KIEV, Ukraine — A month before Donald Trump clinched the Republican nomination, one of his closest allies in Congress — House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy — made a politically explosive assertion in a private conversation on Capitol Hill with his fellow GOP leaders: that Trump could be the beneficiary of payments from Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“There’s two people I think Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump,” McCarthy (R-Calif.) said, according to a recording of the June 15, 2016, exchange, which was listened to and verified by The Washington Post. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher is a Californian Republican known in Congress as a fervent defender of Putin and Russia.
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) immediately interjected, stopping the conversation from further exploring McCarthy’s assertion, and swore the Republicans present to secrecy.
Before the conversation, McCarthy and Ryan had emerged from separate talks at the Capitol with Ukrainian Prime Minister Vladimir Groysman, who had described a Kremlin tactic of financing populist politicians to undercut Eastern European democratic institutions.
News had just broken the day before in The Washington Post that Russian government hackers had penetrated the computer network of the Democratic National Committee, prompting McCarthy to shift the conversation from Russian meddling in Europe to events closer to home.
Some of the lawmakers laughed at McCarthy’s comment. Then McCarthy quickly added: “Swear to God.”
Ryan instructed his Republican lieutenants to keep the conversation private, saying: “No leaks. . . . This is how we know we’re a real family here.”
The remarks remained secret for nearly a year.
[Read the transcript of the conversation among GOP leaders obtained by The Post]
The conversation provides a glimpse at the internal views of GOP leaders who now find themselves under mounting pressure over the conduct of President Trump. The exchange shows that the Republican leadership in the House privately discussed Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election and Trump’s relationship to Putin, but wanted to keep their concerns secret. It is difficult to tell from the recording the extent to which the remarks were meant to be taken literally.
The House leadership has so far stood by the White House as it has lurched from one crisis to another, much of the turmoil fueled by contacts between Trump or his associates with Russia.
House Republican leaders have so far resisted calls for the appointment of an independent commission or a special prosecutor to investigate Russian interference, though pressure has been mounting on them to do so after Trump’s firing of FBI Director James B. Comey and the disclosure that the president shared intelligence with Russian diplomats.
Late Wednesday, Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein announced he had appointed Robert S. Mueller III, a former prosecutor who served as the FBI director from 2001 to 2013, as special counsel to oversee the Russia probe.
[Deputy attorney general appoints special counsel to oversee probe of Russian interference in election]
Evan McMullin, who in his role as policy director to the House Republican Conference participated in the June 15 conversation, said: “It’s true that Majority Leader McCarthy said that he thought candidate Trump was on the Kremlin’s payroll. Speaker Ryan was concerned about that leaking.”
McMullin ran for president last year as an independent and has been a vocal critic of Trump.
When initially asked to comment on the exchange, Brendan Buck, a spokesman for Ryan, said: “That never happened,” and Matt Sparks, a spokesman for McCarthy, said: “The idea that McCarthy would assert this is absurd and false.”
After being told that The Post would cite a recording of the exchange, Buck, speaking for the GOP House leadership, said: “This entire year-old exchange was clearly an attempt at humor. No one believed the majority leader was seriously asserting that Donald Trump or any of our members were being paid by the Russians. What’s more, the speaker and leadership team have repeatedly spoken out against Russia’s interference in our election, and the House continues to investigate that activity.”
“This was a failed attempt at humor,” Sparks said.
Ken Grubbs, a spokesman for Rohrabacher, said the congressman has been a consistent advocate of “working closer with the Russians to combat radical Islamism. The congressman doesn’t need to be paid to come to such a necessary conclusion.”
When McCarthy voiced his assessment of whom Putin supports, suspicions were only beginning to swirl around Trump’s alleged Russia ties.
At the time, U.S. intelligence agencies knew that the Russians had hacked the DNC and other institutions, but Moscow had yet to start publicly releasing damaging emails through WikiLeaks to undermine Trump’s Democratic challenger, Hillary Clinton. An FBI counterintelligence investigation into Russian efforts to influence the presidential election would open the following month, in late July, Comey has said in testimony to Congress.
Trump has sought to play down contacts between his campaign and the Russians, dismissing as a “witch hunt” the FBI and congressional investigations into Russian efforts to aid Trump and any possible coordination between the Kremlin and his associates. Trump denies any coordination with Moscow took place.