The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In trying to prebut Jan. 6 committee, McCarthy reinforces its utility

On June 9 House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) deflected direct questions on whether he thought President Biden had lawfully won the 2020 election. (Video: The Washington Post)
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House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) spoke at a news conference Thursday to offer a prebuttal of the Jan. 6 committee’s public hearings, which were set to begin Thursday night. He cast the committee as illegitimate and overly political, suggesting the House’s time would be better used on issues such as inflation, gas prices and crime.

What he also did, though, was reinforce just how much the chief questions about Jan. 6, 2021, and what preceded it remain largely unanswered — or at least unsettled, because of people like McCarthy, who once expressed great interest in them.

In the space of 60 seconds, McCarthy was asked five times whether President Biden’s win in the 2020 election was legitimate. Each time, he declined to answer — saying merely that Biden is the president, while not addressing the “legitimate” part — and claiming he had answered the question.

He was also asked whether the Jan. 6 Capitol riot was an “insurrection,” and he again punted, saying merely that it was “wrong.”

Finally, he was asked about an increasingly significant discrepancy between accounts of his phone call with President Donald Trump during the Capitol riot.

New audio released by two New York Times reporters features McCarthy saying on Jan. 11, 2021, that he had told Trump to tell the rioters to stop and that “I was very intense and very loud about it.” But Trump told the same reporters that McCarthy wasn’t nearly so animated, because he has an “inferiority complex.” From an excerpt of the reporters’ book:

No, Trump says, McCarthy had not clashed with him over the phone with the riot still in progress. “He wouldn’t say that,” Trump said. So why, then, did McCarthy go around claiming to other people that he’s tougher with Trump in private than he really is? The former president packed his two-word diagnosis with contempt.
“Inferiority complex,” Trump said.

Confronted with that discrepancy by The Washington Post’s Paul Kane on Thursday, though, McCarthy quickly sought to move past it. He joked about whether he has an inferiority complex and added: “There’s two people on the call. Two people know what happened on the call. I spoke to the American public. They can judge whatever I said.” He called for another question.

That McCarthy wasn’t terribly interested in litigating all of this on the eve of Thursday’s hearing wasn’t terribly surprising. But each of the exchanges highlighted the fact that perhaps having at least some kind of committee to look into such matters might be a worthwhile pursuit. (And indeed, McCarthy once seemed to support such a thing.)

McCarthy, after all, once labeled the attack an insurrection, but now he avoids that label. In that posture, he has been joined by others in the party. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) once repeatedly labeled it a “terrorist” attack, but backed off that in the face of pressure from Fox News’s Tucker Carlson. Republicans initially condemned the Capitol riot in no uncertain terms but soon rallied to the causes of those arrested for taking part, likening them to political prisoners. They also muddied the waters by citing “legitimate political discourse.”

I’m on record saying it clearly met the definition for “insurrection.” But, certainly, building out just how much this was actually part of an attempt to violently overthrow the government would seem a valid and important pursuit if people aren’t sold on that.

The dynamic is similar with whether Biden is a legitimate president. The idea that he’s not is precisely the false and baseless allegation that so fueled the insurrectionists in the first place. And you needn’t take our word for it; that’s what several big-name Republicans said, back when it was more acceptable to say so. Since then and despite the violence, we’ve seen a gradual retreat from that position in the face of pressure from the base. If the potential future speaker of the House still won’t definitively rebut the “big lie,” that says something about the lack of a true reckoning over it.

And the discrepancy between McCarthy’s and Trump’s versions is merely the latest exchange to highlight just how little we know about what Trump was up to. That’s in large part because Trump allies including McCarthy haven’t been forthcoming, but also because of gaps in White House records. Even when people are on the record, this most basic of key facts — how soon Republicans truly pleaded with Trump to call off the dogs — remains in dispute.

Trump’s actions that day would seem to be of interest to McCarthy, given that he took to the House floor after Jan. 6 and said that Trump was responsible for not intervening sooner, and that perhaps Trump should have been censured.

One can take issue with how the Jan. 6 committee conducts its business. And we’ll see, starting Thursday night, how faithful it is to the facts and how compelling its work is. But Republicans have also sought to undermine the inquiry from the start, beginning with killing off a bipartisan 9/11-style commission despite McCarthy having tasked an ally with negotiating it. The angle was clear: These Republicans knew this would be politically bad for them, and they didn’t want to relive all of it.

McCarthy was among those extolling the virtues and necessity of some kind of significant probe into Jan. 6, according to the newly released Jan. 11, 2021, audio.

“We cannot just sweep this under the rug,” he said in a private GOP meeting. “We need to know why it happened, who did it, and people need to be held accountable for it. And I’m committed to make sure that happens.”

Seventeen months later, he’s obviously less committed. Much remains unresolved — as evidenced by McCarthy’s own preview of the hearings Thursday — but the emphasis is entirely different.

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