KIEV – 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.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., immediately interjected, stopping the conversation from further exploring McCarthy’s assertion, and swore the Republicans present to secrecy.
Before the conversation, McCarthy and Ryan had emerged from separate talks at the U.S. Capitol with Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman, who had described a Kremlin tactic of financing populist politicians to undercut Eastern European democratic institutions.
News had just broken the day before that Russian government hackers had penetrated the computer network of the Democratic National Committee, prompting McCarthy to shift the conversation from Russian meddling in Europe to events closer to home.
Some of the lawmakers laughed at McCarthy’s comment. Then McCarthy quickly added: “Swear to God.”
Ryan instructed his Republican lieutenants to keep the conversation private, saying: “No leaks … This is how we know we’re a real family here.”
The remarks remained secret for nearly a year.
The conversation provides a glimpse at the internal views of GOP leaders who now find themselves under mounting pressure over Trump’s conduct.
But on Wednesday, McCarthy said he was just kidding.
“It’s a bad attempt at a joke; that’s all there is to it,” McCarthy told reporters at the Capitol. “No one believes it to be true from any stretch of fact.”