Kevin McCarthy’s Sloppy, Artless Lie

A recording caught the House minority leader in an outright falsehood.

Kevin McCarthy
Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times / Getty

About the author: David A. Graham is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

Almost all politicians lie, but only some are demonstrably liars. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy is not only a demonstrable liar; he’s also a sloppy and inartful one.

The clever dissembler knows that it’s wiser to sow doubt and confusion than to deny something outright—and that if you must deny it, be sure the denial can’t be definitively and humiliatingly debunked within hours. McCarthy broke both of those rules yesterday. In the morning, The New York Times published an article revealing how McCarthy and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell were furious at Donald Trump in the immediate aftermath of the Capitol riot on January 6, 2021.

McCarthy’s reported comments were especially revelatory. “What [Trump] did is unacceptable. Nobody can defend that and nobody should defend it,” the Californian told members of his leadership team, including Liz Cheney, days after the riot. Speaking about a prospective impeachment, he said he would tell Trump, “I think this will pass, and it would be my recommendation you should resign.”

Damaging stuff, if your political future depends on the patronage of Donald Trump and a House caucus at his command. So when the Times asked about his remarks to Cheney and others, McCarthy denied it. “The New York Times’ reporting on me is totally false and wrong,” he said in a statement that is (hilariously) still on Twitter.
We are a thousand percent confident in our sourcing on that comment,” the reporter Alex Burns told CNN Thursday morning. The reason became clear by Thursday evening: Burns was confident because the source was McCarthy himself, in an audio recording that Burns and fellow reporter Jonathan Martin released first to Rachel Maddow on MSNBC. (McCarthy hasn’t explained the discrepancy between the recording and his statement to the Times, and hasn’t responded to media outlets’ requests for comment about the issue.)
This episode offers two useful lessons. The first is a reminder that Republican leaders understood just how dangerous and egregious the insurrection was. They didn’t always say so publicly, but they grasped that Trump had fomented an attack on the physical seat of American democracy and on the Constitution, and was trying to steal the election. That’s why McConnell bluntly criticized Trump at first—though he did not vote to convict the former president in an impeachment trial triggered by the events of January 6. When he and McCarthy shrug off those events now and say they’ll support Trump if he’s the GOP nominee in 2024, they are committing an act of moral and political cowardice.
The second lesson is that Kevin McCarthy is a liar. This is no matter of shading the truth a little bit or trying to spin things or different ways of seeing a matter. When McCarthy contradicted the Times’s reporting, he said flatly that something that had happened didn’t happen—and was promptly shown to be prevaricating. (He might also have been lying to Cheney on the call; maybe he had no intention of calling Trump to urge his resignation.) His lie showed no finesse, no fun, no lawyerly parsing, no plan whatsoever. The truly accomplished liars in American politics are (like Trump) working on a larger project of mass dissembling or (like Bill Clinton) enjoying the intellectual gymnastics required. McCarthy is doing neither.
The tactical error here should probably not be a surprise. Unlike McConnell, McCarthy is not an astute political plotter. His rise in the House has been fueled by affability and ideological flexibility: He was a Bush Republican, and then he was a Tea Partier, and then he was a Trumpist.
McCarthy has already shown that he doesn’t have the muscle to rein in a GOP caucus that already defeated the defter hands of John Boehner and Paul Ryan. Still, the shamelessness and baldness of his lie, and the panicked denial, ought to make clear that McCarthy is not only unfit for office but also strategically unfit for the job of leading a party in the House—or leading the House as speaker, a position he aspires to hold if Republicans take the chamber, as expected, in November.
Whether this will immediately hurt McCarthy remains to be seen. The hasty lie shows that he was concerned it might. Deviating from the Trump line is politically hazardous for any Republican, and Trump was furious about McCarthy’s mild public criticism in January 2021. Worse for McCarthy, the House minority leader mused on the same call about whether Twitter could ban some of the more extreme members of his own caucus. Some of them already opposed McCarthy. Politico’s Playbook notes speculation that the comments might, in fact, gain McCarthy sympathy from other Republicans who were furious about January 6 but are also too scared of Trump to say so. 
The deciding factor will likely be Trump, who could break McCarthy or decide to let him hang around. The Washington Post reports that McCarthy spoke with Trump last night, and that the former president was not angry. Trump is not always quick to forgive, but he recently opted to look past J. D. Vance’s past heresies and endorse him in his bid for the Republican U.S. Senate nomination in Ohio.
What Trump got from Vance in return is the same thing he will get from McCarthy, should he decide to excuse the insult: control. The next time Trump tries some egregious violation of the rule of law, McCarthy will know better than to acknowledge it, even in private. McCarthy’s Republican detractors have floated the idea of electing Trump speaker of the House. The former president has said he has no interest, and why would he? He can have all the power and farm the work out to a humbled minion.
This is the tragedy of McCarthy’s flip-flop in January 2021. By failing to act on their rightful horror at January 6 and to stop Trump then, GOP leaders have willingly given him more power over them. That bodes ill for Kevin McCarthy’s political career, and worse for American democracy.