New reporting Friday morning in the New York Times takes aim at the “just joking” defense taken by Speaker Paul Ryan and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy in regards to the explosive report that in June of 2016 they were discussing Putin paying Donald Trump.
In 2012, the FBI warned Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) that Russian spies were trying to recruit him, officials told the New York Times, which notes, “He is one of President Trump’s staunchest allies on Capitol Hill.”
“… the F.B.I. has for years viewed Russian spies, sometimes posing as diplomats, as having a hand in Washington.”
On Wednesday, the Washington Post published an astonishing story backed up with an audio recording in which Kevin McCarthy told Paul Ryan and other Republicans in the room that he thought Russian President Vladimir Putin paid Republican Donald Trump and Dana Rohrabacher.
“There’s two people I think Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump,” McCarthy told his Republican colleagues.
This happened on June 15, 2016, just after the DNC had been hacked and after Ryan and McCarthy had talked with the Ukraine PM who warned them that the Kremlin was financing populist politicians to take aim at western democracy.
Spokespeople for the two Republican leaders flatly denied the conversation took place, until confronted with the fact that there was a recording.
McCarthy told reporters on Wednesday, “It was a bad attempt at a joke.” However, during the conversation in response to laughter, McCarthy had said, “Swear to God.” Ryan followed that with, “This is off the record.”
The same day as the audio came out of their conversation surmising that Putin pays Trump and Rohrabacher, House Republicans blocked a vote for an independent Russia probe.
The FBI did not think that Rohrabacher had been paid or that he was working with Russia, but that he would be easily used by the Russians. The FBI’s concern about Russians targeting politicians was shared with members of the House Intelligence Committee at the time, who were in on the meeting between the FBI and Rohrabacher.
Times writers Matt Apuzzo, Adam Goldman and Mark Mazzetti noted, “As for Mr. McCarthy’s remark, even if only a quip, it showed that Republican leaders were aware enough of Mr. Trump’s Russian ties six months before Election Day to joke about them.”
This awareness belies the notion that the payment comment was a joke. It seems likely that McCarthy made the remark based on the combination of the Ukraine Prime Ministers’ warning that Putin was paying populist politicians and which politicians were taking bizarrely pro-Putin stances. So while there isn’t evidence that Putin paid Trump or Rohrabacher, the larger point is that Putin does this and these two politicians behave as if they are being paid by Putin in terms of policy and attitude.
That is no laughing matter. McCarthy’s quip seems more like the kind of nervous observation made among colleagues that is so uncomfortable people titter in response. But McCarthy followed that with, “I swear to God” for a reason.
And the reason is not a secret. It’s staring us all in the face, daring us to do something about it. Russia’s goal is so much bigger than Donald Trump.