Could a proven liar like Kevin McCarthy become House Speaker?
Possibly the most common jury instruction in courtrooms across America goes basically like this (specific language may vary a little): “If you catch a witness lying about anything, you can assume they are lying about everything else they said.”
But both in California and in Congress, Republicans en masse are apparently ignoring that edict, offering standing ovations to Kevin McCarthy, the Bakersfield congressman and Republican leader in the House of Representatives who desperately wants to become speaker of the House. That would put him just behind the vice president in the presidential succession ranks, if his party gets the mid-term election victory it expects this fall.
It was well known before this spring that McCarthy was a sycophantic minion of ex-President Donald Trump, aping his line and approach to almost everything. Publicly behaving in any other way would get him ousted by rankand-file GOP members of Congress who vie eagerly for Trump endorsements whenever they run for office.
To them, it doesn't matter that Trump is a known liar, like many presidents before him, or that Trump took lying to flagrant new depths with his post-election-ouster claims of fraud and his administration's open embrace of the concept of “alternative facts.” Longtime Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway generally gets “credit” for inventing the term and embracing it as an explanation for the frequent blatant, provable lies purveyed by Trump and his aides. The Washington Post once calculated there were an average of 22 of those on each day of Trump's first three years in the White House.
But no one has ever been elected speaker by his or her House colleagues after becoming involved in a provable lie about anything politically significant. That's in the 235-year history of this republic.
Here's the detail on McCarthy's biggest known lie. After the New York Times reported in April that he told fellow House Republicans Trump should resign for encouraging the Jan. 6, 2020 insurrection that caused them all to hide in Capitol building nooks as they fled for their lives, McCarthy denied ever saying that.
“Totally false,” he declared.
But an audio tape soon emerged, provided by the Times and played on the MSNBC cable network, proving McCarthy indeed suggested Trump get out.
McCarthy said that in the belief Trump was political toast, and that his own ambition would best be served by jumping that ship. But Trump remains almost as firmly in control of the GOP today as when he was president. So McCarthy pretends he never said what he actually did say.
He and Trump then made peace. This dizzying sequence caused Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, herself long a presidential hopeful, to label McCarthy a “liar” and a “traitor.”
McCarthy's turnabout on Jan. 6 probably does not make him a traitor, but he is certainly a liar, and if he goes on to become speaker, he will be the first selected for that post after a U.S. senator called him traitorous. So far, McCarthy has not so much as threatened a libel lawsuit over Warren's slur.
Strikingly, McCarthy's proven lie did not visibly lose him much Republican congressional support or even much backing among California Republicans.
The party's state chair, Jessica Millan Patterson, participated in a standing ovation for McCarthy at the California GOP's springtime convention the day after the tape surfaced proving him a liar.
He ignored the matter in his keynote speech — yes, Patterson allowed him to keep the keynote slot despite his new status as a prominent prevaricator. Among Republicans, only a few dissidents expressed disapproval.
Some rank-and-file convention delegates pronounced the tape a fake, but not McCarthy. And one major Trump contributor told a reporter that “MAGA-land is enraged…they're going to play nice through the election, but Kevin McCarthy is not going to be speaker of the House if the Republicans win it back.”
If that's true, and McCarthy does not succeed California Democrat Nancy Pelosi as speaker, it will deprive California of becoming the first state with two consecutive House speakers.
But it would also show that the standard legal admonition on lies and liars is not lightly ignored, and that no documented liar will soon get America's No. 3 political job.