Two-and-a-half years later, McCarthy has ceded that moral high ground in policing his own caucus. Instead, he has adopted something best called whataboutism: Anytime a Republican does something wrong, he points to a Democrat who’s gone unpunished by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
This week, he had a chance to reprimand Rep. Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.) for his association with Nicholas Fuentes, a political activist who has defended racial segregation and minimized the Holocaust. After Gosar served as the keynote speaker at a Fuentes event this year, the lawmaker’s image appeared on a fundraising invitation with the far-right activist.
By Tuesday evening, the GOP leader called Gosar into his office and, after the Arizonan denied that the event was happening, McCarthy washed his hands of the matter.
“He says he doesn’t have — that it’s not real. That he doesn’t have anything on his schedule,” McCarthy told reporters leaving his office.
That fundraiser, regardless of whether it was ever planned, was the latest in a string of incidents with Gosar that have not provoked any real consequence.
On June 16, while questioning FBI Director Christopher A. Wray, Gosar demanded to know the name of the Capitol Police officer who fatally shot a Jan. 6 rioter trying to jump into the lobby off the House floor. He accused the officer of “laying in wait” to execute her, wanting to publicly name him in a way that would serve only to put the officer at risk.
Later that day, Gosar joined 20 other House Republicans in voting against awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to the Capitol Police and D.C. police for their heroism in defending lawmakers, lawmakers’ staffers and journalists in the siege of the Capitol.
The next day, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.) delivered a floor speech suggesting that FBI agents had infiltrated the Donald Trump supporters that day and actually caused the Capitol riot — an absurd claim for which GOP leaders nonetheless did not admonish Gohmert.
Two police officers met with McCarthy on Friday to discuss the events of Jan. 6 and implored him to denounce Gosar, Gohmert and other Republicans who tried to downplay what happened that day.
“We want accountability and justice,” Harry Dunn, a U.S. Capitol Police officer who faced the rioters on Jan. 6, told reporters after meeting McCarthy. “That’s what we’re looking for — and recognition for every officer that day.”
“As the leader of the House Republican Party, it’s important to hear those denouncements publicly,” said Michael Fanone, a D.C. police officer who responded to the insurrection.
Earlier that day, McCarthy told reporters that he would not talk publicly about his caucus members’ actions.
“What I talk to my members is what I talk to my members personally about,” McCarthy said. “But if you want to talk to somebody about how they vote, talk to them.”
The Californian often plays the whataboutism game with Democrats such as Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), whose statements about Israel and Palestinian territories have frequently been denounced as antisemitic.
Ask him about Gosar and he simply points to Omar, who continues to serve on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
“Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s avoidance and even acceptance of reoccurring antisemitism within her caucus would normally warrant the same inquiry you and your peers constantly give to McCarthy’s interactions with his members,” Mark Bednar, McCarthy’s spokesman, said when asked about Gosar and others.
This position flies in the face of McCarthy’s own words when he supported the ousting of Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) from her leadership post as she became the most outspoken GOP critic of Trump’s behavior.
“We all need to be working as one if we’re able to win the majority. Remember, majorities are not given. They are earned,” he said in an early-May interview on Fox News.
A double standard appears to exist for lawmakers close to Trump.
Cheney faced retribution, but Gosar, Gohmert and others near the front of the Trump line have carte blanche to act without reprimand from their leader.
The present episodes also reinforce McCarthy’s reputation, from his early days in Congress, that he was everyone’s friend and nobody’s parent.
Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), one of the 21 objectors to the Gold Medal honor, has been a troublemaker ever since he first took the oath of office in 2013, serving under House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and then Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), and now under Minority Leader McCarthy.
In 2020, at the early peak of the coronavirus pandemic, Massie forced the House to come back into session to pass the $2 trillion Cares Act meant as a health-economic rescue package at a time when Pelosi and McCarthy did not want to risk calling several hundred lawmakers back to Washington, giving the risk of coronavirus infection.
Massie never faced discipline from McCarthy, was never pulled into the minority leader’s office for a stern lecture. “He’s only praised me recently,” Massie said Wednesday.
That wasn’t the case with Boehner.
“He always did it in a group. Like there would be four or five, but you knew there were two of you he was really talking to, and the other three just had to kind of sit there. That was Boehner,” Massie said.
McCarthy’s allies deny that he’s soft. “No, I don’t think Steve King would say that,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), an 18-year congressman, said Wednesday.
Back then, McCarthy set a strong tone.
King had a history of making racist remarks and had forged alliances with far-right political groups in Europe that had white supremacist ties. Then, in early 2019, he told the New York Times that he didn’t understand why the terms “white nationalist, white supremacy” had become “offensive.”
A couple days later McCarthy ordered his acolytes to vote to remove King from the committees on which he served, particularly the important Agriculture Committee, starving the longtime lawmaker of his support back home and causing him to lose his GOP primary last year.
“I will not stand back as a leader of this party, believing in this nation, that all are created equal, that that stands or continues to stand and have any role with us,” McCarthy said just a week into the job.
That standard has changed, at least for Gosar and other Trump confidants.