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Kevin McCarthy is the hollowest man
Kevin McCarthy once blamed Obama's foreign policy weakness for emboldening Putin, but McCarthy recently indicated he's willing to do the same to become the next Speaker. What will he sacrifice next?
We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
or rats' feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar
Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion;
Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death's other kingdom
Remember us - if at all - not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men
When Kevin McCarthy last campaigned for Speaker of the House, after John Boehner’s sudden resignation in September 2015, one of the platforms McCarthy chose to run on was the Obama administration’s perceived failures in the realm of foreign policy. McCarthy blamed Obama's "weakness" for emboldening Putin and clearing the way for him to take aggressive actions on the international stage, particularly through military interventions in Ukraine and Syria. In the Republican Party of late 2015, similar statements were not only commonplace, they were nearly universal. As more time has passed, those statements ring true to large extent. Obama should’ve taken the Russian threat more seriously. Today, seven years removed from those statements, McCarthy is once again is vying for the Speaker of the House job, but the alignment of the Republican Party has shifted a great deal since his last attempt. Hawkish strength against America’s enemies is no longer the uniform party line. As Trump’s supporters will tell you, that’s an outdated Neo-con or RINO (Republican in Name Only) policy they hope to make extinct. In this environment, it should come as no surprise that Kevin McCarthy recently publicly threatened to cut American aid to Ukraine if the GOP retakes the House.
The popular MAGA media outlets remain fervently “anti-war” as they like to call it, and while McCarthy probably personally remembers that Ukraine is important, it’s not more important than gaining the votes of the MAGA wing of the Republican Party necessary to become the next Speaker of the House. Their general opinion on U.S. aid to Ukraine is best summarized by GOP Senate candidate J.D. Vance when he said, “I don't really care what happens to Ukraine one way or another.” He’s not alone. This growing isolationist wing of the GOP claims to prefer to focus on domestic issues, not foreign wars or interventions, but the GOP with Trump as the leader of the party has shown little evidence it cares to govern or even knows how to fix any of America’s real problems at home. The same people who don’t want to arm Ukraine would rather investigate Anthony Fauci, impeach Joe Biden and mock Nancy Pelosi than pass a single bill in Congress. Many of them still falsely claim Donald Trump won the last election. A few soon-to-be members of Congress were even outside the Capitol Building on January 6th. The midterms promise to bring us more of these types of Republicans—particularly in the House—and Kevin McCarthy (or “my Kevin” as Trump calls him) appeals to them because he’s willing to grovel before Trump at the expense of his own beliefs.
There’s little chance of stopping this ascendant MAGA wing of the GOP from continuing to grow in the short-term—at least, not as long as Donald Trump remains the face of the party; but it’s worth remembering that Trump is able to remain in that position because people like Kevin McCarthy brush off any concerns about America’s future at the expense of their own self interests. The time to stop Trump from taking over the party, if it was ever possible, has long since passed. Still, it can continue to get worse. Another four more years of Trumpian rage tweets and incoherent foreign policy will make us far, far weaker than anything Obama or Biden ever did.
I blame the hollow men like Kevin McCarthy who enable these actions most of all.
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Putin pays Trump but so what?
When the Washington Post reported in May 2017 that House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy was on tape saying “I think Putin pays [Trump]”, the shock wasn’t so much that he thought it, only that he’d actually said those words out loud. Donald Trump’s fawning over Russia’s president is a long running theme. The tweets alone went back mid-2013 when Trump asked if Putin would become his new best friend. Trump never quite stopped finding ways to be rhetorically beneficial to Russia’s propaganda machine. Even as Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022, Trump still had nice things to say about Putin. As Politico’s Joseph Gedeon wrote:
“I went in yesterday and there was a television screen, and I said, ‘This is genius.’ Putin declares a big portion of the Ukraine — of Ukraine — Putin declares it as independent. Oh, that’s wonderful,” Trump said in a radio interview with “The Clay Travis and Buck Sexton Show.” “He used the word ‘independent’ and ‘we’re gonna go out and we’re gonna go in and we’re gonna help keep peace.’ You gotta say that’s pretty savvy.”
Trump defended and reiterated his praise of Putin one day later at a Mar-a-Lago fundraiser. He did it again a few days later. Trump has since repeated his praise of Putin at a rally at the end of March, refused to condemn Putin in April during a softball Hannity interview and was back to praising Putin in September.
