House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said he thought then-President Donald Trump should resign in January 2021 after a mob of Trump’s supporters ransacked the Capitol — and then denied it until he was caught on audio released last week.
But as he defended himself Wednesday at a closed-door meeting of House Republicans — saying his past comments were part of a “conversation about scenarios” — he received a standing ovation, according to people present. The applause marked a moment of validation for the California Republican after a week of harried damage control that resulted in more statements of praise than criticism from fellow lawmakers and a clear nod of approval from Trump.
“One thing is for sure, for certain, somebody is trying to get us off our priorities and distract us and disunify us,” Rep. Jodey Arrington (R-Tex.) said after the meeting, reflecting the views of many House Republicans. “This won’t be the last time that that happens. And let’s keep our eyes on the prize, which is the issues that are important to the American people and us getting the majority.”
McCarthy, whose relationship with Trump and some of his own far-right members has been fraught in recent years, has scrambled for months to focus his party on winning the House of Representatives, despite gaping internal divides over the causes and consequences of the Jan. 6 attack and the validity of the 2020 election. Critics say he seems more interested in winning power than anything else.
By all accounts, with record fundraising to help him, he has a good shot. Strategists from both parties privately project a big Republican win in the fall, and the Freedom Caucus, which helped block his rise to the speaker’s office in 2015, no longer holds the same sway.
“Trump is looking forward. He’s got a good working relationship with Kevin. Kevin is popular in his conference,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), adding that Trump does not care about the revelations. “What was said in Jan. 6, and those days, it was a tough time for the country. … I don’t think it’s in Trump’s interest to re-litigate that.”
Several attendees at Wednesday’s meeting said McCarthy delivered a speech about winning back the House majority in November and dismissed the importance of his own recorded comments, which were published in a new book by New York Times reporters Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns. McCarthy has explained that his comments about resignation were made only in the context of an anticipated impeachment conviction, and he has argued that he did not really want to kick members off Twitter, according to a person familiar with the comments, who like many interviewed for this article spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal conversations.
After the Wednesday meeting, multiple lawmakers described the McCarthy recordings as snapshots from a chaotic time. Many of them privately had similar thoughts 15 months ago but later realized their supporters were still with Trump, according to lawmakers and strategists.
McCarthy’s office declined to comment for this article.
Two House Republicans said Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) was the only lawmaker to criticize McCarthy during the meeting. In the released recordings, McCarthy had said Gaetz was “putting people in jeopardy” by criticizing other Republicans after the Capitol riot. On the same call, Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) suggested Gaetz’s actions were “potentially illegal.”
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), a junior lawmaker who was removed from her committee assignments over her extremist remarks, also stood up during the meeting and asked Scalise to apologize for the remarks he made on the phone call, according to two House Republicans who were present. She also said she was hurt by what McCarthy said on the recording, while also acknowledging that McCarthy and his staff have been working to help her get reinstated on Twitter after the social network banned her personal account, according to a person present.
McCarthy has faced a separate line of attack from Fox News host Tucker Carlson — a longtime foe who secures some of cable television’s highest ratings. Carlson described McCarthy on Tuesday night as a “puppet of the Democratic Party” for having asked in one recorded call if Twitter could take away the accounts of fellow Republicans.
But the critiques have not yet turned lawmakers against their leader. McCarthy started making calls to shore up support as soon as the first compromising audio tape aired last Thursday on MSNBC’s “Rachel Maddow Show,” according to people familiar with his efforts.
Within 24 hours, McCarthy had spoken with Trump three times by phone. At least a dozen front-line House candidate recruits had tweeted their support of him still becoming speaker. By Monday, he was at the Texas border, smiling and equivocating away the controversy, as Greene stood behind him. He has been critical of Greene in the past, even proposing that she lose one of her committee assignments for inflammatory comments, but has more recently worked to win her over.
McCarthy’s staff monitors the social media accounts of his members, and they complain about posts that could cause divisions in the caucus. He has dissuaded members from endorsing against incumbents, with the exception of Reps. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) and Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) because of their sharp criticism of Trump, according to a House adviser familiar with the discussions.
“At this point, we’re seeing most of the members standing behind the leadership,” Rep. Robert B. Aderholt (R-Ala.) said Wednesday.
Trump’s public support was the most crucial piece of McCarthy’s effort, with the president publicly forgiving McCarthy for initially calling for his censure and saying he had a responsibility for the attack.
“I think it’s all a big compliment, frankly,” Trump told the Wall Street Journal in an interview Friday, when asked about McCarthy’s renewed cooperation with him.
People close to Trump, however, say the former president also sees the controversy as increasing his leverage over the would-be House speaker.
