Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the House Republican leader, feared in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 attack that several far-right members of Congress would incite violence against other lawmakers, identifying several by name as security risks in private conversations with party leaders.
McCarthy talked to other congressional Republicans about wanting to rein in multiple hard-liners who were deeply involved in Donald Trump’s efforts to contest the 2020 election and undermine the peaceful transfer of power, according to an audio recording obtained by The New York Times.
But McCarthy did not follow through on the sterner steps that some Republicans encouraged him to take, opting instead to seek a political accommodation with the most extreme members of the party in the interests of advancing his own career.
McCarthy’s remarks represent one of the starkest acknowledgments from a Republican leader that the party’s rank-and-file lawmakers played a role in stoking violence on Jan. 6, 2021 — and posed a threat in the days after the Capitol attack. Audio recordings of the comments were obtained in reporting for a forthcoming book, “This Will Not Pass: Trump, Biden and the Battle for America’s Future.”
In the phone call with other Republican leaders on Jan. 10, McCarthy referred chiefly to Reps. Matt Gaetz of Florida and Mo Brooks of Alabama as endangering the security of other lawmakers and the Capitol complex. But he and his allies discussed several other representatives who made comments they saw as offensive or dangerous, including Lauren Boebert of Colorado and Barry Moore of Alabama.
The country was “too crazy,” McCarthy said, for members to be talking and tweeting recklessly at such a volatile moment.
Brooks and Gaetz were the prime offenders in the eyes of party leaders. Brooks addressed the Jan. 6 rally on the National Mall, which preceded the Capitol riot, using incendiary language. After Jan. 6, Gaetz went on television to attack multiple Republicans who had criticized Trump, including Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, a member of the leadership team.
Those comments by Gaetz alarmed McCarthy and his colleagues in leadership — particularly the reference to Cheney, who was already the target of threats and public abuse from Trump’s faction in the party because of her criticism of the defeated president.
“He’s putting people in jeopardy,” McCarthy said of Gaetz. “And he doesn’t need to be doing this. We saw what people would do in the Capitol, you know, and these people came prepared with rope, with everything else.”
Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the No. 2 House Republican, suggested that Gaetz might be crossing a legal boundary.
“It’s potentially illegal what he’s doing,” Scalise said.
Referring to Brooks, McCarthy said the Trump loyalist had behaved even worse on Jan. 6 than Trump, who told the crowd assembled on the National Mall to “fight like hell” before his supporters stormed the Capitol in an attempt to disrupt the electoral vote count. Brooks told the rally that it was “the day American patriots start taking down names and kicking ass.”
“You think the president deserves to be impeached for his comments?” McCarthy asked rhetorically. “That’s almost something that goes further than what the president said.”
Speaking about rank-and-file lawmakers to his fellow leaders, McCarthy was sharply critical and suggested he was going to tell them to stop their inflammatory conduct.
“Our members have got to start paying attention to what they say, too, and you can’t put up with that,” he said, adding an expletive.
McCarthy and Scalise did not respond to a request for comment.
Brooks on Tuesday dismissed the Republican leader’s criticism and noted that a lawsuit brought against him by a Democratic member of Congress for his Jan. 6 speech had been dismissed in court.
“Kevin McCarthy spoke before knowing the facts,” Brooks said, adding that he did not recall McCarthy ever speaking with him directly about his speech.
During the Jan. 10, 2021, phone call, McCarthy was speaking with a small group of Republican leaders, including Scalise, Cheney and Rep. Tom Emmer of Minnesota, as well as a number of aides.
It was on this party leadership call that McCarthy told his colleagues he would call Trump and tell him, “it would be my recommendation you should resign.”
The House minority leader has in recent days lied about and tried to downplay his comments: Last week, after the Times reported the remarks, McCarthy called the report “totally false and wrong.” After McCarthy’s denial, a source who had confidentially shared a recording of the call with the book’s authors agreed to let the Times publish parts of the audio. In the days since that recording has been made public, the Republican leader has repeated his denial and emphasized that he never actually carried out his plan to urge Trump to quit.
McCarthy’s comments casting other Republican lawmakers as a menace within Congress illustrate the difference between how he spoke about his own party right after Jan. 6, in what he imagined to be strict confidence, and the way he has interacted with those lawmakers in the 15 months since then.