Leave aside the reasons for this now. It happened. It’s still happening. There’s every indication from Trump that it will keep happening when he runs for president again in 2024. However, while Kevin McCarthy and leading Republican figures may have once been opposed to Donald Trump in early 2016, that opposition has withered away and died. Even those who oppose Trump on a personal level in the Republican Party are unwilling to voice those objections publicly. Most Republicans who voted to impeach Donald Trump are now out of office or on their way out the door—Adam Kinzinger and Liz Cheney most notably—and the future of the GOP presents two not-so-different possibilities. They are Trumpism or Trumpism without Trump. In the immediate future, no other path has a chance.
When we see Kevin McCarthy recently threatening to withhold U.S. aid to Ukraine in the future, we also see hints from McCarthy that would personally rather continue aiding the Ukrainian people in their important struggle. In the interview where McCarthy first threatened to withhold aid, the interviewers mention the possibility of Democrats approving aid to Ukraine in the lame duck session of Congress after the midterms, possibly ensuring Ukraine’s needs are met for all of 2023. As that outlet, Punchbowl News, put it, “McCarthy may privately welcome this, in fact.” I’m inclined to believe this is true given McCarthy’s previous statements about just how important arming Ukraine is to the world order! But what if, for whatever reason, Democrats can’t get the bill through in the lame duck? Do we really need to ask if McCarthy values arming Ukraine over being the Speaker of the House for the Republican Party? Even if funding for 2023 is secured, what happens the next year if the war in Ukraine is still ongoing or it restarts after a temporary peace?
Keeping the rabid Trumpist base at bay as the 2024 presidential campaign is in full swing will mean further compromises are necessary. If we’re in the midst of a recession next year, even further compromises will be necessary. The Tucker Carlsons, Steve Bannons, Charlie Kirks and other big names in MAGA media have all expressed a consistent desire to cut off aid to Ukraine and let Putin have his way with his neighbors. It’s an isolationist approach that MAGA has always claimed ownership of from the beginning of Trump’s campaign. You’ll probably remember stories about “Donald the Dove, Hillary the Hawk” which tried to frame the candidates thusly. Trump and pro-Kremlin media outlets claimed Hillary Clinton’s Syria policy, as President, would usher forth World War III. The alternative was promised as peace, but mostly brought about mixed messages and chaos. Once he was in office, we saw Trump’s threat to pull out of NATO, his sudden decision to remove troops from Syria, and his sometimes commitment to in ending the war in Afghanistan. Trump often spoke of an anti-war agenda, but in the end, he was usually talked out of much of his stated goals until his goldfish-like attention span moved on to the next trending topic.
Putin paying Trump wasn’t enough. What about January 6th?
Trump’s isolationist agenda was at odds with Congressional Republicans during his four years in office. When Trump withheld aid from Ukraine in 2019, Congressional Republicans and Democrats pushed back. When that pushback led to Trump’s impeachment trial though, Republicans refused to convict, as they similarly refused to convict him after urging on the January 6th insurrection. The GOP could’ve then prevented Trump from ever holding elected office in this country again. Kevin McCarthy even blamed Trump for the violence that occurred that day. At least, until he didn’t. Listening to the demands of their partisan media figures, Republicans demurred on political grounds. Soon, America First may be back with a vengeance, and we should remember they chose this. It didn’t have to be this way.
"Most Americans want neither inaction nor retribution," McCarthy said, despite surveys showing a majority of the country in favor of impeaching and removing Trump from office. Most Republicans do not, however.
"They want durable, bipartisan justice. That path is still available, but is not the path we are on today. That doesn't mean the president is free from fault. The president bears responsibility for Wednesday's attack on Congress by mob rioters. He should have immediately denounced the mob when he saw what was unfolding.
"These facts require immediate action from President Trump — accept his share of responsibility, quell the brewing unrest and ensure that President-Elect Biden is able to successfully begin his term. And the president's immediate action also deserves congressional action, which is why I think a fact-finding commission and a censure resolution would be prudent. Unfortunately, that is not where we are today."
