Kevin McCarthy got this one right. For about an hour.
The House majority leader appeared on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” Thursday morning and told the panel of assembled pundits what everyone paying attention already knew: Attorney General Jeff Sessions, not even a month into the job, is now so thoroughly tainted over campaign-year contact with prominent Russians that, in McCarthy’s words, “it would be easier” for all concerned if he were to recuse himself from leading any federal investigation.
And of course he should: Sessions is right in the middle of this. How is that even a question?
Nonetheless, it was refreshing to see McCarthy climb down from the White House stonewall that, of late, surrounds anything remotely Russian and concede that, yes, things are now sufficiently sticky for the attorney general.
Alas, that was too sane to be true.
The nation’s capital hadn’t yet fully digested its breakfast when McCarthy appeared on Fox News’ “Fox & Friends” to claim he’d suggested no such thing. “I’m not calling on him to recuse himself,” he said. And then, in a variation of the old “took me out of context” complaint, he noted that “it’s amazing how people spin things so quickly.”
Yes, it is, Kevin. And no finer example exists than the about-face you just pulled.
Sometimes these columns just write themselves.
It’s not difficult to imagine people of significant political stature surprised and alarmed at the congressman’s apparent acquiescence to the idea of recusal, and them telling him so.
That very afternoon, Sessions recused himself from the investigation. Talk about an inconveniently timed turn of events.
Sessions really had no choice, and McCarthy, to his credit, must have realized it. Sessions seems to have misled the U.S. Senate, having said under oath at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Jan. 10 that “I did not have communications with the Russians” while working as a top adviser to Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign. In fact he had, at least twice.
That hardly leaves Sessions in a position to lead an investigation into contact by several of President Trump’s past and present Cabinet-level advisers with high-level people within the Russian oligarchy.
“I think, (to preserve) the trust of the American people, you recuse yourself in these situations,” McCarthy said on the MSNBC program. “I just think for any investigation going forward, you want to make sure everybody trusts the investigation ... that there’s no doubt within the investigation.”
“Does that require his recusal, Congressman?” panelist Mark Halperin asked.
McCarthy answered unambiguously in the affirmative.
It’s not the first time telling the unvarnished truth has landed McCarthy in an uncomfortable situation. In September 2015, he famously suggested that the true purpose of the GOP-led Benghazi Special Committee was to hurt Hillary Clinton politically. The fallout probably cost him the chance to become speaker of the House.
Thursday’s walk-back of his original comments about Sessions only serves to reinforce the perception that McCarthy doesn’t always pursue objective truth with the same vigor as his strategic political goals. The Benghazi hearings weren’t about the debacle at the U.S. embassy in Libya, but rather about hurting Clinton’s poll numbers. The integrity of an investigation into the nature of the Trump campaign’s communications with Russians at a time, U.S. intelligence agencies unanimously concur, they were working to undermine and influence the election is not as important as safeguarding Trump’s claim to legitimacy.
McCarthy has good political instincts, let there be no doubt. He hitched his wagon to the Trump campaign at a time when many prominent Republicans were still eyeing the nominee-to-be with a mixture of dread and distrust. Speaker Paul Ryan, one of McCarthy’s closest allies, was chief among them.
McCarthy saw something none of them saw. Not the Republican establishment, not Reagan conservatives, not pollsters, not the press. And he seems to have been rewarded with access and influence.
His loyalty, however, may come with a price: the perception that he serves the president’s interests above other, more basic obligations. McCarthy would undoubtedly bristle at that suggestion, perhaps with the same annoyance he betrays when one brings up “My Kevin,” an endearment Trump recently coined within earshot of a Washington Post reporter.
But changing his opinion within the span of an hour on the question of Sessions’ recusal has the odor of that sort of loyalty.