In the weeks after the Senate voted to acquit Donald Trump of a charge related to the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) was seething.
Frustrated that Trump would not talk to him, stressed that his chance to become House speaker could be in jeopardy and furious that a trusted confidante had publicly disclosed a tense call between him and Trump, McCarthy snapped.
“I alone am taking all the heat to protect people from Trump! I alone am holding the party together!” he yelled at Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-Wash.) during a previously undisclosed meeting in McCarthy’s office on Feb. 25, 2021. “I have been working with Trump to keep him from going after Republicans like you and blowing up the party and destroying all our work!”
Stunned by McCarthy’s anger, Herrera Beutler began to cry. Through tears, she apologized for not telling him ahead of time that she had confirmed to the media details of a call McCarthy made to Trump on Jan. 6 urging him to tell his supporters to leave the U.S. Capitol.
“You should have come to me!” McCarthy said. “Why did you go to the press? This is no way to thank me!”
“What did you want me to do? Lie?” Herrera Beutler shot back. “I did what I thought was right.”
The tense meeting between Republican lawmakers is detailed in the new book “Unchecked: The Untold Story Behind Congress’s Botched Impeachments of Donald Trump,” by Washington Post reporter Karoun Demirjian and Politico reporter Rachael Bade, a copy of which The Post obtained ahead of its release next week. Several excerpts detail McCarthy’s state of mind from Election Day 2020 to the inception of the select committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection.
“McCarthy’s tirade against Herrera Beutler was just the start of what would become a GOP-wide campaign to whitewash the details of what happened on January 6 in the aftermath of the second impeachment,” the authors write.
McCarthy and Herrera Beutler both denied the explosive details from their 2021 meeting in a statement to the authors, saying their reporting “is wrong.”
“Beyond multiple inaccuracies — it is dramatized to fit an on-screen adaptation, not to serve as a document of record. We know it’s wrong because we were the only two in the room for this conversation,” the joint statement to the authors said. The authors state that their reporting was verified by a primary source and multiple lawmakers who heard the account firsthand from McCarthy.
The book describes the political calculations made by congressional leaders and those who played a central role in the two impeachment trials against Trump, which both ended in acquittal. McCarthy’s inner conflict began shortly after Trump asserted that the 2020 presidential election was stolen.
Trump’s false claim that he had won the election moved his allies in the House to sign an amicus brief asking the Supreme Court to overturn the election results in key states. According to the book, McCarthy sought the counsel of Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), then the House GOP conference chair, about what he should do about the amicus brief, ultimately telling her that he would not sign it because it would “give the federal government too much power over elections.”
But even though McCarthy knew that “embracing [Trump’s] denials could trigger national turmoil,” according to the book, the minority leader ultimately caved. He eventually signed onto the brief after learning that “Trump and his allies had erupted upon noticing” his name was missing. McCarthy, at the time, blamed a “technical glitch” for the omission.
McCarthy’s office denied to the authors that he ever asked Cheney for advice or had reservations about supporting the amicus brief. Bade and Demirjian note in the book that the denial goes against what was conveyed to them by multiple people in McCarthy’s office at the time who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation.
McCarthy often strayed from advising his conference during the period between Election Day and Inauguration Day, refusing to disclose whether he would vote to decertify the election or how he would vote on impeachment. The writers describe him as “frozen between his fealty to Trump and his own ethical compass.” Each time, he chose his ambition.
McCarthy not only blessed attempts to overturn the election results on Jan. 6 but also greenlit a move by Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) to set up shop off the House floor and lobby colleagues to join the effort. The decisions worried some of McCarthy’s own staff members, according to the book, as well as more moderate House Republicans, who worried the objections might lead to violence.
McCarthy often found himself seeking to do the right thing before changing course, the book details. After evacuating to Fort McNair as the riot was underway at the Capitol on Jan. 6, McCarthy called Cheney to inform her that upon his return, he would force the GOP conference to abandon objections to the electoral college tally. But he caved again after Jordan argued that backing down at that point would make them all look weak. Jordan’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
“Still, the GOP leader’s lust for power had come at a heavy price: In refusing to push back on the president, McCarthy had helped turn the GOP into a party that promoted conspiracy theories and lies,” the authors write. “Now those lies had led to violence and an insurrection. And much as he loathed to admit it, McCarthy was ashamed.”
Knowing that a vote to impeach Trump would drive a dagger through his speaker ambitions, but also finding Trump’s inaction on Jan. 6 indefensible, McCarthy allowed his conference to vote their conscience on impeachment. He also knew they could vote in a way he couldn’t.
“Republicans were coming to him, seeking answers on whether they should vote to impeach the president. McCarthy didn’t know what to tell them. How could he turn on Trump when he needed him to land his dream job someday — yet how could he corral his rank and file into opposing impeachment when he knew Trump was guilty,” the authors write.
Herrera Beutler was one of many Republicans who asked him for advice. Their conversations turned into “a therapy session” for McCarthy, who knew that telling the truth about Trump’s actions on Jan. 6 would influence her to vote to impeach, according to the book. He told her about the call in which Trump praised the rioters, how Trump was unmoved to act or take responsibility for his actions since.
McCarthy’s promise to protect those who chose to impeach Trump over Jan. 6 was short-lived. Trump was “apoplectic” at McCarthy’s suggestion to censure him instead of holding an impeachment trial, reportedly telling “everyone who would listen that the man who had once been ‘my Kevin’ was in fact the biggest ‘p—y’ in Washington.” McCarthy’s conference was coalescing again around Trump, irate after Twitter and Facebook banned him from their platforms and colleagues sided with Democrats to impeach their president.
To make amends, McCarthy met with Trump at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida in late January 2021, telling his Republican colleagues who voted to impeach that his meeting was “to make peace with the ex-president” and to ensure he would not act to take revenge against them.
But McCarthy’s blowup one month later with Herrera Beutler, and his decision to support Cheney’s ouster as conference chair later, mirrored similar retaliation tactics by Trump. The former president ended up working to find primary challengers to all 10 Republicans, including Herrera Beutler. At least eight of them will not be returning to Congress.
A previous version of the story inaccurately said the reporting about a yelling match between House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-Wash.) was verified by a person in the room. It was based on a primary source and the story has been corrected.