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Here’s the thing about absolute denials: you can do them, but only once. Opting out of tracking, usually offered as a warning, nuance, or even an update, is simply not enough. DC’s denials are a unique proposition, which is why smart politicians usually send lackeys to do them or dodge the question entirely.
So when House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy released a statement in his own words on Thursday calling out stunning reports that he had confided in his colleagues following the Jan. 6 insurrection attempt that he planned to tell then-President Donald Trump to step down, Washington took notice. McCarthy called the book excerpt from two New York Time journalists “totally false and false”. He didn’t hide behind his stick or issue a vague denial with wiggle room in the tongue. He was absolute in his certainty; he had never said “I’m sick of this guy”, as the journalists published.
It was a double-dog challenge if ever there was one in political journalism, up there with Gary Hart challenging reporters to prove his affair with Donna Rice that ultimately killed his 1988 presidential bid. that McCarthy took to Twitter to attack the report as “corporate media…obsessed with doing whatever they can to advance a liberal agenda,” New York Time writers Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns were on Rachel Maddow’s MSNBC show. And they had the receipts – in this case, the actual inside audio recording of McCarthy’s close circle call with just three of his top lieutenants.
The call, literally, came from inside the Chamber.
McCarthy made two strategic mistakes. First, you never state anything entirely wrong unless you can prove it. In Washington, only the paranoid survive. Second, you never assume that everyone on your team supports you. That clearly wasn’t the case on the January 10, 2021 call, at least one party — either a lawmaker or a staffer who might have been online — decided to save it for posterity.
McCarthy, who claims to finally claim the presidency next year if Republicans can mount an even halfway competent campaign in November, now has his future seriously uncertain. Yes, he wasn’t outspoken, but the character is rarely disqualifying on its own, especially in Washington. Unproven rumors about McCarthy’s personal life derailed his first run for president in 2015, but he’s still the favorite to take the House’s top job this time around.
More damning in his party, McCarthy dared to question, however briefly, Trump’s supremacy after Jan. 6. McCarthy is heard telling his leadership team that he would call the White House and tell the President that the impeachment charges against him in the House were going to pass. He then told his colleagues that he would tell the president it was time for him to step down, according to The Time’ excerpt and audio evidence.
Such doubt was briefly acceptable following the attempted insurrection and the deadly riots. But the feeling, of course, faded. That Jan. 10 call gave way to a Jan. 27 meeting — and accompanying photo — at Trump’s Florida club between him and McCarthy. In the meantime, McCarthy had clearly realized his hopes of claiming the President’s gavel in Trump’s hands. If Trump hasn’t accepted her candidacy — and the campaigns of a handful of pickup races, Republicans must return to a majority after Nancy Pelosi’s four-year run-off as president — then McCarthy’s hopes of her own second race for President would be wiped out. (It wasn’t the first time McCarthy had resorted to acts of incredible sycophancy. Trump only liked certain colors of Starbursts, reds and pinks. McCarthy once sent Trump a separate jar of candy after he was witness to Trump’s predilections aboard Air Force One, who confirmed to McCarthy’s detractors that he would stop at nothing to gain power.)
So after New York Time article came out, McCarthy may have felt his future as president depended on him denying that he had pledged to suggest Trump resign. But that could have been a miscalculation. It’s now entirely possible that McCarthy will join John Boehner and Paul Ryan as top Republicans ousted from the presidency for failing to listen to the most extreme — but loudest — voices in the GOP.
The biggest unknown: what Trump is asking for as penance, if any. It doesn’t make sense for Trump to openly shoot for McCarthy right now. But neither was Trump’s statement that he would destroy the 10 House Republicans who dared to vote for his second impeachment. Trump remains agnostic that his top picks across the board could cost Republicans valuable seats. Predicting Trump is nearly impossible, except knowing that he places great importance on a counterattack and often dismisses empirical political evidence. His ego triumphs over calculation.
McCarthy’s initial denial hit just enough good votes of victimization, evasion and paranoia to perhaps appease Trump. But the audio gives teeth to McCarthy’s problems. And, unlike audio released on the eve of the 2016 election in which Trump bragged about sexual assault, no one in the Republican Party is willing to give McCarthy the benefit of the doubt, so much sway Trump’s current on the party is complete. An endorsement from Trump, however, would keep McCarthy in the game. All eyes are now on McCarthy to see how far he will seek penance.
But his full-throated denial is hard to read. It’s possible that McCarthy, in the heady days after being sacked from his office and his security detail, left a colleague hiding in the chief’s private restroom with a Civil War sword to protect himself against rioters on the 6 January, did not remember some details of that week. . It’s also entirely possible that McCarthy panicked this week, realizing the consequences of even a momentary rift with Trump, and did what was simplest, ethics aside: deny the exact report. Either way, it was a gaffe to hope that no one could prove the denial. Just ask any number of fallen pols how it usually goes.
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