Apr 27, 2022

The Kevin McCarthy tapes.

The Kevin McCarthy tapes.

Plus, a question about unaffiliated members of Congress.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 12 minutes.

The Kevin McCarthy recordings. Plus, a question about unaffiliated members of Congress.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy speaking at a Donald Trump rally in 2020. Photo: Gage Skidmore
Rep. Kevin McCarthy speaking at a Donald Trump rally in 2020. Photo: Gage Skidmore

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Quick hits.

  1. Vice President Kamala Harris and Sens. Chris Murphy (D-CT) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) tested positive for Covid-19. (The cases)
  2. United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres visited Russian President Vladimir Putin and urged him to end the war in Ukraine. (The meeting)
  3. The Supreme Court heard oral arguments over the so-called "remain in Mexico" policy, which requires migrants to stay in Mexico while their asylum claims are considered in the U.S. (The case)
  4. The first all-electric Ford F-150 Lightning pickup truck came off the assembly line on Tuesday. There are already 200,000 preorders for the electric version of Ford’s flagship vehicle. (The truck)
  5. Russia has cut off natural gas supplies to Poland and Bulgaria as punishment for their support of Ukraine. (The end)

Our 'Quick Hits' section is created in partnership with Ground News, a website and app that rates the bias of news coverage and news outlets.


Today's topic.

Kevin McCarthy and Republican leadership. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) is considered the favorite to become speaker of the House, replacing Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), if Republicans take control of Congress in the midterms. The position, along with Senate Majority Leader, is one of the two most powerful positions in Congress.

As such, the extent of McCarthy's loyalty to former President Donald Trump, the de facto leader of the Republican party, is one of the big questions around his potential rise. Last week, that loyalty was questioned when The New York Times reported that McCarthy and then Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) had told associates they believed President Trump was responsible for inciting the deadly riots of Jan. 6 and had vowed to drive him from politics.

McCarthy denied the report, calling it “totally false and wrong,” but a few days later the New York Times released a recording of his comments, leaving no doubt about what he’d said to Trump critic Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) — which was that he was going to advise the president to resign.

Publicly, McCarthy had initially criticized Trump for his actions on the day of Jan. 6, but has since rebuilt his relationship with Trump. However, this was the first evidence that he had been planning privately with other Republicans on how to drive Trump from the presidency weeks before the inauguration of Joe Biden.

“I’ve had it with this guy. What he did is unacceptable. Nobody can defend it, and nobody should defend it," McCarthy said. “We know it’ll pass the House," McCarthy said on the recording of impeachment proceedings. "I think there’s a chance it’ll pass the Senate.…The only discussion I would have with [Mr. Trump] is that I think this will pass, and it would be my recommendation you should resign.”

Trump has since told The Wall Street Journal that he was not upset with McCarthy.

“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."

The picture Trump was referring to was a visit McCarthy made to Mar-a-Lago shortly after Biden was inaugurated, which was widely viewed as an endorsement of Trump as the leader of the party heading into the future.

“I think it’s all a big compliment, frankly,” Trump said of Republicans who criticized him after Jan. 6 and then later expressed support for him. “They realized they were wrong and supported me.”

The recording of Republican lawmakers discussing Trump is believed to be part of a larger trove of audio and documents that continue to be leaked to the press as Congress investigates the days leading up to Jan. 6. CNN also obtained over 2,000 text messages from former Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, which were turned over as part of the Jan. 6 commission's investigation into the events that led up to the riots at the Capitol that day.

McCarthy's taped comments, his subsequent re-commitment to Trump, and the leaked texts have set off a debate about where the power centers of the GOP actually stand — and who is really in control of the party.

Below, we've got some opinions from the left and right about McCarthy and Trump, and then my take.


What the left is saying.

  • The left criticizes McCarthy's brazen lie, saying Republicans are stooping to new lows just to please Trump.
  • Many point to the absurdity of him being ashamed of taking the morally defensible position.
  • Others warn that Democrats should think twice about tanking McCarthy's speakership.

Greg Sargent called it an "abysmal" new low.

"House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy spent the weekend phoning Republicans to do damage control, Punchbowl News reports, after we learned that he seriously considered calling on Donald Trump to resign the presidency after the mob assault on the Capitol," Sargent wrote. "What offense has the California Republican atoned for in these calls? McCarthy apparently wants Republicans to know Trump has forgiven him for merely entertaining the passing thought that inciting a violent, deadly coup attempt might — might — be an offense that merits resignation. As Punchbowl puts it, in these calls, McCarthy has been 'making sure' Republicans know 'he’s good with Trump.'

