WASHINGTON — Top loyalists to Donald Trump tangled with House Republican leaders Kevin McCarthy and Steve Scalise in a private meeting Wednesday over leaked post-Jan. 6 audio of the two criticizing far-right lawmakers for inciting violence against other lawmakers.
Despite the explosive new audio, McCarthy, R-Calif., remains in the good graces of most House Republicans and, for now, does not appear to have imperiled his bid to become the next House speaker, assuming Republicans take control of the chamber.
House Republicans leaving the closed-door meeting said McCarthy, the minority leader, addressed the leaked tapes in his opening remarks, saying the GOP needs to move forward and lead on issues Americans care about, including border security and inflation.
McCarthy received a standing ovation, lawmakers said.
The new audio, which includes McCarthy saying in a closed-door meeting that he would recommend that President Donald Trump resign instead of be removed from office by Congress, has come at a particularly bad time for the Republican leader, whose party is increasingly confident it will take control of the House in November and who has been positioning himself to be the speaker when that happens.
“I am here to say he’s going to be the next speaker,” Rep. Roger Williams, R-Texas, said as he left the gathering at the Capitol Hill Club. “He said the right things for me. Now, I’m just one guy. He’s answered it, and he’s answered it good enough for me.”
Rep. Barry Loudermilk, R-Ga., summarized McCarthy's message as: “We need to keep on track and keep pushing. This is a distraction, folks. C’mon. This is simply a distraction by the left trying to drive a wedge in a very unified Republican Party and a very unified conference.”
But things got more heated as the meeting wrapped up. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., directly questioned McCarthy and Scalise, R-La., the minority whip, over the Jan. 10, 2021, audio, obtained by The New York Times, in which the leaders could be heard on a conference call discussing Gaetz, Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., and other conservatives who they thought posed threats to their colleagues.
In the audio, McCarthy said of Gaetz, who frequently appeared on TV and criticized Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., after the riot: “He’s putting people in jeopardy. And he doesn’t need to be doing this. We saw what people would do in the Capitol, you know, and these people came prepared with rope, with everything else.”
Scalise later said of Gaetz: “It’s potentially illegal what he’s doing.”
Gaetz, who spoke during the meeting, asked Scalise to state which of his comments he considered “illegal,” according to two sources in the room. Scalise didn’t give specifics. Instead, he replied that there was a lot of information “flying around” during that confusing period and that he was reacting on the call to a Cheney aide who had claimed that Gaetz had threatened her safety.
A source in the meeting pointed to Scalise's experience of being shot in 2017 at practice for a congressional baseball game, saying, “Obviously, given his own experiences with threats, he’s sensitive to that and takes it seriously.”
Scalise “wouldn’t let Gaetz run away with his comments,” said a GOP lawmaker who witnessed the “heated” exchange.
Responding to Gaetz, McCarthy urged unity and said Republicans should be attacking Democrats.
Another Trump loyalist, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., also chimed in, pressing McCarthy and Scalise to apologize for talking about the conservative lawmakers on the private leadership call, sources said. Neither apologized.
Leaving the meeting, Gaetz repeatedly declined to comment, directing reporters to his tweet on Tuesday criticizing the leaders.
Gaetz later blasted Scalise’s comments during an interview on Fox News’ “Tucker Carlson Tonight.”
“If you accuse someone of breaking the law, you have to say what law you think they broke and you have to present what evidence you think you have,” Gaetz said. “If there is no evidence, you need to acknowledge that.”
Scalise confirmed to NBC News that he met one-on-one with Gaetz after their exchange at the House GOP meeting. Scalise said he explained to Gaetz that after the Capitol riot he wanted to "ratchet down the rhetoric" given that both Democratic and Republican members of Congress were receiving death threats.
"Now, clearly, those didn’t ultimately come to fruition because there were no charges that were brought, but what we were being told were some pretty alarming things — some from law enforcement, some from other members," Scalise said in the interview.
"And so I shared that with Matt. I’m sorry that those comments caused him problems because it was things that [were] conveyed to me from a number of places."
Scott Wong, Haley Talbot and Ali Vitali reported from Washington. Marc Caputo reported from Miami.