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McCarthy sidesteps questions on Trump’s baseless conspiracy theory involving ex-congressman Scarborough

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) at a news conference on Capitol Hill earlier this month.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) at a news conference on Capitol Hill earlier this month. (Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images)

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy declined to weigh in Wednesday on a baseless conspiracy theory being promoted by President Trump, saying he did not serve with the former congressman whom the president has falsely linked to the death of a staff member.

McCarthy (R-Calif.), the chamber’s top Republican, was asked about the president’s claims hours after Trump’s latest attack on MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, a former Republican congressman from Florida who retired from politics in 2001.

“I was not here with Joe Scarborough. I don’t quite know about the subject itself,” McCarthy, who was first elected in 2006, said at a news conference. He was asked whether he agreed with a Wall Street Journal editorial that said Trump was “debasing his office” with his claims. McCarthy indicated that he had not read the editorial.

The sidestep came as many of Trump’s fellow Republicans sought to avoid commenting on his calls to reopen the “cold case” of Lori Klausutis, who worked in Scarborough’s Florida office and died in 2001 at age 28.

There were some exceptions, including Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), who told reporters after the news conference that Trump should stop talking about Scarborough, and Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who tweeted “Enough already” after Trump’s latest attack.

“I do think the president should stop tweeting about Joe Scarborough,” Cheney, the No. 3 Republican in the House, said after approaching two reporters unprompted. “We’re in the middle of a pandemic. He’s the commander in chief of this nation. And it’s causing great pain to the family of the young woman who died.”

Earlier Wednesday, Romney expressed his sympathy for Klausutis’s widower, Timothy J. Klausutis.

“I know Joe Scarborough. Joe is a friend of mine,” Romney tweeted. “I don’t know T.J. Klausutis. Joe can weather vile, baseless accusations but T.J.? His heart is breaking. Enough already.”

On Tuesday, Twitter issued a public apology to the Klausutis family but rejected a request from Timothy Klausutis to delete the president’s conspiracy-theory-laden tweets.

Widower of Joe Scarborough staffer seeks removal of Trump tweets that promote baseless conspiracy theory

Romney was the only Senate Republican to vote for Trump’s conviction in his impeachment trial.

Several Florida Republicans did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday, including Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, but on Wednesday Rep. Matt Gaetz, who represents Scarborough’s former congressional district and is one of Trump’s closest allies in the House, said that he believed there were unanswered questions about the medical examiner’s handling of the case.

“In northwest Florida, at the time, there was a lot of focus on that medical examiner, and it’s not something that I’ve seen in a lot of the more recent discussion of those facts,” said Gaetz, who was 19 in the summer of 2001.

The medical examiner, Michael Berkland, determined that an abnormal heart rhythm caused Lori Klausutis to lose consciousness and fall, fatally striking her head. Her death was ruled accidental, and the police concluded there was no reason to investigate further.

Berkland was fired from his job in 2003 for being slow to complete autopsies, but none of his findings were actually questioned. He told The Washington Post on Sunday that other pathologists supported his diagnosis.

Gaetz declined to answer whether he believed a new investigation should occur.

Trump’s vicious claim that Joe Scarborough might have murdered an aide

A few other Republicans said Trump needed to stand down from such inflammatory, false rhetoric.

“To me, it’s out of bounds, that’s all. I mean, no reference to something as serious as that, unless there’s evidence — there’s no evidence,” Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), who served with Scarborough for eight years, said Wednesday.

Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) urged Trump over the weekend to stop spreading an “unfounded conspiracy.”

But these Republicans acknowledged they had little hope of curbing the president’s Twitter behavior. “We’ll see how far it goes and how long it lasts, but to me, I wouldn’t do it — put it that way,” King added.

McCarthy stood by his nonresponse Wednesday, telling reporters after the news conference that his “focus right now is in the House of Representatives.”

“I did not serve with Scarborough,” he said. “I know he left early. I don’t know anything about that case itself.”

He then deflected questions about the president’s behavior by talking about a new rule change in House voting that allows members to vote from afar.

Trump has not backed down during the controversy, writing Wednesday: “Psycho Joe Scarborough is rattled, not only by his bad ratings but all of the things and facts that are coming out on the internet about opening a Cold Case. He knows what is happening!”

Lori Klausutis was found in Scarborough’s regional office in Fort Walton Beach, on her back with her head near a desk, according to a 2001 police report. Scarborough was in Washington at the time.

In a letter last week, Timothy Klausutis asked Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey to delete Trump’s tweets, saying the president “has taken something that does not belong to him — the memory of my dead wife — and perverted it for perceived political gain.”

“My wife deserves better,” he added.

On Wednesday, Mika Brzezinski, Scarborough’s wife and co-host, made a fresh plea to Dorsey to do something about Trump’s continuing tweets, writing: “.@jack you can make this stop.”

Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.

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