The House minority leader, Kevin McCarthy, has said his job involves walking “the tightest tightrope anyone has to walk” – shedding light on his very public refusal to answer a question about a conversation with Donald Trump during the Capitol attack.
Appearing on Fox News Sunday, the Republican dodged twice when asked whether during the deadly riot on 6 January, when he asked the former president to call off supporters told to “fight like hell” to overturn the election, Trump said: “Well, Kevin, I guess these people were more upset about the election than you are.”
The question concerned Trump’s refusal to act but McCarthy’s refusal to answer was widely noted – and mentioned in a profile in the New York Times.
“He could change the whole course of history,” McCarthy told the paper, discussing Trump’s sway on the party. “This is the tightest tightrope anyone has to walk.”
Critics say McCarthy is not walking it elegantly, given his support for Trump’s lie that his defeat by Joe Biden was caused by electoral fraud. Speaking to the Times, McCarthy said Trump “goes up and down with his anger. He’s mad at everybody one day. He’s mad at me one day.”
According to Jaime Herrera Beutler, a Republican, Trump was dismissive of McCarthy during their 6 January call, during a riot which left five dead, saw rioters seek to kill Mike Pence, the then vice-president, and resulted in a second impeachment.
McCarthy reportedly responded: “Who the fuck do you think you are talking to?”
The Times quoted a friend saying at the time McCarthy was “depressed in this job” and “just really down”. But McCarthy recovered, flying to Mar-a-Lago to make nice soon after Trump left power.
McCarthy defended his own votes against certifying election results in Arizona and Pennsylvania, saying if those states had been overturned, Biden would still have been president.
“That was the only time that we could raise the issue that there was a question in the activities in those states,” he said.
Republicans in Arizona are now conducting an audit of election results which critics say undermines faith in democracy.
Asked by the Times about controversial Republicans such as Marjorie Taylor Greene, the far-right Georgia representative stripped of committee assignments for conspiracy laced comments including saying the speaker, Nancy Pelosi, should be killed, McCarthy said: “Look, I work with people I don’t get to hire.”
He also said he had not spoken to Biden since inauguration day, and reportedly showed pictures of the two men together when the Democrat was vice-president.
The Times described the scene in McCarthy’s office in the Capitol when the mob broke in, saying a friend, the Arkansas Republican Bruce Westerman, was left there alone, choosing a civil war sword to defend himself.
“Friends,” the paper said, “describe the post-election period as traumatic for Mr McCarthy, who publicly perpetuated the fiction that Mr Trump had won while privately asking him to stop.”
The paper also said that “whenever the former president’s name came up in these interviews, Mr McCarthy would lower his voice and speak haltingly, wary of not casting Mr Trump in a way that might upset him.
“‘Is this story going to be all about Trump?’ Mr McCarthy asked, after back-to-back questions on him. He then paused, seemingly bracing for a ceiling fan to drop on his head.”