Scandals, lies and audiotapes: Kevin McCarthy has principled Republicans squirming

Honor and principle once held high office in the Republican party; today, its leaders include no Lincoln or Goldwater. Republican headliners now listen to their lesser angels: power, privilege and perks.

Personal aspiration has strangled integrity; instead, “Virtue is chok’d with foul ambition.”

Exhibit A: House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s (R-Calif.) grand adventure in lies, deception and groveling last week. On April 21, reports appeared of McCarthy’s initial disgust with President Trump for inciting the Jan. 6 insurrection. McCarthy and his team categorically denied those reports. Then audio tapes showed up disproving their denial. 

So McCarthy, still desperate for the House Speakership after the midterms, quickly appealed to Trump to put a tourniquet on the wound.

How had McCarthy initially disparaged Trump? The New York Times reported that in the days after Jan. 6, McCarthy told colleagues privately, “I’ve had it with this guy.”

“What I think I’ll do is to call him … and [tell him] it would be my recommendation you should resign.” But as the Times reports, “within weeks both [McCarthy and Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.)] backed off an all-out fight with Mr. Trump because they feared retribution from him and his political movement.”

It wasn’t always this way.

On Aug. 7, 1974, a delegation of Republican leaders including the formidable Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona, paid a visit to Richard Nixon in the White House. They told him of his bleak prospects regarding impeachment. The next evening, Nixon resigned.

What caused the visit? Nixon had been caught lying on tape, revealing his role in covering up the Watergate scandal.

It may seem quaint, but back in 1974, getting caught on tape lying was a capital offense. Today, Donald Trump has made it a virtue.

As President Biden said on Friday, “This ain’t your father’s Republican Party … These guys are a different breed of cat. They’re not like what I served with for so many years.”

The irony is that in McCarthy’s case, his lie was to cover up not sin but virtue — his belief in American democracy. The tape showed his defense of the Constitution and his disdain for Trump’s conduct on Jan. 6.

That is what is verboten in today’s Republican party.

As conservative pundit Jonah Goldberg tweeted: “I think there would be no more fitting end to Kevin McCarthy’s dream of becoming speaker than the ‘scandal’ of him being exposed as privately believing the right and moral thing.”

McCarthy apparently understood the danger. His reported efforts to address any damage in the aftermath of the scandal were not concerned with the exposure of his lying but with the exposure of his initial disloyalty to Trump.

To preempt attacks from Trump-worshipping rivals for the House Speakership — rivals such as Jim Jordan or even Marjorie Taylor Greene — McCarthy doubled down on servility by reaching out to Trump after the recordings became public.

If one cares only about one’s own power, it’s understandable beseeching the Godfather of caring only about one’s own power. And by report, “the former president was not upset about McCarthy’s remarks and was glad the Republican leader didn’t follow through, which Trump saw as a sign of his continued grip on the Republican Party.”

McCarthy’s denials and lying are useful to Trump. They help cover up another point the McCarthy recordings disclosed – that shortly after Jan. 6, Trump apparently accepted some responsibility for the Capitol siege.

Accountability is anathema to the former president’s political brand.

In addition, Trump is sure to understand that he has McCarthy dangling on a string. As Politico’s Playbook put it bluntly, “All it would take is one wink and nod from the former president, and McCarthy would have serious problems getting the gavel.”

It’s still months before the mid-terms. We don’t know whether McCarthy’s ineptitude will weaken him or the Republican party. We don’t know if it will cause Marjorie Taylor Greene’s stock to rise, and whether her potential speakership would turn off independent voters who are critical to victory.

On that score, another wild card looms: On April 22, a federal court filing by the Jan. 6 House Select Committee disclosed testimony from Mark Meadows’ former executive assistant, Cassidy Hutchinson, that at least 10 right-wing House members, including Marjorie Taylor Greene, had met with Meadows about efforts to overturn the election during the post-election period.

Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) has promised that the “hearings will tell a story that will really blow the roof off the House.” Stay tuned.

Dennis Aftergut is a former federal prosecutor, currently of counsel to Lawyers Defending American Democracy.

Tags audiotape Barry Goldwater Capitol insurrection Donald Trump honesty Integrity Jamie Raskin Jan. 6 Capitol attack January 6 attack on the Capitol Jim Jordan Kevin McCarthy Marjorie Taylor Greene Principles Republican hypocrisy Republican Party Republican reactions to Donald Trump's claims of 2020 election fraud Richard Nixon the big lie trumpism

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