“He told Kevin, ‘That story is fine,’ ” said one person involved in the conversations about the McCarthy’s calls with Trump after the tape’s release. “He will extract something from it, I’m sure of that. He will hold it over McCarthy.”
Several people who know both men say their relationship is cordial, though Trump regularly chides McCarthy for suggesting that he wanted to censure the former president after Jan. 6. “The C-word, the C-word,” Trump will say, according to a person who has heard the comments repeatedly.
People who have heard the conversations say McCarthy can be tough on Trump behind closed doors, but those who have been privy to such remarks also say he is largely deferential. The former president, for his part, has not explicitly promised to back McCarthy for speaker, and if Trump decides to back someone else or oppose McCarthy, it would substantially hurt his chances.
Their relationship dates to May 2016, when McCarthy was the first member of the House leadership team to endorse the New York business executive. In the first year of Trump’s presidency, McCarthy made an effort to ingratiate himself, giving Trump a jar of cherry and strawberry Starburst candies, the president’s two favorite flavors.
The relationship soured after the Jan. 6 attack, as McCarthy blamed Trump both privately and publicly for having responsibility for the mob.
“He was actually disgusted with Trump behind the scenes and then he just went wobbly. … ,” said a former aide in House leadership. “He looked at polling, too. Some aides and advisers encouraged him to take a harder line against Trump, but he said it wasn’t feasible.”
But McCarthy soon went to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club in Florida, where the former president immediately trumpeted his visit, and posted a photo of the encounter, as a way to show Trump’s continued dominance in the party.
McCarthy settled on a strategy of pitching himself repeatedly in conversations with major donors as a person who could navigate the contradictions of a major American political party being led by a former president who continued to behave in ways that raised concerns among some Republicans. McCarthy and his advisers say they have talked Trump out of a number of endorsements they didn’t want him to make.
“He would tell these donors and members he could channel Trump and influence Trump better than anyone, and he could get Trump to do things,” the former House leadership aide said. “He was sometimes on the phone with him for hours. He’d put him on speakerphone. It was really something.”
Trump, meanwhile, continued to see McCarthy as a useful ally. Aides say Trump sees winning Congress as a top priority as he seeks to end Democratic investigations of him and allow Republicans to investigate President Biden before the 2024 election, when Trump is considering another campaign for the White House. Trump is still scheduled to appear at a major fundraiser for McCarthy and House Republicans on May 9 in Dallas, and the two are set to meet in early May, advisers say.
Some allies of McCarthy also argue that Trump would hurt himself if he decided to break from the House GOP leader.
“If he wants to be credible and he actually does want to run in 2024, causing chaos in the Republican conference would be the worst thing he could do,” said Frank Luntz, a pollster who has long been close with McCarthy. “The vast majority of House Republicans want Kevin to lead, and they would not appreciate it if Trump made that task more difficult.”
Democratic House strategists continue to view McCarthy as a relatively weak leader, a fact they hope to exploit in the coming months. They have repeatedly found in internal polls over the past year that Greene is about as well known by voters in battleground districts as McCarthy.
“McCarthy isn’t really seen as being in charge. Marjorie Taylor Greene and that crew are the faces of the Republican Party in the House,” said one Democratic strategist who shared the polling.
But there is little evidence that the controversy over McCarthy has yet become a major electoral issue. A Monday focus group of repeat Trump voters in Ohio found none of the participants even knew about the controversy. “It was crickets,” said Sarah Longwell, who helped conduct the event for Defending Democracy Together, an anti-Trump group.
“You guys obsess over Jan. 6. Nobody cares,” Rep. Glenn Grothman (R-Wis.) told reporters after the Wednesday meeting. “It’s history. We view it as history.”
Even critics of McCarthy, like Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), made clear in their statements that they did not want the internal bickering to distract from the party’s focus on the November elections.
“Every day that gets closer to the election there is going to be less and less tolerance to deflecting from that goal,” said a senior House Republican strategist. “Every member, no matter how much they have a problem, they are all going to need something. And they know we are going to be in the majority.”
McCarthy, no stranger to moments of crisis — including those of his own making — has argued that his ability to come through to the other end will ultimately strengthen his claim to becoming second in line to the presidency.
“The thing you should always remember is in a time of crisis, the person who keeps their head is the person you want to follow,” McCarthy said last year in an interview with The Washington Post. “And so it’s easy during those moments of crisis when people are attacking: You’ve got to stay the course. You have a plan. You follow the plan.”
Marianna Sotomayor, Seung Min Kim, Jacqueline Alemany, Leigh Ann Caldwell, Felicia Sonmez and Paul Kane contributed to this report.