As you can see, McCarthy made it clear there that Trump bore responsibility for the violence which occurred that day. It was later revealed that McCarthy had gone so far as to say that Trump needed to resign in the days afterwards when such a possibility was openly discussed and briefly considered with a few notable Republicans such as Lisa Murkowski. However, when the story came out that McCarthy had also floated the possibility of Trump resigning, he flatly denied ever saying this. When it was later revealed that the Washington Post had the audio of McCarthy saying this in their possession, McCarthy said the audio was only a “conversation about scenarios” that might unfold relating to the events that day. In truth, it’s the same strategy he employed when the “Putin pays Trump” stories came out. First, McCarthy denied ever saying this when asked by reporters. Then, after those reporters revealed the audio of McCarthy in their possession, he claimed the statements were a joke. Perhaps without the earlier denial that claim could’ve been taken seriously. Nevertheless, McCarthy has done enough to remain on MAGA’s good side—for now. Trump has shown a willingness to bring people back into that orbit as long as they properly demonstrate their loyalty. Kevin McCarthy’s past criticisms can be forgiven as long as McCarthy is willing to help Trump return to power in 2024. Since McCarthy’s own future elevation to Speaker of the House appears contingent of getting MAGA House Republicans to cast their votes for him, there’s little doubt now that their fates are intertwined.
I suppose my question to Kevin would be: is it really worth it?
If you’ll recall, the “Putin pays” Trump statement was made in June 2016 at a meeting discussing the ongoing Russian war in the Donbass region of Ukraine. Paul Ryan and other GOP House leaders were meeting with then-Ukrainian Prime Minister Vladimir Groysman to discuss the situation in Ukraine and concerns in the country regarding Trump’s pro-Kremlin rhetoric. Grosyman reminded Ryan, McCarthy and other Republican leaders that Putin was providing assistance to nationalist candidates in Western countries in an attempt to undermine their democracies. Despite their admitted willingness to rally around Trump at the time, the Republican leadership believed they were the ones truly standing up to Vladimir Putin. They remarked with disgust and outrage at what the Kremlin was already doing to the Donbass after invading the country in all but name.
And yet. Republicans held their noses and voted for Trump anyway. They twice refused to impeach him. They made excuses for his pro-Kremlin remarks. They allowed the chaotic uncertainty of a Trump presidency to be used by our adversaries to deepen our divides and weaken us against future threats. Surely, we’re all paying for that too, and we’re nowhere near done.
What else will Kevin have to do to stay Speaker?
In September 2015, when John Boehner suddenly retired, his deputy and then House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy made a play for Boehner’s job. One of McCarthy’s earliest platforms related to the ongoing war in the Donbass region of Ukraine. As the Washington Free Beacon wrote at the time:
"We rolled out the red carpet for Putin’s regional ambitions," McCarthy said during an address on foreign policy at a book launch for the John Hay Initiative in Washington, D.C., Monday.
"This administration has seesawed from an ill-advised courtship of Putin’s Russia to scrambling to respond to Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and a ground war in eastern Ukraine that continues today that’s virtually unacknowledged by this White House," McCarthy said. "The challenge within Ukraine is the greatest threat to European security since World War II."
"It’s time for America to step up, not back down. And that starts with providing Ukrainian fighting forces with lethal aid," McCarthy said.
"The Obama administration has argued that providing defense weapons will only encourage additional Russian aggression; I disagree," the California congressman added. "It is weakness that fuels Russian aggression, not western action."
He also dealt a veiled jab to Obama’s decision to meet with Putin regarding Moscow’s military buildup in Syria following the Russian president’s remarks to the United Nations General Assembly in New York Monday.
Ignoring warnings from the administration, Russia has flown troops and military equipment to an airfield south of the Syrian port city of Latakia where it appears to be constructing a military base.
"The president’s response to Putin’s aggression should not be to sit down and talk, but to consider serious sanctions that target him personally," McCarthy said, suggesting the administration consider sanctions against the Russian gas company Gazprom.
"It’s time to make it much tougher for them to do their dirty business," McCarthy added.
I know all politics are cynical. I don’t trust the words coming out of their mouths either, but compare 2015 Kevin McCarthy to 2022, now once again vying for Speakership. As he told Punchbowl News recently:
I think people are gonna be sitting in a recession and they’re not going to write a blank check to Ukraine. They just won’t do it. … It’s not a free blank check. And then there’s the things [the Biden administration] is not doing domestically. Not doing the border and people begin to weigh that. Ukraine is important, but at the same time it can’t be the only thing they do and it can’t be a blank check.
