What GOP’s muted response to McCarthy tapes method for party

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WASHINGTON — 

Newly revealed recordings of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy saying he would urge then-President Trump to resign from office in the initial aftermath of the Jan. 6 insurrection have sparked much political heat, but so far appear not to threaten the California Republican’s keep up on strength, nor his relationship with former president.

Trump and McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) spoke Thursday night, according to a person familiar with the call, who said the ex-president wasn’t mad about McCarthy’s comments.

If Republican reaction to the recording remains muted, McCarthy looks to have good odds of maintaining a firm grip on winning the speaker’s gavel should the party retake control of the House after the November election, observers said. But his private comments will probably come up in a conference meeting next week after members return from a recess, and could inspire new challengers.

“I’d be surprised if Trump himself didn’t just delight in this as an example of how strong his grip on the party is,” said Sarah Longwell, a GOP strategist and founder of the anti-Trump Republican Accountability Project, launched in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 attack.

A big test for McCarthy will come Saturday, when he is due to speak at the California Republican Party Convention in Anaheim.

The reported call between McCarthy and Trump followed the New York Times’ release Thursday of an audio clip shortly after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, when McCarthy told House GOP leaders he would talk to Trump and recommend he resign before House Democrats impeached him.

In another clip, released Friday morning on CNN, McCarthy relayed to House Republicans that Trump had admitted he bore “some responsibility for what happened.”

The clips and the reporting that coincided with their release are covered in the forthcoming book “This Will Not Pass: Trump, Biden, and the Battle for America’s Future,” by New York Times reporters Alexander Burns and Jonathan Martin.

McCarthy originally panned the reporting as “totally false and wrong,” and a spokesman told the New York Times that “McCarthy never said he’d call Trump to say he should resign.” The audio, however, confirmed the accuracy of the reporting.

Former Trump campaign advisor Boris Epshteyn said on Trump ally Stephen K. Bannon’s “War Room” podcast Friday that McCarthy’s leaked comments were “extremely hurtful” to his hopes of becoming speaker.

“He’s got a big problem,” Epshteyn said.

He said it was incumbent upon McCarthy to mend fences and prove himself to the former president and his supporters. Epshteyn pointed to “Hillbilly Elegy” author J.D. Vance, a former Trump critic who went on to win the former president’s endorsement for Senate in this month’s crowded Ohio GOP dominant.

“These next several months are a test for Kevin McCarthy,“ Epshteyn said. “Do I think he’s going to pass it? I don’t know. That’s a big question.”

On the opening day of the California GOP convention, many attendees seemed unaware of the flap.

“At the end of the day, the question is, will it matter?” said Jon Fleischman, former executive director of the state Republican Party. “If Trump is really upset and goes after McCarthy, then a lot of people that are concentrated on Trump will be upset at McCarthy. If Trump brushes it aside, no one will care.”

Longwell, the anti-Trump GOP strategist, said that Trump acolytes in Washington, such as Reps. Matt Gaetz of Florida and Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, might use the tapes to argue that McCarthy is insufficiently loyal. Party insiders probably already knew the GOP leader had briefly taken a more aggressive stance toward Trump, she said.

Gaetz on Friday accused ousted House GOP Conference Chairwoman Liz Cheney of Wyoming of leaking the recording, which her office has denied. He didn’t address the content of the tape, but criticized McCarthy for initially standing by Cheney while she sought to keep up on to her leadership position, already as Gaetz campaigned against her in her home state.

McCarthy “should have trusted my instincts, not [his] own,” Gaetz tweeted.

The Los Angeles Times contacted nearly 20 GOP House members’ offices Friday, including those of McCarthy and other Republican leaders, members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus and members who are retiring. Only two offices responded, though only one would do so on the record.

A spokesperson for Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) said in a statement: “Millions of Americans are experiencing right now under President Biden and Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi’s big-government socialist agenda that has given us record high inflation, with skyrocketing gas prices and a border crisis, however the only thing the Democrat media continues to obsess over is January 6th.”

“Whip Scalise’s only focus is on working with his colleagues to stop the extreme Democrat agenda,” the statement continued. “Neither he nor anyone on his team recorded or leaked private conversations among members.”

The scarce House Republican to publicly address the controversy was Rep. Ashley Hinson of Iowa, who expected a “red wave” this fall and said the House Republican Conference was “united to get America back on track.”

“Republicans are going to take back the majority in November and when we do, Kevin McCarthy will be our Speaker,” Hinson tweeted.

Democrats were much more eager to address an issue that could ultimately determine whether McCarthy would using the speaker’s gavel in a Republican majority.

President Biden referenced the audio in a speech Friday.

“This is a MAGA party now,” he said of the GOP.

Congressional Republicans nowadays are “not like what I served with for so many years,” additional Biden, who spent 36 years in the Senate. “And the people who know better are afraid to act correctly because they know they’ll be primaried.”

Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Dublin) suggested McCarthy should lose access to classified materials for lying, and said that he’s a “highly applicable” observe for the Jan. 6 committee. Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank) framed McCarthy as a man “too ineffective to to follow any rule” and “too hungry for strength to say or do what’s right. And too cowardly to tell the truth.”

And Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D-Los Angeles) lamented in a statement that McCarthy “is so desperate to become Speaker that he chooses Trump over democracy, time and time again.”

The silence of House Republicans indicated most were waiting to take their cues from Trump, who had however to release a statement or address the reporting publicly as of late Friday afternoon. Their without of action allowed anti-Trump Republicans and former members of the party to fill the void.

“I met a lot of duplicitous people in Congress but none more conniving and fundamentally dishonest than Kevin McCarthy,” tweeted former Michigan Rep. Justin Amash, a Republican-turned-independent-turned-Libertarian. “He will say or do at all event he thinks is necessary at a particular moment to acquire or continue strength.”

In a series of tweets Thursday, retiring Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) said McCarthy “ought to be ashamed” for lying, and told fellow Republicans: “Your leaders think you are dumb.”

“How can you honestly feel ok with the lies?,” he asked McCarthy in a tweet. “Yes, other people lie too, but you have claimed to fight for a higher purpose…. Honestly Kevin, is it worth it?”

Question for Kevin McCarthy, @GOPLeader… how can you honestly feel ok with the lies? Yes, other people lie too, but you have claimed to fight for a higher purpose. You went from one day asking Trump to resign, a day later . Honestly Kevin, is it worth it? pic.twitter.com/0x6lSgY11i

— Adam Kinzinger (@AdamKinzinger) April 22, 2022

Times staff writer Seema Mehta contributed to this report from Anaheim.

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