6 Months Later, Kevin McCarthy Has Not Changed

In a talk to college students, the former House speaker showed his charm, his unwillingness to forget, and his ability to always ask, ‘What about…?’

Bakersfield, California, product Kevin McCarthy may no longer be in the House speaker’s chair, but the traits that got him there — and arguably also resulted in him being the first speaker ever ousted — remained on display Tuesday night.

In an hour-plus talk before a Georgetown University student audience six months after he was unceremoniously stripped of the House’s top job, McCarthy was by turns charming, a tad bitter, and still eager to challenge critical questions with a handy dose of whataboutism.

The talk, entitled “How Strong Is Our Democracy,” allowed questions only from Georgetown students, not members of the press.

And the students had some good ones: In one of the most direct challenges, a student asked McCarthy if he had turned his back on democracy by rehabilitating former president Donald Trump, infamously taking a photo with him at Mar-A-Lago only weeks after he had publicly blamed him for the Jan. 6 sacking of the U.S. Capitol and saying Trump should lead the party.

Once applause for the questioner died down, McCarthy said he had to challenge the premise. “If I let your question stand and just answer it the way it was, then people would think what you said was true,” he said.

“Did I go to Mar-a-Lago? Yeah. But I didn’t say that at Mar-a-Lago, or that basis, right? So that’s not true,” McCarthy said.

He said Trump has asked him to visit while McCarthy was in the area for a fundraiser. He agreed to drop by, he said, without telling anyone else it was happening.

“Thirty minutes later, The New York Times has it. I thought I was going to go by and no one was going to know about it,” he said. Trump asked him if McCarthy or his staff had leaked it, and McCarthy said no. He asked, McCarthy said, if he thought Trump’s staff had leaked it. McCarthy said no.

“‘Who do you think leaked it?’” he said Trump asked. “You,” McCarthy replied.

“And he looks at me, and he goes, ‘Well, it’s good for both of us, you know.’”

At another point, McCarthy was pressed by the moderator on McCarthy’s equating Democratic challenges to the elections of Republican presidents and the one he supported by voting on the House floor against certification with President Joe Biden’s election in 2020.

McCarthy said the key difference was the number of electoral votes Republicans challenged on Trump’s behalf was not actually enough to overturn the election.

“Challenging something doesn’t mean you’re overturning something. A challenge is a challenge,” he said. “A challenge is, ‘Is there something wrong here? Can you answer the question?’”

McCarthy also blamed fellow former Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for politicizing so much during her final tenure from 2019 to 2023, including, he said, the reaction of the House sergeant-at-arms, who is partially in charge of security for the Capitol, to Jan. 6.

McCarthy said he did not talk to the sergeant-at-arms until two days after the Jan. 6 insurrection, despite having been pulled out of his office by officers when the attack began.

“She made the policing of the Capitol be political,” he said.

As for whether Trump is a danger to democracy, a critique Democrats and others make in the wake of Jan. 6 and Trump’s comments about suspending the U.S. Constitution and being a dictator on his first day of a second term, McCarthy turned that back around, as well.

“Is it a threat to democracy if you keep somebody off the ballot? Just because you don’t like them?” he asked, clearly referring to the attempts by some Democrats and legal scholars to keep Trump off the ballot because of the insurrection.

(The U.S. Supreme Court said Colorado could not enforce a provision in the Constitution prohibiting people who had tried to overthrow the government off the state’s presidential primary ballot after Trump’s candidacy was questioned.)

But McCarthy also showed a softer side. He blamed the proliferation of news outlets for the rising tribalism in American institutions, including politics.

“We don’t have two parties in Congress. I think we’ve got like five or six different kinds of parties,” he said. “And if I just had my own party that had eight people not in it, I’d still be speaker.”

He was referencing the eight House Republicans, who, led by Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), voted with all Democrats for McCarthy’s ouster in October. McCarthy blamed his ouster on a personal vendetta by Gaetz, something Gaetz has denied.

That McCarthy had not forgotten, much less forgiven, the circumstances of his forced exit was clear.

“Let me give you the truth about that. And I’ll give you the truth why I’m not speaker: because one person, a member of Congress, wanted me to stop an ethics complaint because he slept with a 17-year-old,” McCarthy said.

He quickly seemed to back down, adding: “Did he do it or not? I don’t know.”

Near the end, when it was apparent the number of students wanting to ask questions outweighed the time left for the talk, McCarthy offered to stay longer. It was an unsurprising overture from a man who often stopped taking reporters’ questions in the Capitol’s hallways so he could stop and take a picture with random visiting tourists.

“I’ll stay a little longer if they keep asking,” McCarthy said. “I don’t have a job anymore.”

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