House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s quest to become the next speaker of the House is looking murkier because of leaked audio clips that strained his relationship with former President Donald Trump and the MAGA movement.
Mr. McCarthy’s political stumble — a lie about whether he planned to tell then-President Trump to resign after the Jan. 6 attacks — is generating a barrage of negative headlines, and handing his critics ammunition to use against him.
“I think McCarthy needs to get on this quickly,” said John Feehery, a GOP strategist. “These types of ‘scandals’ can grow a life of their own if not handled quickly.”
“I would make sure that Kevin is reaching out to his members asap to make sure that he hears their concerns directly,” he said.
Mr. McCarthy did not respond to a request for comment.
The 57-year-old California Republican has been the favorite to become the next speaker of the House if the GOP takes over control of the lower chamber in the November elections.
Mr. McCarthy’s future, though, is facing fresh doubts after he denied a New York Times report that he told lawmakers in a phone call after the Jan. 6 attack that he planned to press Mr. Trump to resign.
Mr. McCarthy said the report was “totally false.” The newspaper then released an audio recording of the phone call in which he said he would tell Mr. Trump that he’ll be impeached and “that would be my recommendation you should resign.”
Mr. McCarthy sought to smooth things out with Mr. Trump in a conversation Thursday night. Mr. Trump gave Mr. McCarthy a pass, according to a Washington Post report, which could help insulate him from critics in the House GOP caucus who have lingering doubts about his loyalty to the MAGA movement.
The recordings leaked to the New York Times, meanwhile, kept trickling out.
In audio snippets released Friday Mr. McCarthy is heard telling GOP lawmakers Mr. Trump accepted some responsibility for the storming of the U.S. Capitol and saying “I had it with this guy.”
The threat of more recordings emerging only adds to Mr. McCarthy’s woes.
It is an inopportune timing for Mr. McCarthy who has had his eye on becoming speaker. Previously, the speakership narrowly escaped him in 2015 when he ditched his bid to replace retiring then-House Speaker John Boehner, Ohio Republican.
Mr. McCarthy has worked hard to stay in the good graces of Mr. Trump after briefly splitting with him publicly over the events of Jan. 6.
Mr. McCarthy is still well-positioned to become the next House speaker according to GOP insiders who also warn that could change overnight if more daming recordings surface.
For now, most GOP lawmakers are giving him the benefit of the doubt.
“I believe Leader McCarthy over the New York Times every time,” said Rep. Paul Gosar, Arizona Republican.
Others, however, have been less forgiving.
“While I was rallying in Wyoming against Liz Cheney … Kevin McCarthy was defending Liz Cheney among House Republicans,” Rep. Matt Gaetz, Florida Republican, said on Twitter. “@GOPLeader – you should have trusted my instincts, not your own.”
Former Trump advisor Steve Bannon said the audio shows that Mr. McCarthy and the GOP establishment were plotting to “roll” Mr. Trump.
“This is like a Shakespearean drama,” Mr. Bannon said on his show “War Room: Pandemic.”
Boris Epshteyn, an advisor to the Trump 2020 campaign, said the audio is “extremely hurtful” to Mr. McCarthy’s hopes of becoming speaker.
“Kevin McCarthy has a big problem,” Mr. Epshteyn said on Mr. Bannon’s show. “He has a big problem.”