Talking Points

Kevin McCarthy's sin was trying to be virtuous

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) is suddenly caught in the most curious of scandals.

On Rachel Maddow's MSNBC show Thursday night, The New York Times reporters behind a new book about the Jan. 6 insurrection played a tape of a conference call between House Republican leaders following the riots. On the Jan. 10 recording, McCarthy suggested to Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) that he would seek Trump's resignation while House Democrats plotted to impeach the then-president. 

"Again, the only discussion I would have with him is that I think this will pass, and it would be my recommendation you should resign," McCarthy said of impeachment. "Um, I mean that would be my take, but I don't think he would take it. But I don't know."

The revelation probably will land McCarthy in hot water with Trump's MAGA minions in the House — Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) has already taken a shot at him — and possibly with Trump himself. McCarthy's long-held hopes of becoming speaker of the House "may have just blown up on the launchpad," Politico observed Friday morning. 

Stop a second, though, to consider the nature of the scandal. McCarthy is in trouble because — briefly and privately — he talked about doing the right thing for the country. 

At the moment McCarthy and Cheney were talking, Trump had pretty clearly broken his oath to "preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States" by trying to undermine and reverse Joe Biden's election. The reasonable thing to do at that moment was to separate Trump from power as soon as possible. Heck, it's still the correct course of action.

McCarthy is in trouble because he momentarily seemed reasonable. It's an anti-scandal.

The moment soon passed. Before long, McCarthy was trekking to Mar-a-Lago to seek Trump's blessing, and after that he helped boot Cheney from the GOP leadership team because she continued to criticize Trump and his insurrection publicly. He has placed himself firmly on the side of the former president.

But he's never had full command of his party — not the way, say, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) does in Congress' upper chamber. McCarthy always seemed a bit too needy, having whiffed on a previous shot at becoming speaker. I've long thought that he had bad odds of taking the top spot. Now those odds seem even longer, even if (as expected) the GOP wins the House majority this fall.

And that shows just how much Trump has helped distort and upend the Republican Party's sense of right and wrong. Kevin McCarthy's sin is that he once contemplated being virtuous, and he'll pay the price. Ambitious Republicans probably won't make that mistake again.