Kevin McCarthy's explosive "joke" points toward a darker questions: How long have leading Republicans known about Donald Trump's Russia problem?

"Putin pays . . . Trump," said the House majority leader a year ago. "Swear to God." How much did he really know?

By Heather Digby Parton


Published May 18, 2017 8:15AM (EDT)

Kevin McCarthy   (Getty/Jim Watson)
Kevin McCarthy (Getty/Jim Watson)
As happens almost every day, Wednesday featured a late-breaking bombshell Trump story. This one was the welcome news that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein had done his job and appointed a special counsel to take over the Russian investigation. He made a good choice by picking Robert Mueller, the former U.S. attorney and FBI director for 12 years under both George W. Bush's and Barack Obama's administrations.

All in all, Mueller is probably the best we could have hoped for at this moment, although some expert observers like Marcy Wheeler are concerned that the investigation's scope is not broad enough. My recollection of special counsels (and special prosecutors, which are not exactly the same thing) is that their investigations are always broadened over time as evidence develops. So I'd imagine that will be likely here, too. And as Ian Milhiser at Think Progress reported, there are some safeguards that will prevent Trump from pushing Mueller around. This seems like a positive step for the investigation, but it may also mean the torrent of leaks will probably dry up a bit, which is bad for the political necessity of stopping the GOP agenda.

[salon_video id="14768260"]

Even though the Mueller appointment is was very big news, the real bombshell was something else entirely, which may reshape that political problem. At almost the same moment that the special counsel was named, The Washington Post dropped this stunning story:

A month before Donald Trump clinched the Republican nomination, one of his closest allies in Congress — House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy — made a politically explosive assertion in a private conversation on Capitol Hill with his fellow GOP leaders: that Trump could be the beneficiary of payments from Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“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 Post story went on to say that there was some laughter on the tape and McCarthy then added, "swear to God." House Speaker Paul Ryan stepped in at that point to demand secrecy about McCarthy's comment saying, “No leaks. . . . This is how we know we’re a real family here.”

Apparently, just prior to when McCarthy made his comments, the group had been in a serious discussion about Russian interference in European politics, based on a meeting Ryan and McCarthy had just had with Ukraine's Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman. It was just one day after the news broke about the hacking of the Democratic National Committee emails, which was what prompted McCarthy to start talking about possible Russian influence in American politics.

Adam Entous, The Washington Post reporter who broke the story appeared on MSNBC's "Hardball" with Chris Matthews last night and said that when he first asked the offices of Ryan and McCarthy for comment, they denied that any such conversation had ever taken place. He then told them he had a transcript of he conversation, and they claimed it was fake. Only after they were told that Entous actually had a recording did they move to the position that it all had been a big joke. (Some of President Trump's defenders have been saying his alleged comment to James Comey about letting Michael Flynn off the hook was also a joke. There's no word on why he wouldn't have been able to make such a wisecrack with Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Vice President Mike Pence in the room.)

If there is one person we can count on to spill the beans, it's Kevin McCarthy. He has the worst case of foot-in-mouth disease in Washington. Recall that he was widely considered to be former House Speaker John Boehner's heir apparent until he went on TV and admitted what the Republicans were up to. McCarthy said, “Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right? But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping. Why? Because she’s untrustable."

Setting aside the embarrassing neologism, his admission that the Benghazi committee was a farce ended up costing him the speaker's job. He's still the House majority leader because Ryan took the speaker job only on the condition that he wouldn't have to dirty his hands with nonstop fundraising, which is McCarthy's special talent. One imagines that donors love him for his willingness to dish. He is completely devoid of all discretion.

Concerning the Russia comment, it's easy to understand why McCarthy would point to Dana Rohrabacher. The California congressman's affection for Vladimir Putin and Russia was so well-known that it inspired me to write a piece for Salon last summer suggesting that he would make the perfect running mate for Donald Trump. (He was unhappy about another aspect of that article, but didn't dispute that he had a penchant for all things Russian.) Rohrabacher was most recently spotted making a pilgrimage to France to pay fealty to Marine Le Pen, the French right-wing presidential candidate favored by Putin  so his interests in that regard haven't waned.

But what about Trump? This meeting happened in June 2016. At that point in the election cycle, he was certainly known to have made flattering comments about the Russian president and had been flattered in return. There was lots of joking about his affection for dictators and strongmen. But there hadn't any public talk until that point, about the Trump campaign's being affiliated with Russia. His comments asking the Russians to hack Hillary Clinton's emails certainly raised eyebrows, but suspicion didn't start bubbling up in earnest until campaign manager Paul Manafort's ties to the previous pro-Putin government in Ukraine came under scrutiny and he was forced to resign in August.

Keep in mind, McCarthy said this just one day after The Washington Post had reported for the first time that Russians were suspected of the DNC email hacking. We don't know what information any GOP-ers had at the time, but it's clear that these top-level Republicans were talking among themselves about possible interference in the election a full year ago. Maybe they genuinely thought it was hilarious but the fact that they never bothered to step up at any point as this issue emerged and have stonewalled the investigations all along suggests other possible interpretations.

But then, as I've written before, the GOP-dominated House majority was a major beneficiary of the Russian hacking, a fact that rarely seems to get mentioned in all this. So I'll ask once again, in light of the fact that Ryan and McCarthy seem to have been aware of these possible Russian shenanigans much earlier than the rest of us: What did the majority leader and the speaker of the House know about Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump? And when did they know it?

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

MORE FROM Heather Digby Parton