House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy, under scrutiny for saying after the Jan. 6 Capitol riot that he would urge then-President Trump to resign, alluded to the turmoil during a speech Saturday night at the California GOP convention.
“As we go out to earn this majority, they’re going to attack you, they’re going to attack me. They’re going to attack President Trump,” he said, speaking of GOP aims to win control of the House in the November election.
“They’re not just going to use the Democrats; they’re going to use the media as well,” he said. “We have to be united, and we have to be prepared for it.”
The Bakersfield Republican’s speech before a friendly audience in Anaheim came after a tumultuous two days, starting with a New York Times report that he had told fellow GOP leaders in early 2021 that he planned to urge Trump to resign. McCarthy vehemently denied the report, calling it “totally false and wrong” and denigrating the reporters, but hours later, audio was released of him making such comments on a recorded call.
The 57-year-old Trump confidant has been widely expected to become the next speaker of the House — second in line to the presidency after the vice president — if the GOP takes control of the chamber in the November election as anticipated.
However, questions have swirled about his prospects since the release of the audio — less because McCarthy’s denial was proved to be false and more over speculation on Trump’s reaction to the disclosures. Some say McCarthy’s fate fully depends on the former president.
“The potential threat to McCarthy would have been if Trump went full bore against him. But without that, it’s hard for opponents to use that. He’s been very resilient and survived attacks in the past,” said Matt Shupe, chairman of the Contra Costa County Republican Party. “You would be grossly underestimating him to say that he’s down and out.”
On Friday, Trump told the Wall Street Journal that although he was not happy about McCarthy’s comments on the recording, their relationship was unharmed. McCarthy had ultimately not urged him to quit, Trump said, but had instead quickly turned to supporting the then-president.
Some say Trump’s words are a ploy to smooth over the matter until the election.
“MAGA-land is enraged…. They’re going to play nice through the election, but Kevin McCarthy is not going to be the speaker of the House if the Republicans win back the House,” said a California Republican who is closely tied into Trump’s network, and who asked for anonymity to candidly discuss the situation.
“Wherever this leaked audio came from, it’s not good for Kevin,” the source added.
Trump representatives did not respond to a request for comment.
Also Friday, facing questions after speaking to high school students in Kern County, McCarthy told reporters that he was not a liar, saying he had never asked the president to resign.
The article he called “false” did not say he’d asked Trump to resign — only that he’d told fellow Republican leaders he was considering doing so, as the recording confirmed.
“The only discussion I would have with him is I think [an impeachment resolution] would pass and it would be my recommendation you should resign,” McCarthy says in the audio recording provided to MSNBC by New York Times reporters. “I mean that would be my take, but I don’t think he would take it. But I don’t know.”
For a party licking its wounds after a crushing defeat in last year’s attempted recall of Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom, this weekend’s convention was supposed to be a moment of optimism. The walls were plastered with campaign signs. Vendors hawked hats with “Trump” spelled out in white rhinestones and bedazzled with American flags. They displayed T-shirts featuring a Rosie the Riveter-like character with a flag bandanna in her hair and “Trump” tattooed on her biceps. Drinks and food flowed freely at candidates’ hospitality suites.
Delegate Gerri Grego of South Lake Tahoe said she was most looking forward to meeting candidates. “I find that quite often when you meet someone in person, you get that inner confirmation or not about the person themselves and it helps guide you,” Grego said.
She was unaware of the McCarthy uproar.
Stacie Lehfeldt, a convention guest from Oakley, said she learned of the revelations Friday morning on television, but said she needed to learn more. “I try not to watch too much because media is so liberal, one-sided,” she said.
“I was hearing something was going on, something that he had said supposedly, and it was on a recording, but I don’t trust anything they say [is] recorded,” the 55-year-old said.
The GOP is expected to retake control of Congress due partly to rising inflation and President Biden’s low approval ratings, and because the party controlling the White House typically loses seats in the first midterm election of an administration. Speaker after speaker at the convention pointed to these issues, as well as crime and homelessness, as reasons they were hopeful about Republicans’ prospects even in a state where they are vastly outnumbered by Democrats.
Culture war issues were also a constant theme. Speakers criticized transgender athletes, warned of what they said was “indoctrination” of schoolchildren, and lambasted what they deemed to be “critical race theory.”
“This is our destiny as Republicans: to fight the evil ‘woke,’” said Eric Early, a candidate for attorney general.
GOP efforts to win statewide offices in California are long shots, with Democrats holding a nearly 23-percentage-point edge in voter registration over Republicans as of March. But there could be some good news for state Republicans after the election. If the GOP takes control of the House, McCarthy could take the speaker’s gavel from San Francisco Democratic Rep. Nancy Pelosi, who is reviled among conservatives.
“Think if you will of this time next year. The speaker of the House will be from California,” Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina said to applause at a Friday night dinner. “Now, for those of you who think I might be confused, I should have said he will be from California…. Good times are coming. Never give up. Never surrender.”
McCarthy was in the running for House speaker before, in 2015. But he dropped out of the race suddenly, saying he did not believe he could unite the divided GOP.
The former state lawmaker, who was first elected to Congress in 2006, has been a controversial figure among California Republicans. He is popular with party leadership and elected officials in part because of his fundraising prowess. In the first three months of this year, McCarthy shattered records by raising more than $31 million through his campaign committee, leadership PAC and multiple joint fundraising committees, according to the Federal Election Commission.
“When Republicans take the House, I have no doubt that he will be the next speaker of the House,” said state party Chairwoman Jessica Millan Patterson, a McCarthy protege. “He’s an amazing leader. Not only do Californians need him right now — America needs him right now.”
But grass-roots activists have long been unhappy with McCarthy’s efforts to influence who wins party nominations, and skeptical of where exactly he stands — a conundrum exemplified by his relationship with Trump even before the audio about resignation emerged.
McCarthy was among Trump’s earliest supporters in the 2016 presidential campaign and his most vocal and loyal defenders once he won office, leading Trump to affectionately label him “my Kevin.”
But McCarthy offered a dizzying set of statements after the insurrection: first saying the then-president was to blame for the violence unleashed by his supporters, then days later contradicting himself by claiming that Trump’s rally speech on Jan. 6, 2021, did not incite the mob that invaded the U.S. Capitol that day.
At the Anaheim convention, McCarthy repeatedly praised Trump.
“President Trump helped build the strongest economy in our nation’s history,” McCarthy said to a packed and appreciative room, which included hundreds who had paid $125 for the dinner before his keynote address. (Some had paid an extra $200 to attend a VIP reception and snap a picture with McCarthy.)
The former president’s strength had helped keep the nation’s enemies “at bay,” McCarthy continued. “We know what it takes to get the job done. We are fighting alongside him.”