"This comes after Trump clarified that their relationship has not been damaged by the leaked audio showing McCarthy discussing Trump’s potential resignation, a possibility that had surely given McCarthy night sweats," Sargent said. "For Republicans in the through-the-looking-glass world of Trumpified GOP politics, the big problem here is not that McCarthy privately concluded that Trump had committed offenses so grave that he perhaps should resign, then spent the next year minimizing those offenses and helping cover them up. Rather, it’s that McCarthy privately reached that conclusion in the first place. McCarthy’s transgression is that he originally had this thought. Once he has atoned sufficiently for this, the damage will pass.

In Slate, Ben Mathis-Lilley sarcastically noted that McCarthy was ashamed of not supporting a violent overthrow of the country.

"This was a natural response on a personal level, since all of them [members of Congress] had been inside the Capitol when a mob assaulted and pushed past a line of police officers, then smashed through windows and doors and into the building, after listening to Trump give a speech about overturning the results of the election," Mathis-Lilley wrote. "Some members of the crowd shouted that they wanted to kill the Republican vice president, and one, who was part of a group that was trying to break through internal barricades into an area where members of Congress were being evacuated, was shot to death by security. It was a frightening experience, and would not have taken place if Trump had handled his election loss differently.

"But then the spin machine started spinning: Trump insisted that he didn’t bear any responsibility for what had happened and continued to claim the election was stolen from him. Hard-line members of the Republican caucus and right-wing press said the violence had been instigated by 'the Deep State' or overblown by the liberal media, then pivoted to an argument that the individuals involved were 'patriots' being persecuted for participating in 'political discourse.' Current polls show that while Republican voters do not generally approve of the riot per se, large majorities agree that the election was stolen and don’t think Jan. 6 needs to be investigated. Trump also retains high approval within the party and is its leading candidate for the 2024 nomination. Thus, most of the figures who initially felt he [Trump] deserved to be forced out of public life because of the deadly riot have come around to an opposite position."

Arick Wierson said Democrats reveling in McCarthy's lies, hoping his bid to become speaker is derailed, should be careful what they wish for.

"McCarthy’s potential demise isn’t necessarily a good thing when considering the alternative," Wierson wrote. "Yes, his behavior is despicable and cowardly. But here’s the thing: In the rare moment of candor in which a leaked recording has permitted the world to listen in, McCarthy at least seemed to have the ability to recognize when something is way off. At least he exhibited some modicum of human sensibility, enabling him to recognize gross injustice and culpability, if only to quickly sweep it under the rug for political expediency. Make no mistake about it: What’s heard on the tape does not make McCarthy the 'good guy.' And him telling reporters — a day after the audio was released — that he 'never thought' the president should resign underscores that.

"But it could be a lot worse," Wierson said. "On one hand, we have a pusillanimous, prevaricating and somewhat feeble-minded leader who cows to Trump. But if these tapes ultimately take McCarthy out of the running for House GOP leader, we may be left with something entirely worse. We might be forced to reckon with a ruthless leader like [Jim] Jordan as head of the House GOP — the same congressman who has refused to cooperate with the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack and who forwarded a text message to then-White House chief of staff Mark Meadows forcefully pushing an unproven legal theory to try to get then-Vice President Mike Pence to object to certifying the 2020 election results."


What the right is saying.

  • The right is worried that the fight over who will be Speaker of the House will divide the party.
  • Some say the only thing that matters is what Trump and the base think of McCarthy.
  • Others argue that Republicans should stand up and say what they actually think about Trump and January 6th.

Matt Purple said the GOP has a leadership problem in the House.

"Politicians fib all the time, of course, but McCarthy’s mendacity did seem like the central point on a Venn diagram between 'dumb' and 'self-abasing.' It also put him in a terrible position. MAGA sorts are furious that McCarthy betrayed Trump. Rank-and-file Republicans are unsettled he handled this so poorly." Purple wrote. "More concerning is that this is not McCarthy’s first dunk in the tank. Back in 2015, he decided to blurt out on national TV that the Republican-established committee to investigate the Benghazi attacks was meant to discredit Hillary Clinton. This was hardly news. There were uncontacted tribes in the rainforest that understood the committee’s real purpose was to hurt Hillary’s election chances. But for the Republican House leader to say so out loud was a massive blunder — one almost impossible to imagine coming from Pelosi.

"His latest unforced error may yet be forgotten if Republicans win big in November," Purple said. "Yet there’s a lesson to be learned here too, one that should have Republicans looking unironically across the aisle. Back in 2019, the Squad, that Twitter-positive quartet of progressives, revolted against Democratic leadership. What Pelosi did next was instructive. She absolutely spit-roasted AOC and friends, isolating them as the only Democrat dissenters on a key immigration vote and then demeaning them as 'four people' who 'don’t have any following.' ... If the Republican Party wants to govern after 2022, they’re going to need to exercise power effectively. Mitch McConnell, for all his faults, is comfortable doing that. We’ll see whether a certain other nameplate remains on an office door."

