Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy in 2016: 'I think Putin pays' Trump (Updated)

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy told a group of Republicans last year that there were two individuals he believed were on Putin’s payroll, one of them was Donald Trump. From the Washington Post which is presenting this as a serious scoop:

“There’s two people I think Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump,” McCarthy (R-Calif.) said, according to a recording of the June 15, 2016 exchange, which was listened to and verified by The Washington Post. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher is a Californian Republican known in Congress as a fervent defender of Putin and Russia.

The context here, which you can see for yourself in the full transcript of the audio tape leaked to the Post, is that both Rep. McCarthy and Speaker Paul Ryan had just met with the Ukrainian Prime Minister that morning. The prime minister had described how the Kremlin was interfering in Ukranian politics. That combined with the then-breaking news that Russia had hacked the DNC sparked McCarthy’s comments. Here’s the actual transcript of the exchange:

McCarthy: There’s…there’s two people, I think, Putin pays: Rohrabacher and
Trump…[laughter]…swear to God.

Ryan: This is an off the record…[laughter]…NO LEAKS…[laughter]…alright?!


Ryan: This is how we know we’re a real family here.

Scalise: That’s how you know that we’re tight.


Ryan: What’s said in the family stays in the family.

Note the frequent laughter indicated in the transcript. Paul Ryan’s spokesman Brendan Buck initially denied McCarthy had made any such comment but later clarified it was taken at the time as a joke:

After being told that The Post would cite a recording of the exchange, Buck, speaking for the GOP House leadership, said: “This entire year-old exchange was clearly an attempt at humor. No one believed the majority leader was seriously asserting that Donald Trump or any of our members were being paid by the Russians. What’s more, the speaker and leadership team have repeatedly spoken out against Russia’s interference in our election, and the House continues to investigate that activity.”

“This was a failed attempt at humor,” Sparks said.

Buck clarified his own initial denial on Twitter:

Obviously, McCarthy’s comment doesn’t add anything to our knowledge about the Trump collusion story. At worst it provides some political cover for Democrats who have been saying for months, without evidence, that they believe the collusion story is true.

Update: McCarthy was asked about the comments by NBC News and said he was joking: