House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., says he is keeping his options open when it comes to who should be the Republican nominee for the White House in 2024, even as he keeps in regular contact with the party’s choice in the last two presidential elections.
In an interview at his office in Washington. D.C., McCarthy told Spectrum News that he and former President Donald Trump speak "once or twice a month."
"He calls me or I check in with him," McCarthy said, adding: "I've talked to a lot of people who say they might run for president too. So I talk to people on both sides of the aisle."
It’s not unusual for a Speaker of the House to stay out of the primary process, in order to avoid any awkwardness if someone other than their choice wins, Catholic University professor and congressional leadership expert Matt Green explains.
“I think it's also just just the right thing to do to say, 'I'm going to keep my powder dry and see who the party nominates because the speaker doesn't nominate the president for a party,'" Green said. "It's voters who do that."
But this isn’t just any candidate – nor any speaker.
Trump referred to McCarthy as “my Kevin” while he was president and McCarthy worked closely with him as the top House Republican. McCarthy staunchly defended Trump during Trump’s first impeachment, arguing the investigation was politically motivated.
Two years later, after Trump’s supporters had stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, trying to prevent Joe Biden from becoming president, McCarthy did join other lawmakers in criticizing Trump.
“The president bears some responsibility for [the] attack on Congress by mob rioters," he said on the House floor a week later. "He should have immediately denounced the mob when he saw what was unfolding."
But one week after Trump left office, when he had few allies in Washington still willing to defend him publicly, McCarthy visited Trump at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. Trump shared a photo of them, a signal that he had at least one friend in the highest ranks of the GOP. McCarthy has defended the visit, saying he can talk to anyone.
Green offered another explanation for McCarthy’s visit to Mar-a-Lago: "He's a very political animal, I think. So he's thinking a lot about, you know, what does the Party want? What, what does the grassroots want? What do members of my party want?”
"Sometimes you have to think past that and think what's good for the chamber, what's good for American democracy?" Green continued. "So I think for a short time, McCarthy, that latter instinct kicked in, but then he went back to the well, 'I've got to think about Trump. He's the leader of our party.'”
Now, the party as a whole is divided over whether to rally behind Trump once again or move on to another candidate in 2024.
As the highest-ranking Republican in Washington, McCarthy is trying to straddle that divide.
The speaker chooses his words carefully when talking about the former president. While some on the right have tried to downplay the violence of the Jan. 6 attack, McCarthy is clear he does not see it as a peaceful protest.
“I don't support what happened on Jan. 6, and the fight with officers and others,” McCarthy said when asked about his decision to give Fox News host Tucker Carlson more than 41,000 hours of archived Capitol surveillance footage from the Jan. 6, 2021, attack at the U.S. Capitol.
Speaking to Spectrum News, McCarthy downplayed his decision to release the footage, which Carlson used to falsely categorize the insurrection as “mostly peaceful chaos.”
When asked if he agreed with Carlson's assessment, McCarthy said he does not support what transpired that day.
“Look, there’s many times it wasn’t peaceful,” McCarthy said. “I don’t support what happened on Jan. 6, and the fighting with officers and others ... There's a better way to have a peaceful protest.”
When pressed about when the footage will be made available to all news outlets, McCarthy said that “we’ll get [the video] out to everybody,” but did not provide an estimated date.
“The hard part is, it’s a lot more hours than the Democrats ever told us — they said it was only 14,000 hours, but it’s 41,000 hours, and we want to be thoughtful about this…but we’ll get it out, because I believe in transparency.”
Trump meanwhile continues to make false claims that President Joe Biden was not legitimately elected. When asked by Spectrum News if that rhetoric is harmful and divisive, McCarthy demurred.
"Well, you can ask the people who say that," he said, listing his legislative priorities – like border security, parents' choice in education and reducing the deficit – instead. "If someone’s saying that, go talk to them about that, because we're focused on just making this country work."