W. James Antle III said what happens to McCarthy is entirely up to Trump and his base.

"The Resistance and Never Trump figures blaring for the thousandth time that GOP leaders are cowards who tremble before the 45th will not decide McCarthy’s fate," Antle III wrote. "Trump and the MAGA base will. Nearly everyone who sees in McCarthy’s comments, denial, and the subsequent proof he took a harder line on Trump’s Jan. 6 conduct in private than in public [as] a horrific betrayal of American democracy already thought that before the audio of that Republican leadership call leaked. The only thing that can change is whether the ex-president, his supporters, and rank-and-file Republicans continue to view McCarthy, who is poised to become the next speaker of the House after the midterm elections, as a trustworthy figure.

"McCarthy’s comments were a snapshot in time, representative of many in the Republican leadership," he added. "They were made in a conversation with Rep. Liz Cheney, who is still the third-ranking House Republican, four days after the attack on the Capitol. And the resignation talk was couched in the possibility of a successful impeachment, like Goldwater’s 1974 White House visit with Richard Nixon. McCarthy didn’t end up having the call to request Trump’s resignation. He did not vote for impeachment. He later went down to Mar-a-Lago to patch things up. It was another Republican leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell, Trump’s most powerful intraparty rival, who ensured there would be no conviction by not holding a Senate trial while Republicans still controlled the chamber and then opposing post-presidential impeachment afterward. This too shall pass — if Trump lets it."

Gerard Baker said Republicans in Congress should be honest that their fervent wish is that Trump goes "quietly away."

"With the exception of a few demented types in Congress and the media, they [top Republican brass] don’t believe that the 2020 election was stolen from Mr. Trump. They don’t think that the Jan. 6 riot was a legitimate act of protest or the work of federal agents provocateurs," Baker wrote. "They fear that a Trump-led Republican ticket presents them with a lose-lose proposition in 2024: Either he continues his well-established pattern of losing the party elections—the 2018 midterms, the 2020 general election, the 2021 Georgia senate runoffs—or he wins and condemns them to another, potentially even more chaotic four years of his distinctive leadership.

"But the Republican Party is too important a political institution to continue to be a vehicle for this grand deception," Baker said. "The mess the other party has made of the country in 15 months is too extensive to risk the chance of further damage. There are too many capable Republicans who uphold high conservative ideals while embracing the populist values that are energizing the party’s base, understand the need to abide by the U.S. Constitution, and believe in the importance of a Republican victory more than the satisfaction of their own self-grievance for it to be willingly shackled once again to the vanities of a cynical opportunist. Will someone speak that truth at least?"


My take.

Politicians lie. It's rare that we catch them in it so brazenly, but it's true across political parties and every kind of government. I would love to live in a country where getting caught lying so brazenly would end your political career, but unfortunately most Americans are numb to it by now. Most of us seem so inured to this that we scoff at the people with blinders on who are shocked or surprised. But maybe they're the ones seeing things clearly.

Kevin McCarthy lied. He lies a lot. He is, by sheer force of his position, incapable of not lying. He has to pretend that the anti-Trump, pro-war, old school Bush-era conservatism of Liz Cheney can coexist with Madison Cawthorne's scorched earth, "tweet through it," Republicans-are-all-involved-in-sex-drug-parties congressional membership.

Of course, these two poles of the Republican party can’t co-exist, at least not for long and not in any functional capacity. No more than "The Squad" and Joe Manchin can coexist. Eventually, one faction of the Republican party or the other is going to "win" and take the power center back. One could argue that the fight is already over, with Trump still lording over every little thing, but the 2022 and 2024 elections will be the real tests.

McCarthy is actually a fabulous case study of the current Republican party, given that his duplicitousness is a necessary prerequisite to survival. However you feel about moderate Republicans, "RINOs" (Republicans in Name Only), Trump, or the most bombastic wing of the party that includes Cawthorne, Marjorie Taylor Greene, and Lauren Boebert, there are a few things that are true:

Most Republicans in Congress hope Trump doesn't run in 2024. It's the worst kept secret in D.C., and every reporter and strategist and staff member has heard the way they talk about him when recorders aren't on. They believe his presence, and the fervent dislike of him from moderate American voters, is just about the only thing that can rescue Biden and Democrats from landslide losses. And they are probably right.

On the other hand, most Republican politicians also fear Trump. They know that with a statement, a rally or a Fox News interview, he can destroy their careers. They understand that, however they feel about him, Trump has the most important things they don't: the trust and love of the Republican base.

Most Republicans in Congress also have their own agendas: the desires of the people they represent in their districts or states, their pet projects, their own ambitions for leadership or the White House. All of these interests need to be taken into account to understand the tack Republicans take with their de facto leader.

