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Back in January, I wrote a piece in this space called “The Many Faces of Kevin McCarthy.” I talked about the three different iterations of the current Republican House Minority Leader, each with its own distinct and irreconcilable traits.
But now, I’ve just lost track.
This week, we learned that – despite his prior lies, and lies about those lies, and lies about the lies about the lies – McCarthy saw the world quite clearly on January 6 and in the following days. He did in fact discuss his intent to talk to then-President Donald Trump about Trump’s potential resignation. He did confirm that Trump had admitted some responsibility for the attack. And he did express genuine concern that the inflammatory rhetoric and conspiracy-theory mongering of his House colleagues could provoke violence. McCarthy did and said all of those things, we now know, because he’s on tape.
Kevin McCarthy is not dumb. He’s deeply dishonest and a political windsock, but he’s not dumb. He was reasonable and perceptive enough immediately after January 6 to (mostly) recognize the Capitol attack for what it was. He declared from the House floor on January 13 that Trump “bears responsibility for Wednesday’s attack on Congress by mob rioters.” “He should have immediately denounced the mob when he saw what was unfolding,” McCarthy intoned. “These facts require immediate action by President Trump.”
Behind the scenes (at the time), McCarthy did what a sound, responsible political leader should do. He called for accountability when he said he’d suggest Trump’s resignation, and when he extracted Trump’s concession of at least partial responsibility for the attack. He prevailed upon his caucus for calm, recognizing the potential danger posed by unhinged rhetoric coming from Matt Gaetz and other attention-seeking pot-stirrers. Hard as it is to believe, the immediate post-January 6 tapes that have now surfaced actually paint McCarthy in a positive light, as a reasonably principled, strong political leader.
Well, that didn’t last.
We still don’t know precisely what happened when McCarthy took a pilgrimage down to Mar-a-Lago in late January 2021, a few weeks after those tapes were made. All we’ve seen are the goofy, awkward photos of Trump and McCarthy posing together in some sort of gilded palace, and anodyne spokesperson quotes about party unity and taking back the House and the importance of Trump’s endorsement. But we know that the McCarthy who emerged from that meeting had undergone some serious re-education, coming out as a full-throated January 6 denier and pom-pom waving Trump enthusiast. Hey, becoming Speaker of the House has its price tag.
The tapes that have emerged this week are a stark reminder of what McCarthy used to be. He’s now so far gone that he (and most of us) have lost track of his lies, and the whole construct has collapsed. McCarthy, we now know, said on tape that he would ask Trump to resign. When initial media reports came out, McCarthy furiously and categorically denied them. But when the tapes surfaced showing that McCarthy had done precisely what had been reported, McCarthy fell into this gibberish, nonsensical denial: “The reporter never asked me that question. The reporter came to me the night before he released the book. And my understanding was he was saying that I asked President Trump to resign. No, I never did. And that’s what I was answering. If you’re asking, now, did I tell my members that we’re gonna ask — ask them if I told any of them that I said President Trump — the answer is no.” We’re into Inception-level bullshitting here, where the lies bend back in on themselves and distort the space-time continuum.
This is why prosecutors and investigators tend to focus on a subject’s words and actions back then, at the time of the actual events in question. Everybody’s got a cover story, everyone’s got spin – from your routine criminals to your insurrectionist politicians – and it’s easy enough to churn up some mud and cloud the water after the fact. McCarthy can fib and obfuscate and tap-dance all he wants now. But he said what he said, back then, and it’s on tape.
Despite his central involvement in January 6 and the aftermath, we’ll almost certainly never hear from McCarthy – at least not in the testimonial sense. (We surely will continue to hear his nonsensical, self-serving denials-of-the-moment in front of the cameras, but there’s no consequence to those statements). The same goes for other House members who were directly involved in the effort to steal the election: Gaetz, Jim Jordan, Mo Brooks, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Scott Perry, and more.
That’s because the January 6 Committee – for all the outstanding investigative work they have done so far – seemingly has decided against compelling their own colleagues in the House to testify. Let’s be clear: this is entirely a political decision, not a legal one. There’s no law preventing Congress from subpoenaing its own members, particularly where they were witnesses (at a minimum) and perhaps even participants in the events at issue. There’s just good old-fashioned kid gloves, a prevailing sense of in-house comity that transcends even party lines.
The Committee hasn’t formally announced that they’ll go soft on their colleagues, but it’s entirely clear by now that they will. Committee Chair Rep. Bennie Thompson reassured us back in January that “We are exploring it [potential subpoenas to members of Congress].” Four-plus months later and, well, they’re still “exploring.”
Of course, while the Committee can be faulted for its unwillingness to play in-house hardball, the real blame should remain squarely on McCarthy and his colleagues who have refused to testify. They all certainly have the right and ability – the obligation, really – to come forward and voluntarily speak with the Committee, which has requested their testimony. (Politely and informally, without messy subpoenas, mind you.)
After all, McCarthy and his ilk are fond of declaring they’ve got “nothing to hide.” Yet they continue to hide everything.