The Sunday shows did a terrible job addressing what should have been a major political scandal after House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) was publicly caught lying about comments he made in the days following the January 6 insurrection in newly revealed tapes. Instead of addressing the fact that a major political leader has flip-flopped on a coup attempt against the United States, these shows treated the story as a political horse race item in which the House Republican caucus’ support for that coup attempt is simply taken for granted.
The audio recordings clearly show McCarthy stating his intention to tell then-President Donald Trump to resign or face removal from office, facts which McCarthy has denied. Audio published Friday further revealed that during a January 10, 2021, phone call with House Republicans, McCarthy said, “I’ve had it with [Trump],” and, “What he did is unacceptable. Nobody can defend that, and nobody should defend it.”
However, McCarthy proceeded in the following days to vote against Trump’s impeachment for inciting the insurrection, and in the year since he has met with Trump multiple times — and had a “positive” phone call in the wake of this latest story — and he has worked to obstruct investigations into the coup attempt. The bottom line is that McCarthy has consciously aligned himself with someone who committed acts against the United States that “nobody should defend” — and which he is now defending.
Fox News has downplayed the scandal, at first trying to bury McCarthy’s lies and then treating it like a non-story. During a panel discussion on Fox News Sunday, Reuters White House correspondent Jeff Mason opined that “in a different political landscape it would be — it would be a bigger deal,” a statement by which he washed his hands of his and the wider media’s responsibility to inform the public and shape the political landscape.
But mainstream media outlets haven’t done much better, focusing on political horse race coverage and whether McCarthy’s comments would damage his prospects to become speaker of the House by potentially alienating his far-right members, rather than reporting to the American public that the minority leader is a liar who knowingly covered up a coup attempt against the United States.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren called McCarthy “a liar and a traitor” — but then CNN went back to business as usual
This problem was starkly illustrated on CNN’s State of the Union, when CNN anchor Dana Bash asked Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) about her reaction to the tapes.
“Kevin McCarthy is a liar and a traitor. This is outrageous, and that is really the illness that pervades the Republican leadership right now,” Warren said, explaining that Republican leaders “understand that it is wrong, what happened, an attempt to overthrow our government,” but say something different in public.
But then, immediately following this interview, Bash gave a teaser before the commercial break for later segments in the show. Using the same old media positioning on the story, Bash said that the scandal could cost McCarthy “his dream job,” and that the situation was “likely really dependent on a man named Donald Trump” — brushing off the gravity of McCarthy’s private admissions about Trump’s crime against the country.
In the panel discussion that followed, the first person Bash asked for comment was former George W. Bush speechwriter Scott Jennings, who completely downplayed the bombshell development. “I don't think there are really any implications, because it doesn't seem like the House Republican Conference is revolting against Leader McCarthy,” Jennings said. “It doesn't sound like Donald Trump, from the reporting, is upset with Leader McCarthy.”
Democratic strategist Xochitl Hinojosa observed that “one of the lessons is also, don't lie … Once you lie, and there is a tape of any sort, then you're in bigger trouble.” She further called out “the hypocrisy from the Republican Party, saying one thing in private, then saying something else in public.”
Bash responded flippantly: “Xochitl, I say this with respect, you sound like a Democrat. Because what Scott just said is, there is no lesson here. It doesn't matter.”
Jennings continued: “I mean, there are some crisis communications lessons to be learned here, perhaps.”
“But are there? Is this even a crisis?” Bash then said, echoing her Republican guest. “And isn't it a crisis that it's not a crisis?”
Indeed, people ought to be treating this entire situation as “a crisis.” But that wasn’t how Bash set up the conversation. Furthermore, neither she nor any of the panelists addressed Warren’s comment earlier on the same show that McCarthy has been caught on tape knowingly betraying his basic responsibilities to protect the United States.
CBS missed the mark, too
CBS’ Face The Nation ran a short segment on the tapes with the network’s campaign correspondent Robert Costa. “Inside of the House Republican conference, his rivals are watching this episode very closely,” Costa said. “Based on my reporting, McCarthy is in line to hold the speaker’s gavel should Republicans win the majority, Democrats still believe they have the chance though of winning the majority.” This was a missed opportunity, since Costa has also co-written a book about the inner workings of Trump’s coup attempt and the serious dangers now hanging over American democracy.
ABC’s panel laughed about “such a Washington thing”
The discussion on ABC’s This Week also focused on the internal dynamics of the House Republican caucus and McCarthy’s efforts to become speaker of the House. Former Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ) claimed that the tape would not hurt McCarthy, on the grounds that “voters don't care.”
Former Democratic National Committee chair Donna Brazile countered that McCarthy was “terrified of telling the truth” about the events of January 6, but still couched this in terms of the political horse race: “Kevin McCarthy is afraid of Trump. He needs Trump in order to become speaker of the House. And he's afraid of turning off his base.”
David Sanger, White House and national security correspondent for The New York Times, began to make a good point when he said, “I think the reason the tape was so powerful is that it reminded everybody of what a 180 Kevin McCarthy has done, at a moment that that's a particularly embarrassing thing to be reminded of in the party.”
But then, Sanger debased himself and the panel when he described McCarthy’s denial and the following revelation of the tapes as “such a Washington thing,” to which the entire panel responded with laughter. “And it's a reminder for people that, if there are more than two people in a room in a political environment in Washington, there's probably some form of audio running.”
Maybe, just maybe, it is not a laughing matter that the Republican leadership in Congress is fully aware of the immorality of the coup attempt that took place a year ago, but have resolved for their own political ambitions to cover it up.