Based on everything Trump has said and done since these revelations, I see no reason not to expect McCarthy to end up as speaker anyway, if (or when) Republicans take control of Congress. In the immediate term, the only thing Republicans can concern themselves with is ensuring a 2022 midterm sweep. And to do that, they'll need to put on brave faces and muster a modicum of unity, all while walking the line with Trump. Cross him and you'll get trashed, primaried or worse. Trump has proven he’s willing to tank fellow Republicans even if it means helping Democrats, just to settle a score. So until a majority in the House and Senate are secure, every Republican will fall in line. But the lead up to 2024 may be a different story.

In the meantime, it's worth remembering that McCarthy can't be trusted. Not that we needed any further confirmation about him or most of his colleagues, but now we have it. He was right, of course, when he said Trump's position in the party was no longer tenable. It's also not tenable to suggest Trump bears no responsibility for Jan. 6, nor is it tenable to suggest the election was stolen. And it certainly isn't tenable to suggest that Trump is the best candidate to unseat Biden in 2024, should he run again. McCarthy and his ilk, despite knowing better, will say otherwise anyway… until they get what they want. Which, in his case, is the speaker's gavel.

Have thoughts about "my take?" You can reply to this email and write in or leave a comment if you're a subscriber.


Your questions, answered.

Q: Could a person with no party affiliation be effective in Congress? While many people seem fed up with partisan politics, it also seems like a no-party candidate would need to convince voters that they can transcend the perceived binary framing for most political strategies and actually get things done from such a position.

— MaryJane, Grass Valley, California

Tangle: It's a very interesting thought experiment. And it really depends what you mean by "effective." For starters, it should be pointed out that we do have two independents in the Senate now, technically: Bernie Sanders and Angus King. Both caucus with Democrats, so they aren't really "no party affiliated," but it seems worth noting anyway.

Funny enough, if by "effective" you mean "driving the legislative agenda," I think the best time for this would have been in the last 4-5 years. Given that both Trump and Biden have operated with a 50-50 split in the Senate, a no-party affiliated senator would have outsized power to drive the direction of Congress. Shoot, just look at the impact Manchin has had, and he's a registered Democrat!

The other side of that, though, is the fact the current Senate makeup is probably the only time an unaffiliated member would really be that effective. If, say, there were 53 Republicans, 46 Democrats and 1 unaffiliated member, they'd be far more likely to simply get left out of the discussion than have any serious impact moving legislation or driving the party agenda.

If you're measuring effectiveness by public trust, that might be a different matter. If an unaffiliated member of Congress with "Tangle" style politics, one who regularly landed outside each party's lines on an issue oriented basis, I think that person could become a rockstar with the American electorate. I'm not sure how much they'd actually get done in Congress, but I definitely think their popularity and trust would outstrip other members’.

Want to ask a question? You can reply to this email and write in (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.


A story that matters.

The CDC released data from blood tests showing that the majority of Americans have now been infected with Covid-19, including 3 in 4 children. "The overall U.S. seroprevalence, or the prevalence of a disease in a population, went from 33.5% to 57.7% from December 2021 to February 2022," Axios reported. The findings confirm the high rates of infection from the Omicron variant, as well as suspicions from publicly available testing data that much of the U.S. has already had the virus at least once.


Numbers.

  • 72%. Donald Trump's approval rating among Republicans in Pennsylvania in January of 2021.
  • 77%. Donald Trump's approval rating among Republicans in Pennsylvania today.
  • 82%. The percentage of Republicans who said Biden did not legitimately win the election in the first Economist/YouGov poll conducted after the race ended.
  • 73%. The percentage of Republicans who said Biden did not legitimately win the election in the last Economist/YouGov poll conducted in April 2022.
  • 46%. The percentage of Republican voters who said they have a "very" or "somewhat" favorable opinion of Kevin McCarthy in an April poll.
  • 27%. The percentage of Republican voters who said they have a "very" or "somewhat" unfavorable opinion of Kevin McCarthy in an April poll.
  • 27%. The percentage of Republican voters who said they didn't know.

Have a nice day.

Today's “have a nice day” story is from our friends at Good Good Good — a positive news website telling real good news, not just feel good news.

In Sweden, drones are now beating ambulances to emergency scenes and saving lives. In one recent example, a 71-year-old man collapsed while shoveling his driveway. A passerby called 911, and within three minutes, a drone was hovering overhead and lowering an automated external defibrillator (AED), with instructions on how to use it. The passerby, Mustafa Ali, was able to quickly apply the device and revive the man, who had gone into cardiac arrest. Sweden has piloted the AED drone deliveries and found that 95% arrive safely and quickly, which has other countries (and companies) hopping on board this latest emergency response strategy. Good Good Good has the story.


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