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Kevin McCarthy’s master class in spin and obfuscation

(J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) last week forcefully denied a New York Times report, based on an upcoming book, that he had told other Republican leaders he would tell President Donald Trump to resign — only to have his denial contradicted by an audio recording to the conversation.

This was not the first time McCarthy had denied reports about the Jan. 8 conversation. The Times had first reported on it just three days after it took place, but McCarthy denied it the next day in an interview with his local newspaper, the Bakersfield Californian.

Now McCarthy is denying the audio says what it says.

How can someone in McCarthy’s position evade the truth like this? Here’s a master class in spin and obfuscation. (A McCarthy spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.)

First, let’s begin with a transcript of the conversation. It starts with Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), asking a question about the House passing a resolution calling for the 25th Amendment to be implemented. That’s a process under which Trump would have been immediately removed from office.

CHENEY: I guess there’s a question. When we’re talking about the 25th Amendment resolution, and you asked if, you know, what happens if it gets there after he’s gone, is there any chance, are you hearing, that he might resign, is there any reason to think that might happen?

MCCARTHY: I’ve had a few discussions. My gut tells me no. I’m seriously thinking of having that conversation with him tonight. I haven’t talked to him in a couple of days. From what I know of him, I mean you guys know him, too, do you think he’d ever back away? But, what I think I’m going to do is I’m going to call him. This is what I think, we know it’ll pass the House. I think there’s a chance it’ll pass the Senate, even when he is gone. And I think there’s a lot of different ramifications for that. Now, I haven’t had a discussion with the Dems, that if he did resign, will that happen? Now, this is one personal fear I have. I do not want to get into any conversation about [Vice President Mike] Pence pardoning. Again, the only discussion I would have with him is that, I think this will pass. And it will be my recommendation you should resign. I mean, that would be my take. But I don’t think he would take it. But I don’t know.

The key section is when McCarthy says: “The only discussion I would have with him [Trump] is that, I think this [a 25th Amendment resolution] will pass. And it will be my recommendation you should resign.”

That line clearly shows McCarthy told his colleagues that he would tell Trump he should resign.

But the initial report by the Times, on Jan. 12, 2021, framed it a bit differently — that he asked other Republicans whether he should ask Trump to resign:

“In the House, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the minority leader and one of Mr. Trump’s most steadfast allies in Congress, has asked other Republicans whether he ought to call on Mr. Trump to resign in the aftermath of last week’s riot at the Capitol, according to three Republican officials briefed on the conversations.”

A day later, McCarthy denied that report in an interview with the Bakersfield Californian:

“McCarthy dismissed a report by the New York Times Tuesday that he had asked other Republicans about whether he should ask the president to resign in the aftermath of the riot. He said he had no idea what prompted that story, which the newspaper attributed to three unnamed Republican officials. ‘I do not think the president will step down, even if somebody asked him,’ he said.”

McCarthy had found an easy way to sidestep the initial Times report because the audio does not indicate he had asked other Republicans whether he should ask Trump to resign. Instead, he had asserted that he would do it. In the interview, he added another layer to the denial — he had no idea what prompted the story — which is disingenuous since he certainly should have recalled details of the call just a few days after it took place.

In the Bakersfield Californian interview, McCarthy recounts the call he had with Trump the day before — the call in which he had told his colleagues that he would tell Trump to resign.

From McCarthy’s account, he did not bring up resignation during the hour-long call. He “said he implored President Donald Trump during an intense, hour-long phone conversation Monday morning to accept his electoral defeat and move forward with a peaceful transition of power … an intense and emotional conversation followed, he said: ‘one friend talking to another and I’m not letting up on him.’ ”

So, it’s quite possible McCarthy flinched and did not bring up resignation. As he noted in the interview, he did not think Trump would resign, even if someone had asked him — which is also what he said on the call. “I don’t think he would take it [the advice to resign],” McCarthy said on the call. “But I don’t know.”

In McCarthy’s telling, during the call with Trump, he mainly tried to persuade Trump to restore some normalcy to the difficult transition, such as calling Biden and meeting him on Inauguration Day. Trump would not commit to that, he said — and in fact Trump departed from the White House before Biden arrived.

Now, McCarthy is spinning the audio in ways to deceive.

On Saturday, he said: “On a phone call right after Jan. 6 I was asked by Liz Cheney about the 25th Amendment and to explain what else would happen. I just walked through different scenarios, that’s all that happened, I think the phone call was overblown.”

Notice McCarthy’s trick here. Cheney did ask a question and referenced the 25th Amendment. But that was not her question, and McCarthy did not walk through various scenarios. Cheney had asked if Trump might resign if the resolution passed — and McCarthy said he did not know but he would tell Trump he should resign if it did.

Earlier, on Friday, McCarthy also said: “I have never asked the president to resign. So what the book said was not true.”

It may be true that McCarthy did not ask Trump to resign. But that’s not what the report said — it said he told his colleagues that he would tell Trump to resign.

Maybe McCarthy was spinning his colleagues on the call, too.

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