On the Jan. 10 call, McCarthy said he planned to speak with Gaetz and ask him not to attack other lawmakers by name. The following day, in a larger meeting for all House Republicans, McCarthy pleaded with lawmakers not to “incite” but rather to “respect one another.”
But in his determination to become speaker of the House after the 2022 elections, McCarthy has spent much of the past year forging a closer political partnership with the far right, showing little public concern that his most extreme colleagues could instigate bloodshed with their overheated or hateful rhetoric.
In recent months McCarthy has opposed punishing Republican members of Congress who have been accused of inciting violence, including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and, most recently, Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona, who posted an animated video on social media that depicted him killing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, the left-wing Democrat.
In the case of Gosar, McCarthy told reporters he spoke with him about the video and noted that Gosar had issued a statement disavowing violence. But McCarthy opposed a resolution to censure Gosar and remove him from his committee assignments.
McCarthy also ignored a remark by Brooks last year when, after a man was arrested in connection with a bomb threat to the Capitol, Brooks said he understood citizens’ “anger directed at dictatorial socialism and its threat to liberty, freedom and the very fabric of American society.”
Yet immediately after Jan. 6, McCarthy saw a clear link between the comments of some lawmakers and the potential for future violence. On Jan. 10, he urged his fellow Republican leaders to keep a close eye on members like Brooks and Gaetz and asked them to alert him if they saw any potentially dangerous public communications.
McCarthy said it was particularly unacceptable for lawmakers to attack other lawmakers with whom they disagreed about the outcome of the 2020 election: “That stuff’s got to stop.”
“The country is too crazy,” McCarthy said. “I do not want to look back and think we caused something or we missed something and someone got hurt. I don’t want to play politics with any of that.”
On the leadership call, McCarthy, Scalise and others discussed several other lawmakers who had made provocative comments around Jan. 6, including Moore and Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas. Cheney, who was on the call, suggested Boebert was a security risk, pointing out that she had publicly tweeted about the sensitive movements of other lawmakers during the Jan. 6 evacuation.
McCarthy also inquired about Greene and whether she had addressed the Jan. 6 rally.
Moore, like Brooks a far-right Alabama conservative, tweeted on the weekend after Jan. 6 about the fatal shooting of a rioter, Ashli Babbitt, by a member of the Capitol Police force, noting that “it was a Black police officer who shot the white female veteran,” and added: “You know that doesn’t fit the narrative.”
Immediately after that comment was read aloud on the call, McCarthy expressed a wish that the big social media companies would ban some members of the Republican conference, as they had done with Trump after the insurrection.
“Can’t they take their Twitter accounts away, too?” McCarthy asked.
Boebert, Moore, Gohmert, Greene and Gaetz did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Much like his handling of Trump, McCarthy quickly lost his will to confront the far right, including the lawmakers most directly involved in spurring the Jan. 6 riot. His handling of Brooks was a case in point.
On the Jan. 10 call, Scalise told McCarthy that there was talk among some Republicans of punishing Brooks by stripping him of his committee assignments. McCarthy did not respond to the idea directly but inquired what committees Brooks had seats on.
A push to punish Brooks came from within the Republican steering committee, an influential organizing panel that hands out committee seats to members of the party. One member of the committee, Rep. Steve Womack, a retired National Guard colonel from Arkansas, was horrified by Brooks’ conduct and led the charge to punish him.
At the first session of the steering committee after Jan. 6, Womack played tape of Brooks’ speech for his colleagues, including McCarthy.
“I saw jaws drop,” said Womack, a sober-minded conservative usually loyal to party leadership, said in an interview for the book.
By Womack’s account, McCarthy asked to postpone dealing with Brooks until the next meeting of the steering committee. But when the body convened again later in January, McCarthy had already lost his appetite for taking on Brooks.
Womack quit the steering committee in protest, warning McCarthy and his colleagues that Republicans would come to regret their refusal to take action.
“I cannot tell you how angry I was,” Womack said.
He sent a resignation letter to McCarthy but received no response.
McCarthy’s handling of the episode, Womack said, “demonstrated a lack of leadership.”