WASHINGTON – House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy had a “positive” call with Donald Trump and appeared to be suffering little political blowback Friday from the release of audio in which he suggested the president should resign shortly after the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol insurrection.
McCarthy worked swiftly to shore up support among Republicans, calling and texting many lawmakers about his conversation with Trump as he rushed to contain the fallout. Trump himself told The Wall Street Journal that he has had “a very good relationship” with McCarthy.
In the audio, first posted Thursday by The New York Times and aired on Rachel Maddow’s MSNBC show, McCarthy is heard discussing with House Republicans the Democratic effort to remove Trump from office after the president's supporters stormed the Capitol.
In the recording of a Jan. 10, 2021, discussion, McCarthy says he would tell Trump, “I think it will pass, and it would be my recommendation you should resign.”
McCarthy released a statement Thursday calling the report “totally false and wrong.” His spokesman, Mark Bednar, told the newspaper, “McCarthy never said he’d call Trump to say he should resign.”
But on Friday, the Times released another recording, this time of a Jan. 11, 2021, Republican conference call. In the audio, McCarthy can be heard telling his caucus that he had asked the former president if he felt responsible for the deadly insurrection and that Trump acknowledged some responsibility.
“I asked him personally today, does he hold responsibility for what happened?” McCarthy says on this recording. ”Does he feel bad about what happened? He told me he does have some responsibility for what happened and he’d need to acknowledge that.”
In his first public statement since the audio was released, Trump told the Journal late Friday: “I’ve had actually a very good relationship” with McCarthy. "I like him. And other than that brief period of time, I suspect he likes me quite a bit.”
“He made a call. I heard the call. I didn’t like the call,” Trump said. “But almost immediately, as you know, because he came here and we took a picture right there — you know, the support was very strong."
When asked about the Jan. 11 recording, Trump told the Journal: “No, that’s false. I never claimed responsibility.”
The release of the audio could threaten the Republican House leader's hold on power. McCarthy is in line to become speaker if Republicans win control in the fall's election, and he is heavily reliant on Trump's support to get there. But a person familiar with McCarthy's Thursday call with Trump described it as “positive.”
“I'm not mad at you," Trump told McCarthy in a call Thursday afternoon, according to a second person familiar with the conversation. Both people were granted anonymity to discuss the call. McCarthy and his office did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the Trump call.
Trump and McCarthy had a strained relationship immediately after the Capitol attack, but mended their alliance after the GOP leader flew to the former president’s resort in Florida to patch up their differences.
The Times report Thursday was adapted from a coming book, “This Will Not Pass: Trump, Biden and the Battle for America’s Future,” by reporters Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns.
There has been no indication that McCarthy actually told Trump he should resign. In the same conversation, McCarthy told his colleagues he doubted Trump would take the advice to step aside rather than be pushed.
“That would be my recommendation,” McCarthy is heard saying in response to a question from Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., who would emerge as a staunch Trump critic. “I don’t think he will take it, but I don’t know."
The crowd that attacked the Capitol marched there from a rally near the White House where Trump had implored them to fight to overturn the election result. However, he has strongly denied responsibility for the violence.
Trump remains the most popular figure in the Republican Party, despite his role in inciting the Jan. 6 insurrection and his refusal to accept the results of the 2020 election.
McCarthy indicated during an interview with The Associated Press this week in California how important Trump remains to his party and its prospects for winning control of the House this fall. “He’ll motivate, get a lot of people out,” McCarthy said at a GOP event in Fresno.
President Joe Biden, asked about McCarthy's situation Friday, said: “This ain’t your father’s Republican Party."
Biden suggested Trump's grip on the GOP is strong. “This is a MAGA party now,” he told reporters, referring to Trump's “Make America Great Again” slogan.
The audio depicts a very different McCarthy from the one who has been leading House Republicans over the last year and a half and who has remained allied with Trump even after delivering a speech on the House floor shortly after Jan. 6, during which he called the attack on the Capitol “un-American." At the time, McCarthy called the assault among the saddest days of his career and told his fellow Republicans that Trump “bears responsibility” for the violence.
Even after the violence, though, McCarthy joined half of the House Republicans in voting to challenge Biden’s 2020 election victory.
Since then, the California Republican has distanced himself from any criticism of Trump and has avoided directly linking him to what happened. Within weeks of the siege at the Capitol, McCarthy said he did not think Trump provoked the attack, as other prominent Republicans said at the time.
Instead, McCarthy has cozied up to Trump, visiting the former president at his Florida residence at Mar-a-Lago.
McCarthy, 57, has been strategically charting his own delicate course toward the speaker's gavel, well aware of the support he'll need from hard-right members who have created headaches with inflammatory actions and statements.
No other Republican leader in the House has amassed the standing to challenge McCarthy for the leadership. McCarthy has recruited the class of newcomers bolstering GOP ranks and raised millions to bolster Republican campaigns. He has tried to temper his closest rivals, Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana and Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, even as he works to shore up the votes that would be needed to become speaker.
So long as Trump continues to back McCarthy, whom he had once fondly called “My Kevin,” the job is the Californian’s to lose.
Several Republican lawmakers came out in force Friday to defend McCarthy and reiterate that his road to speakership is still on track.
Rep. Tony Gonzales, R-Texas, tweeted that months from now, Republicans will win back the majority and “and Kevin McCarthy will be Speaker of the House.”
On a Fox Business show, Rep. Nancy Mace of South Carolina said she supports McCarthy “100%.”
Still, McCarthy has also been a person of interest for the House committee investigating the storming of the Capitol on Jan 6. The select committee, which Cheney vice-chairs, requested an interview with McCarthy in mid-January, seeking information on his communications with Trump and White House staff in the week after the violence, including a conversation with Trump that was reportedly heated.
McCarthy issued a statement at the time saying he would refuse to cooperate because he saw the investigation as not legitimate and accused the panel of “abuse of power.”
Associated Press writers Mary Clare Jalonick and Chris Megerian contributed to this report.