House

GOP’s McCarthy has little incentive to work with Jan. 6 panel

With his eye on the Speaker’s gavel, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has almost no political incentive to cooperate with the special Jan. 6 committee.

Doing so would infuriate former President Trump and his far-right allies in Congress, and make it much harder for McCarthy to win an internal election as Speaker if the GOP wins back the House majority this fall.

Yet there are also risks for McCarthy to keep quiet about his conversations with Trump before and during the violent attack, as it will give Democrats and even some Republicans the opportunity to inflict damage on the GOP leader, weakening McCarthy as he struggles to maintain control of his raucous caucus during a critical stretch for his party.

“The significance of what happened that day isn’t lost on anybody, and he’s clearly put a political calculation above talking about what he knows,” a House Republican aide said of McCarthy’s communications with Trump surrounding Jan. 6.

“He thinks that if he cooperates he will raise the ire of Trump and the Marjorie Taylor Greenes and Matt Gaetzs of the world will get upset with him, and then if Republicans take the majority they won’t support him for Speaker,” the source added. “His whole goal, everything he does, is focused on ‘how do I get or maintain 218 votes so I can be Speaker.’ ”

It’s a delicate balancing act that McCarthy has been struggling with ever since his first failed attempt to grab the Speaker’s gavel in 2015. That year, McCarthy had the support of most establishment Republicans, but a small band of conservatives in the House Freedom Caucus blocked him from ascending to the Speaker’s office. 

When Trump won the White House a year later, McCarthy hitched his wagon to the mercurial president and became one of his staunchest supporters on the Hill. But the Jan. 6 attack — and Trump’s role in it — quickly complicated their relationship, and has raised doubts among Trump loyalists about whether McCarthy can be trusted.

Greene, a favorite ally of Trump, said last fall that McCarthy “doesn’t have the full support to be Speaker.”

The select Jan. 6 committee, led by Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) and Vice Chair Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), sent a letter this week seeking to speak to McCarthy about his frantic phone call to Trump that day as a mob of thousands of his supporters laid siege to the Capitol.  

But the letter also highlighted McCarthy’s evolving response to the attack, accusing the leader of having “changed markedly” since taking a meeting with Trump at Mar-a-Lago shortly after the attack.

The letter includes direct quotes from McCarthy’s floor speech saying that Trump “bears responsibility” for the “attack on Congress by mob rioters.” It also asks McCarthy about interviews he gave with his local newspaper describing a “very heated conversation” with Trump, demanding that he “get help” as the attack was underway. Help from the National Guard did not arrive for hours.

On Friday, more headaches emerged for McCarthy. CNN dug up audio from an overlooked interview McCarthy gave to a local radio station in his district, where he repeatedly said Trump did bear responsibility for Jan. 6, and in fact, said that Trump told him he was partly responsible for the attack. 

“I say he has responsibility. He told me personally that he does have some responsibility. I think a lot of people do,” McCarthy told KERN-AM in Bakersfield, Calif. 

Later, the radio host asks McCarthy if it’s true the GOP leader tried to work out a deal with Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) to censure Trump for his role in Jan. 6. 

“Yes,” McCarthy replied. “I feel he has some responsibility. That’s why I think censure rises to that level.”

The resurfacing of McCarthy’s comments about Trump’s responsibility could complicate their fragile relationship. Trump used a vulgar term to describe McCarthy less than two weeks after the attack, pushing McCarthy to take a trip to see the ex-president in Mar-a-Lago and repair the relationship shortly thereafter.

If Trump turns on McCarthy, it would be a fatal blow to the California Republican’s lifelong dreams of becoming Speaker given Trump’s continued dominance over the party, even after the Jan. 6 attack. Without Trump’s support, McCarthy could never secure the 218 votes needed on the House floor.

“Him and Trump have not really been on the greatest terms since Jan. 6, so I’m sure McCarthy is worried about that with his Speakership in the balance. Because the last thing he wants is a statement or Donald Trump out on the stump out telling Republicans, ‘Don’t support your member if they support Kevin McCarthy because he didn’t fight for me, etc,’ ” a second Republican aide told The Hill.

“He needs Trump’s backing and/or Trump to be quiet for him to be Speaker.”

Facing reporters in a contentious news conference this week, McCarthy largely dodged and deflected questions about his refusal to sit down with the committee. 

He said he had already given numerous media interviews about his conversations with Trump, and that there was nothing the Jan. 6 committee would learn from speaking with him.

The committee’s efforts are “pure politics,” McCarthy said.

But the committee has a number of outstanding questions for McCarthy and his conversations with Trump before, during and after the attack, including when he first spoke with Trump, and whether accounts about his conversations with Trump — relayed by other lawmakers — are accurate.  

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Thursday that McCarthy has “an obligation” to help get to the truth of what happened, while the committee’s Republican members have also been needling the leader.

“I wish that he were a brave and honorable man,” Cheney, one of the panel’s two Republican members, told CNN. “He’s clearly trying to cover up what happened. He has an obligation to come forward, and we’ll get to the truth.”

The headache from the committee isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. The panel has floated that it may be willing to consider formal subpoenas for lawmakers who don’t comply with its initial invitations, a group that also includes Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.).

Failure to comply means he could face a contempt of Congress resolution and Justice Department prosecution much like onetime White House strategist Stephen Bannon.

Such a move would likely be challenged in court, adding another potential hassle for McCarthy. 

“I think he’s made a pro and con list, checked and measured and recognizes: ‘If I cooperate – even if this pressure is only going increase going forward, even if these questions are only going to grow louder, even if this is going to consume everything and become a distraction – the downside to cooperating means that House Republicans will not support me,’” the first aide said.

“And I think he’s just made that calculation, and that’s how he’s going to operate going forward.”

House