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McCarthy defends Carlson’s access to Jan. 6 footage, calls media ‘jealous’

The House speaker has been scrutinized by Democrats and members of the media over the exclusive arrangement with the Fox News host

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) walks to a vote on Capitol Hill on Feb. 7. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) on Tuesday defended his decision to give conservative TV host Tucker Carlson access to roughly 40,000 hours of security footage from the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, telling reporters that the footage will soon be released broadly and that his office is taking measures to address concerns about security risks.

“It almost seems like the press is jealous,” McCarthy said in a one-on-one interview with The Washington Post. “And that’s interesting because every person in the press works off exclusives on certain things.

“People like exclusives, and Tucker is someone that’s been asking for it,” said McCarthy, who characterized Carlson’s style of journalism as “opinion,” not news. “So I let him come in and see it, but everyone’s going to get it.”

McCarthy has avoided repeated questions from reporters about his agreement with Carlson since the Fox News host announced last week that his team had access to the security footage. Several media organizations, including The Washington Post, sent letters to McCarthy requesting the same access and raising concerns “that an ideologically based narrative of an already polarizing event will take hold in the public consciousness.”

Democrats have pilloried McCarthy’s decision to share the footage with Carlson, who has repeatedly downplayed the deadly violence that occurred during the Jan. 6 attack. They also have expressed concerns that broad access to the footage could raise security risks by revealing the locations of cameras on the Capitol complex.

McCarthy minimized those concerns Tuesday, saying Carlson specifically said he did not want to include footage documenting exit routes of the U.S. Capitol. McCarthy added that he has been in consultation with U.S. Capitol Police (USCP) on the release of the footage and dismissed concerns that Carlson will mislead viewers about the events of the day. A spokesperson for the USCP would not confirm McCarthy’s assertion that he or Carlson’s team is requesting security review of any footage that may be used on his show.

Fox News did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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McCarthy instead condemned the House select committee tasked with investigating the Jan. 6 attack for airing video showing part of the exit route from his office and a portion of Vice President Mike Pence’s escape from the Senate chamber as a mob invaded the Capitol. Other Republican lawmakers echoed McCarthy’s defense Tuesday, accusing Democrats who are now raising red flags of hypocrisy. They cited both the committee and Alexandra Pelosi, the daughter of former House speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) who filmed and released footage that captured leaders in a secure military base after evacuating the Capitol that day.

“If you watch what the Jan. 6 committee did under Speaker Pelosi, they actually released a lot of video that was very sensitive,” House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.) said during a Tuesday news conference. “I didn’t hear a lot of concern about that back then. We were concerned about how selective they were.”

House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.) said on Feb. 28 that video of the Jan. 6, 2021 Capitol attack would be released to other media outlets. (Video: The Washington Post)

Tim Mulvey, a former senior staff member and spokesman for the Jan. 6 committee, previously said in a statement that when the panel obtained access to U.S. Capitol Police video footage, “it was treated with great sensitivity given concerns about the security of lawmakers, staff, and the Capitol complex. Access was limited to members and a small handful of investigators and senior staff, and the public use of any footage was coordinated in advance with Capitol Police. It’s hard to overstate the potential security risks if this material were used irresponsibly.”

Rep. Barry Loudermilk (R-Ga.), who chairs the House Administration subcommittee on oversight, called it “laughable” that Democrats have accused his party of improper use of security footage, noting that the Jan. 6 committee accused him of giving a “reconnaissance” tour to visitors the day before the Capitol insurrection. U.S. Capitol Police deemed the accusations false and said Loudermilk had no connection to the insurrection.

Loudermilk, however, emphasized the need for certain camera locations to be withheld from public consumption to protect members going forward. A spokesperson for Loudermilk said ground rules established by the House prevent Carlson’s staff from recording or removing any videos from the screening area that was set up for the Fox News team to view surveillance video. The footage selected by Carlson will have to go through a vetting process before going to air, the spokesperson added.

“We want to be transparent on everything,” Loudermilk said. “But there’s also areas that we have to be concerned, like escape routes and holding rooms, and cameras that we don’t want al-Qaeda to know about.”

In a closed-door meeting with his conference Tuesday morning, McCarthy championed his decision to provide Carlson exclusive access to the footage, telling GOP lawmakers that calls for transparency were only going one way, according to two people in the room who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.

Members left the meeting reiterating McCarthy’s arguments about Democratic hypocrisy — a win of sorts for Republican leaders who met Monday night and discussed getting members on the same page on the matter, according to two people familiar with the meeting. Leaders had anticipated questions from members about the decision to give Carlson access, but had not heard about any anger arising within the conference ahead of the meeting.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) declined to directly criticize McCarthy when asked by reporters on Tuesday whether he believed the speaker’s decision endangered the Capitol. “My main concern going back to when Speaker Pelosi was still there is the security of the Capitol, which was obviously severely threatened on Jan. 6,” he said.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), a frequent target of Carlson’s program, warned of the potential consequences of providing Carlson with fodder to boost his claims that Jan. 6 was a “false-flag” operation. Carlson has previously aired a three-part series defending the rioters and elevating the conspiracy theory that the violence on Jan. 6 was fomented by the government.

“They are experts in manipulating media and cutting context, so it’s absolutely true that they may take some of that tape and manipulate it in really disturbing ways that could incite violence,” Ocasio-Cortez said.

The decision by McCarthy to provide the footage exclusively to Carlson further underscored the Fox News host’s status as one of the most influential conservatives in the country. People familiar with the relationship between the two men disputed the idea that McCarthy provided Carlson with the footage to curry favor and said the narrative that the two have a contentious relationship has been overblown.

“Tucker in general wants to see Republican leadership reflect the views of their voters and Kevin is probably someone who is not of the same mold as Tucker, but he’s shown over the last few years that he’s willing to bring the party much closer to where Tucker wants it,” said one Republican operative, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive conversations.

“No one in the media has been this influential on the right since the prime of Rush Limbaugh,” the person added, “so it made sense to give the footage to someone who has that cachet with voters who are the people who want to see the footage released.”

During McCarthy’s battle for the speakership, Carlson had dinged McCarthy for being “ideologically agnostic” and called his constituency “the lobbying community in Washington,” but he proffered a backhanded show of support.

“It’s not easy to be speaker when the House is this closely divided, and in some ways Kevin McCarthy is perfectly suited for that,” Carlson said in January. “And critically McCarthy is willing to spend the next two years living in hotel rooms raising money for his party ahead of a historic presidential election. What other Republican in the House is willing to do that?”

Liz Goodwin and Tom Jackman contributed to this report.