Via the Washington Post, we get to eavesdrop on what the GOP leadership really thought about the relationship between Trump and Putin almost a year ago.
KIEV, Ukraine — A month before Donald Trump clinched the Republican nomination, one of his closest allies in Congress — House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy — made a politically explosive assertion in a private conversation on Capitol Hill with his fellow GOP leaders: that Trump could be the beneficiary of payments from Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“There’s two people I think Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump,” McCarthy (R-Calif.) said, according to a recording of the June 15, 2016, exchange, which was listened to and verified by The Washington Post. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher is a Californian Republican known in Congress as a fervent defender of Putin and Russia.
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) immediately interjected, stopping the conversation from further exploring McCarthy’s assertion, and swore the Republicans present to secrecy.
Before the conversation, McCarthy and Ryan had emerged from separate talks at the Capitol with Ukrainian Prime Minister Vladimir Groysman, who had described a Kremlin tactic of financing populist politicians to undercut Eastern European democratic institutions.
News had just broken the day before in The Washington Post that Russian government hackers had penetrated the computer network of the Democratic National Committee, prompting McCarthy to shift the conversation from Russian meddling in Europe to events closer to home.
Some of the lawmakers laughed at McCarthy’s comment. Then McCarthy quickly added: “Swear to God.”
Ryan instructed his Republican lieutenants to keep the conversation private, saying: “No leaks. . . . This is how we know we’re a real family here.”
When the Post asked Speaker Ryan’s office for a comment on the story, at first they denied it. Then they were shown a transcript, which they said was made up. Then the audio recording of the conversation was played.
When initially asked to comment on the exchange, Brendan Buck, a spokesman for Ryan, said: “That never happened,” and Matt Sparks, a spokesman for McCarthy, said: “The idea that McCarthy would assert this is absurd and false.”
After being told that The Post would cite a recording of the exchange, Buck, speaking for the GOP House leadership, said: “This entire year-old exchange was clearly an attempt at humor. No one believed the majority leader was seriously asserting that Donald Trump or any of our members were being paid by the Russians. What’s more, the speaker and leadership team have repeatedly spoken out against Russia’s interference in our election, and the House continues to investigate that activity.”
“This was a failed attempt at humor,” Sparks said.
Yeah, so funny I forgot to laugh.
Rep. McCarthy is well-known for shooting off his mouth. After former Speaker John Boehner (remember him?) resigned in the fall of 2015, there was talk of making Mr. McCarthy the Speaker of the House. But he went on live TV and told the world that the House panel on Benghazi was specifically tasked with taking out Hillary Clinton; she was “untrustable,” which is exactly what the GOP planned to do as long as nobody actually admitted it. But Mr. McCarthy couldn’t restrain himself.
So it’s no surprise that he would be caught on tape talking about Trump and Putin and Paul Ryan had to shut him up.
In the larger context, even if Mr. McCarthy was joking, the rest of the GOP had to know that even the illusion of collusion between Trump and Putin was already making itself known. A year ago the press was already sniffing around Paul Manafort’s connection with the pro-Putin forces in Ukraine, and it was only after it was made glaringly obvious he was on the take from the Russians that he left the campaign. And now we have the staff meeting of the Trump-Putin alliance in the Oval Office last week.
I’m old enough to remember that time when even a hint of a Russian influence in American politics was the kiss of death. Now it’s an endorsement.