to all of you and I’ve been very clear to the president: He bears responsibility for his words and actions. No ifs, ands or buts. I asked him personally today: Does he hold responsibility for what happened? Does he feel bad about what happened? He told me he does have some responsibility for what happened and he need to acknowledge that.”

As the audio clips surfaced, a majority of the House Republican conference remained notably mum. Some refrained from opining until Trump put out a statement, while others declared it a nonissue not worth dividing the conference over ahead of a midterm election. A few McCarthy allies came to his defense.

“I support Kevin McCarthy, 100 percent. He supports my campaign. He’s supported me in office,” Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) said in a Fox News interview Friday. “… I don’t think this is a story that is going anywhere, but I support him wholeheartedly.”

Rep. Tony Gonzales (R-Tex.) tweeted: “29 wks from now Republicans will have the majority and Kevin McCarthy will be Speaker of the House.”

Democrats, meanwhile, seized on the comments.

President Biden said the audio showed “this ain’t your father’s Republican Party.”

Nebeyatt Betre, a spokesman for the House Democratic Campaign Committee, was more blunt in a statement: “Kevin McCarthy has proven himself to be a spineless leader and now a bold-faced liar.”

Several Republican aides, who like others requested anonymity to discuss confidential conversations, noted that even if Trump were to fully rebuke McCarthy, ousting him as leader would not benefit Republicans right now, given his prowess as a prolific fundraiser for the party as they eye the majority.

But his speaker ambitions could all change with one statement from Trump — from now until January, which is when both parties typically vote to select their conference leadership team. And McCarthy will probably have to commence an apology tour.

“Kevin McCarthy’s got a big problem,” Trump associate Boris Epshteyn said on Stephen K. Bannon’s “War Room” podcast Friday. “If he can do something to mend fences and prove himself to the MAGA movement … that’s upon him to do.”

Despite McCarthy and McConnell’s reported private comments condemning Trump in the days after the Capitol attack, both soon backed the president again. In late January 2021, McCarthy traveled to Trump’s private Mar-a-Lago Club in Florida, where the two discussed the GOP’s efforts to retake the House and posed for a photo together. The following month, McConnell said he would “absolutely” support Trump if the former president were to win the Republican nomination in 2024.

Trump cited McCarthy’s January 2021 Mar-a-Lago visit as a reason he was not irate with the minority leader after the audio recordings leaked this week.

“He made a call. I heard the call. I didn’t like the call,” Trump acknowledged. “But almost immediately, as you know — because he came here and we took a picture right there — you know, the support was very strong.”

Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, a vocal Trump critic and the other Republican serving on the select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack, said in a tweet Thursday that reports that McCarthy had said he had “had it” with Trump were “100 percent true.”

“McCarthy was over Trump until he wasn’t, when he realized he needed him. This picture literally resurrected Trump’s political life,” Kinzinger said, sharing the Mar-a-Lago photo of the two men. “Thanks Kev.”

According to The New York Times, McCarthy had also said in the days after the attack that he wished Twitter would shut down the accounts of some House Republicans, such as Rep. Lauren Boebert of Colorado, who had made what he deemed inappropriate comments related to the insurrection.

A McCarthy spokesman told the newspaper that McCarthy “never said that particular members should be removed from Twitter.” Boebert’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Several Republican aides noted that it would be a bigger problem for McCarthy if audio surfaced of him rebuking Boebert or other members.

A handful of GOP lawmakers surveyed by The Post on Friday morning were more concerned with who leaked the audio to The New York Times than the content itself — and whether the leaker might have greater political ambitions. Others said McCarthy’s remarks were an accurate reflection of where the Republican conference was at the time.

The group most likely to turn on McCarthy is known informally as the “MAGA Squad,” staunch far-right “America First” backers who have yet to say whether they would support McCarthy for speaker. In the past, the group has insinuated that he is a weak leader for allowing Republicans to vote with Democrats on infrastructure and not showing his cards on kicking Cheney and Kinzinger from the GOP conference.

They have remained notably silent in this moment, except for Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), who tweeted Friday, “While I was rallying in Wyoming against Liz Cheney … Kevin McCarthy was defending Liz Cheney among House Republicans …@GOP Leader — you should have trusted my instincts, not your own.”

Paul Kane, Julian Mark and Eugene Scott contributed to this report.