A mob incited by President Donald Trump storms the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Jan. 6, 2021. House Minority Leader. In the days after the attack, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy planned to ask Trump to resign. Mitch McConnell told allies impeachment was warranted. But their fury faded fast. (Jason Andrew/The New York Times)
In the days after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol building, the two top Republicans in Congress, Rep. Kevin McCarthy and Sen. Mitch McConnell, told associates they believed President Donald Trump was responsible for inciting the deadly riot and vowed to drive him from politics.
McCarthy went so far as to say he would push Trump to resign immediately: “I’ve had it with this guy,” he told a group of Republican leaders, according to an audio recording of the conversation obtained by The New York Times.
But within weeks both men backed off an all-out fight with Trump
because they feared retribution from him and his political movement. Their drive to act faded fast as it became clear it would mean difficult votes that would put them at odds with most of their colleagues.
“I didn’t get to be leader by voting with five people in the conference,” McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, told a friend.
The confidential expressions of outrage from McCarthy and McConnell, which have not been previously reported, illustrate the immense gulf between what Republican leaders say privately about Trump
and their public deference to a man whose hold on the party has gone virtually unchallenged for half a decade.
The leaders’ swift retreat in January 2021 represented a capitulation at a moment of extraordinary political weakness for Trump
— perhaps the last and best chance for mainstream Republicans to reclaim control of their party from a leader who had stoked an insurrection against American democracy itself.
This account of the discussions among Republican leaders in the days after the Jan. 6 attack is adapted from a new book, “This Will Not Pass: Trump, Biden
and the Battle for America’s Future,” which draws on hundreds of interviews with lawmakers and officials, and recordings of private conversations.
McConnell’s office declined to comment. In a statement on Twitter early Thursday, McCarthy called the reporting “totally false and wrong.” His spokesperson, Mark Bednar, denied that the Republican leader told colleagues he would urge Trump to leave office. “McCarthy never said he’d call Trump to say he should resign,” Bednar said.
But the recording tells a different story.
McCarthy did not immediately respond to a request for comment after the Times published the audio clip Thursday night.
No one embodies the stark accommodation to Trump more than McCarthy, a 57-year-old Californian who has long had his sights set on becoming speaker of the House. In public after Jan. 6, McCarthy issued a careful rebuke of Trump, saying that he “bears responsibility” for the mob that tried to stop Congress from officially certifying the president’s loss. But he declined to condemn him in sterner language.
In private, McCarthy went much further.
On a phone call with several other top House Republicans on Jan. 8, McCarthy said Trump’s conduct on Jan. 6 had been “atrocious and totally wrong.” He faulted the president for “inciting people” to attack the Capitol, saying that Trump’s remarks at a rally on the National Mall that day were “not right by any shape or any form.”
During that conversation, McCarthy inquired about the mechanism for invoking the 25th Amendment — the process whereby the vice president and members of the Cabinet can remove a president from office — before concluding that was not a viable option. McCarthy, who was among those who objected to the election results
, was uncertain and indecisive, fretting that the Democratic drive to impeach Trump would “put more fuel on the fire” of the country’s divisions.
But McCarthy’s resolve seemed to harden as the gravity of the attack — and the potential political fallout for his party — sank in. Two members of Trump’s Cabinet had quit their posts after the attack and several moderate Republican governors had called for the president’s resignation. Video clips of the riot kept surfacing online, making the raw brutality of the attack ever more vivid in the public mind.
On Jan. 10, McCarthy spoke again with the leadership team.
When Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming asked about the chances Trump might resign, McCarthy said he was doubtful, but he had a plan.
The Democrats were driving hard at an impeachment resolution, McCarthy said, and they would have the votes to pass it. Now he planned to call Trump and tell him it was time for him to go.
McCarthy said he would tell Trump of the impeachment resolution: “I think this will pass, and it would be my recommendation you should resign,” he said, according to the recording of the call, which runs just over an hour. The Times has reviewed the full recording of the conversation.
He acknowledged it was unlikely Trump would follow that suggestion.
“What he did is unacceptable. Nobody can defend that, and nobody should defend it,” he told the group.
