The stunning decision by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-California) to pull out of the speaker race Thursday left Republicans scrambling amid historic levels of chaos within the caucus.
He also left with a cloud of suspicion hanging overhead. Sordid rumors that had bubbled up during the week reached a fever pitch Thursday afternoon as McCarthy left the race.
Reporters and political observers struggled to understand why McCarthy had suddenly dropped out.
The obvious answer was the simple problem of math. His caucus saw him as a clone of House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who two weeks earlier had also stunned Washington by announcing his intention to resign.
McCarthy apparently did not have enough support from the conservative wing of the caucus to be elected speaker.
But Washington also buzzed about other developments from the past week, including a cryptic letter from Rep. Walter Jones (R-North Carolina) and an email sent to McCarthy from a notorious conservative activist hours before he dropped out.
Jones’ letter, dated Tuesday, was addressed to Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Washington), the chairwoman of the House Republican Conference. It ominously referred to past instances in which Republican lawmakers stepped down because of “skeletons in their closets.” Then, in bold and underlined print, he urged any leadership candidates to drop out of the race if there were any “misdeeds” in that person’s past.
Jones wrote (emphasis his):
With all the voter distrust of Washington felt around the country, I’m asking that any candidate for Speaker of the House, majority leader, and majority whip withdraw himself from the leadership election if there are any misdeeds he has committed since joining Congress that will embarrass himself, the Republican Conference, and the House of Representatives if they become public.
Along with his signature, Jones added a message at the end of the note: “I believe this question is important to the integrity of the House.”
Jones appeared Thursday on Fox News, where anchor Shepard Smith confronted him about the letter. When pressed, Jones denied that the letter had anything to do with McCarthy. He pointed to his letter’s references of former Rep. Bob Livingston, who withdrew from a bid to become speaker in 1998 after admitting to engaging in an extramarital affair.
Smith seemed incredulous at Jones’ assertion that the letter was “random.”
“So, randomly, you just wrote to the conference leader and the conference, asking any candidates for speaker of House, majority leader, or majority whip to withdraw himself if there are misdeeds he has committed?” Smith marveled.
“And down at the bottom in your own personal handwriting you wrote, ‘I believe this question is important to the integrity of the House.'”
“This doesn’t sound like a man who is on a fishing expedition,” the anchor continued. “This sounds like a man who knows something he isn’t talking about.”
After Jones dodged the question, Smith continued to press him.
“Congressman, no. No. I apologize, but you’ve written something so serious that I think I have to ask the question again because you just didn’t answer,” Smith said. “Now, I have to know, what did you know? Because who writes such a thing in a vacuum? Who fishes in such a way?”
Jones said Smith was “welcome to read into” his letter but denied it was aimed at McCarthy. The only Republican leadership election this week was for the speaker’s race, however, which McCarthy was expected to have locked up.
For his part, McCarthy brushed off a question about the letter during a news conference in which he announced plans to forgo the planned run for speaker, according to McClatchy.
“One thing I’ve found in talking with everybody is if we are going to unite and be strong, we need a new face to help do that,” McCarthy said while standing next to his wife. “Nothing more than that.”
The Hill reported, meanwhile, that the 25-member House GOP delegation from Texas held a closed-door meeting during which McCarthy denied unspecific “rumors.”
“They said, ‘Do not let me support you and find out later once we elect you, you did’ commit a misdeed,” The Hill reported one senior Texas lawmaker as saying. “I was satisfied with Kevin’s answer.”
But hours before he was set to make a pitch to his fellow Republicans to vote for him as speaker, McCarthy received an email from Chicago-based conservative activist Steven Baer, as The Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone first reported.
The email, which Business Insider has viewed, prominently linked to a Washington Examiner story that referred to Jones’ letter. The email was sent to McCarthy’s official House email address, as well as other lawmakers and activists. It asked McCarthy: “Why not resign like Bob Livingston?”
Baer, one prominent conservative told Business Insider, has been “flooding” the inboxes of lawmakers about McCarthy this week. And some members of Congress didn’t brush them off.
“I didn’t blow it off,” one “Midwest lawmaker” told The Hill. “I asked some direct questions of key people who should know Kevin very well. They said no.
“One of his closest friends and confidants told me he knows Kevin and there has never been any indication or evidence or any suggested activities that would have indicated that was true.”