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 Capitol insurrection.
McCarthy worked swiftly to shore up support among Republicans, calling and texting many rank-and-file lawmakers about his conversation with Trump as he rushed to contain political fallout.
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 is heard discussing the Democratic effort to remove Trump from office and saying he would tell Trump, “I think it will pass, and it would be my recommendation you should resign.”
McCarthy released a statement Thursday challenging the report, calling it “totally false and wrong.” His spokesman, Mark Bednar, told the newspaper, “McCarthy never said he’d call Trump to say he should resign.”
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.”
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 the call 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 an upcoming 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.
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 Joe 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 him at the former president’s Florida residence at Mar-a-Lago as he relies on the former president’s brand for campaign support this fall.
McCarthy, 57, has been strategically charting his own delicate course toward the speaker's gavel, well aware of the challenges of leading hard-right members of the conference 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 position. McCarthy has recruited the class of newcomers bolstering GOP ranks and raised millions to bolster Republican campaigns. He has drawn his closest rivals into the fold even as he works to shore up the votes that would be needed to become speaker.
An outside group aligned with McCarthy has led fundraising ahead of the midterm elections, and rank-and-file Republicans working to regain the House majority are unlikely to be critical of the leader ahead of November.
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, sought information on McCarthy’s communications with Trump and White House staff in the week after the violence, including a conversation with Trump that was reportedly heated.
Hours after the request was made, McCarthy issued a statement saying he would refuse to cooperate because he saw the investigation as not legitimate and accused the panel of “abuse of power.”
Associated Press writer Mary Clare Jalonick contributed to this report.