McCarthy spent the four years of Trump’s presidency as one of the White House’s most obedient supporters in Congress. Since Trump’s defeat, McCarthy has appeased far-right members of the House, some of whom are close to the former president. McCarthy may need their support to become speaker, a vote that could come as soon as next year if the GOP claims the House in November.
But in a brief window after the storming of the Capitol, McCarthy contemplated a total break with Trump and his most extreme supporters.
Other Republican leaders in the House agreed with McCarthy that the president’s behavior deserved swift punishment. Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the second-ranking House Republican, said on one call that it was time for the GOP to contemplate a “post-Trump Republican House,” while Rep. Tom Emmer of Minnesota, the head of the party’s House campaign committee, suggested censuring Trump.
Yet none of the men followed through on their tough talk in those private conversations.
In the following days, McCarthy heard from some Republican lawmakers who advised against confronting Trump. In one group conversation, Rep. Bill Johnson of Ohio cautioned that conservative voters back home “go ballistic” in response to criticism of Trump, demanding that Republicans instead train their denunciations on Democrats, such as Hillary Clinton and Hunter Biden.
“I’m just telling you that that’s the kind of thing that we’re dealing with, with our base,” Johnson said.
When only 10 House Republicans joined with Democrats to support impeaching Trump on Jan. 13, the message to McCarthy was clear.
By the end of the month, he was pursuing a rapprochement with Trump, visiting him at Mar-a-Lago and posing for a photograph. (“I didn’t know they were going to take a picture,” McCarthy said, somewhat apologetically, to one frustrated lawmaker.)
McCarthy has never repeated his denunciations of Trump, instead offering a tortured claim that the real responsibility for Jan. 6 lies with security officials and Democratic legislative leaders for inadequately defending the Capitol complex.
In the Senate, McConnell’s reversal was no less revealing. Late on the night of Jan. 6, McConnell predicted to associates that his party would soon break sharply with Trump and his acolytes; the Republican leader even asked a reporter in the Capitol for information about whether the Cabinet might really pursue the 25th Amendment.
When that did not materialize, McConnell’s thoughts turned to impeachment.
On Monday, Jan. 11, McConnell met over lunch in Kentucky with two longtime advisers, Terry Carmack and Scott Jennings. Feasting on Chick-fil-A in Jennings’ Louisville office, the Senate Republican leader predicted Trump’s imminent political demise.
“The Democrats are going to take care of the son of a bitch for us,” McConnell said, referring to the imminent impeachment vote in the House.
Once the House impeached Trump, it would take a two-thirds vote of the Senate to convict him. That would have required the votes of all 50 Democrats and at least 17 Republicans in the Senate — a tall order, given that Trump’s first impeachment trial in 2020 had ended with just one Republican senator, Mitt Romney of Utah, voting in favor of conviction.
But McConnell knew the Senate math as well as anyone and he told his advisers he expected a robust bipartisan vote for conviction. After that, Congress could then bar Trump from ever holding public office again.
The president’s behavior on Jan. 6 had been utterly beyond the pale, McConnell said. “If this isn’t impeachable, I don’t know what is,” he said.
In private, at least, McConnell sounded as if he might be among the Republicans who would vote to convict. Several senior Republicans, including John Thune of South Dakota and Rob Portman of Ohio, told confidants that McConnell was leaning that way.
Chuck Schumer, the Senate Democratic leader, privately told the leaders of several liberal advocacy groups that he believed his Republican counterpart was angry enough to go to war with Trump.
“I don’t trust him, and I would not count on it,” Schumer said of McConnell. “But you never know.”
Schumer was right to be skeptical: Once the proceedings against Trump moved from the House to the Senate, McConnell took the measure of Republican senators and concluded that there was little appetite for open battle with a man who remained — much to McConnell’s surprise — the most popular Republican in the country.
In February, McConnell voted to acquit Trump even as seven other Senate Republicans joined with Democrats to muster the largest bipartisan vote ever in favor of conviction in a presidential impeachment trial. Anxious not to be seen as surrendering to Trump, McConnell went to the Senate floor after the vote to deliver a scorching speech against the former president.
But McConnell went mostly silent about Trump after that point. He avoids reporters’ questions about the former president and only rarely speaks about Jan. 6. In a Fox News interview in late February 2021, McConnell was asked whether he would support Trump in 2024 if the former president again became the GOP nominee for the presidency.
McConnell answered: “Absolutely.”
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