Updated Apr 27, 2022 - Politics & Policy

McCarthy shores up support after leaked audio

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy is seen speaking.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images

House Republicans are closing ranks around Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy after the New York Times published audio of a call four days after the Capitol riot in which he voiced support for some of his members losing access to Twitter.

Why it matters: McCarthy's path to the speakership — should his party win back the House in November — is perilous, and defections from too many conservative members could scuttle his chances.

  • At least one GOP House candidate, Joe Kent of Washington, has outright said he won't vote for him. Others like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) have publicly wavered in their loyalty to him.
  • Top-rated Fox News host Tucker Carlson savaged McCarthy during his program on Tuesday night, branding him "a puppet of the Democratic Party."
  • While some rank-and-file members also raised concerns internally over the weekend about McCarthy's comments, there doesn't seem to be enough frustration to make it fatal for McCarthy, two senior GOP aides told Axios.

Driving the news: McCarthy, in a call with fellow Republican leaders four days after the Jan. 6 insurrection, expressed serious concern about the comments some of his members have made, according to the audio.

  • It was obtained by Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns, two Times reporters who are co-authors of the forthcoming book, "This Will Not Pass."
  • An earlier tape released by the authors showed McCarthy saying he planned to urge former President Trump to resign after the Jan. 6 Capitol riot — hours after McCarthy denied making such a statement.
  • Axios' Jonathan Swan reports that Trump was not upset about that leak, since McCarthy's later decision not to urge his resignation showed the leader's fealty to him.

In the newly released recording, McCarthy and House Minority Whip Steve Scalise focused on comments from Reps. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) and Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), as well as Reps. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) and Barry Moore (R-Ala.).

  • Gaetz, McCarthy said, was "putting people in jeopardy" by going on TV to attack Republicans as "anti-Trump." Scalise said his remarks were "potentially illegal."
  • After one of Brooks' tweets defending slain Capitol rioter Ashli Babbitt was read aloud, McCarthy exclaimed, "Can’t they take their Twitter accounts away, too?”

McCarthy brushed off the significance of the audio during a brief meeting with top House Republicans on Tuesday evening, one senior GOP aide told Axios.

  • He told GOP leaders and ranking members that they should not let it divide members, because the conference has a lot of more important issues to focus on.

What they're saying: Members of the right-wing Freedom Caucus, who are the most likely to criticize McCarthy, seem to agree.

  • Moore said in a statement to Axios, "The RINOs engineering this story to promote their own selfish agenda won’t be around next year ... and Republicans will be more united than ever after taking back the House this November.”
  • "We have got much, much bigger issues to be dealing with than what McCarthy said on the telephone," said Rep. Matt Rosendale (R-Mont.), citing Ukraine and border security as examples.
  • Others claimed ignorance about the audio. "I haven't heard about those yet," said Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.), quipping, "McCarthy, who's McCarthy?"

But, but, but: A small but persistent group of the House's most right-wing members isn't giving up.

  • Gaetz, in a statement posted to Twitter, characterized the call as "sniveling" and said of McCarthy and Scalise, "This is the behavior of weak men, not leaders."
  • Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) told Axios he too hadn't heard the audio but said he'd be "devastated if Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene weren't on Twitter."
  • Massie also signaled McCarthy can't take his vote for granted, regardless of the audio. "I'm the only guy or gal here who never voted for [former Speakers] John Boehner or Paul Ryan," he said. "I only voted for Kevin once."

The bottom line: The rank-and-file affirmed their support for McCarthy by giving him a standing ovation when he defended his past comments during a GOP conference meeting Wednesday morning, according to a source in the room.

  • McCarthy specifically made the case that what was published paints an incomplete picture of the call, that he was speaking in hypotheticals and that he never trashes his members publicly.
  • Scalise also defended himself against Gaetz’s criticism, arguing that there were more death threats against members at the time. He received applause as well, the source said.
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