Even if all politics are cynical, surely there’s a cynical power grab here that’s worse than most, isn’t there? Sure, it’s only one statement, and it’s certainly not McCarthy abandoning our Ukrainian allies. Then again, this may be how it starts. Once doubt and uncertainty are allowed to creep in, they may eventually overtake what was once near-universal agreement that aid to Ukraine must continue. It must not be halted for political gain because what’s happening in Ukraine, what those people are fighting and dying for is more important than our other political concerns combined. If Kevin McCarthy is saying that may no longer be the case, then, how long does Putin have to hold out to turn the tide in the current fighting?
The growing trend in right-wing media wants us to stop aiding Ukraine.
As you read, Kevin McCarthy’s concerns regarding Kremlin aggression in Ukraine were closely linked to his comments on Obama’s failure to stop Russian efforts to aid Assad in Syria. Assad would not have been able to hold onto power without Putin’s direct intervention. Any attempts by the U.S. to upset that new balance of power in the country were fiercely resisted by the Kremlin and Trump’s hardcore loyalists as well. That takes us to what may now appear to be a minor footnote in history, but in reality, Donald Trump’s decision to carry out missile strikes in Syria in early 2017 was a pivotal point in his presidency. Many of Trump’s staunchest supporters believed in his America First, isolationist agenda which promised to take the United States out of its “forever wars” in the Middle East. Some of these individuals, particularly those in the Alt-Right, always showed a degree of admiration for Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin (though some were more overt even than this). When Trump decided to attack targets in Syria close to the regime in response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people, the backlash from his staunchest supporters was made clear. It wasn’t as simple as being “anti-war”, those supporters contributed to a disinformation campaign known as the #SyriaHoax meant to discredit the motivation for carrying out those strikes in the first place. Herein lies the problem for House Republicans who want to frame their choice to limit aid to Ukraine in terms of “focusing on domestic issues at home instead”. Attacks against Assad may have been de facto targeting Putin’s resources, but the Alt-Right and hardcore MAGA fans preferred to avoid those talking points. Instead, it was all couched in a sort of anti-war agenda borne out of an exaggerated concern that World War III was somehow going to result in a few missile strikes. You can make up any excuse you like, but don’t have to be “pro-Putin” in order to help Putin get away with his malign aggression on the international stage.
Whatever you personally believe about America’s foreign wars, there was legitimate reason to separate the invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan from one day of targeted missile strikes in Syria in 2017. The Assad regime was murdering its own people with chemical weapons. Nevertheless, the outcry against Trump’s decision at the time was from an extremely fringe scope of media figures. It was Russian state-owned RT, Infowars and pro-Trump news outlets like The Gateway Pundit. That was basically the extent of what can charitably be considered “media outlets” that were willing to side with this right-wing, pro-Trump anti-war “movement” that just so happened to align with Russian government propaganda. At the time, some considered it a coincidence or at least, a facet story not particularly warranting a lot of coverage. Nevertheless, what was once extremely fringe and essentially a point-of-view not held by members of Congress is now a growing sentiment. Those same people who claimed to have nothing to do with Putin or advancing his agenda have grown their media ecosystems. They’ve added members of Congress. They’ve been able to reach a significantly larger chunk of U.S. voters. Most importantly, they still have Donald Trump on their side and the gasoline he’ll pour on every single topic.
Now, with the potential of his lapdog Kevin McCarthy being elevated to Speaker of the House next year, Trump will feel ever more emboldened to return to his pro-Kremlin messaging that will always claim to be something that it isn’t. It’s not pro-Putin, he’ll say. It’s that Ukraine is just as bad. It’s that Ukraine’s borders aren’t the problem that America’s southern border is. It won’t be that they don’t want to arm Ukraine. It’ll be all about inflation at home, gas prices rising, struggles for the common man. It won’t be that Trump wants Putin to win. It’ll be “why doesn’t Putin get a say? Hasn’t Crimea always been part of Russia?” And the media ecosystems that were once fringe will have their voices elevated once again by the President of the United States every day once he’s back on Twitter. The polling indicates the majority of Americans support sending aid to Ukraine, but the support is decreasing. As inflation rises, when problems for the common man become too much to bear, Trump will remind everyone that it doesn’t have to be this way in the way only populists can. All the election deniers and fringe MAGA folks so desperate for Trump’s endorsement in their election will be shoved onto this “anti-war” bandwagon because the only people willing to interview them will demand it. They’ll follow the lead of their hollow Speaker who will always be willing to find another excuse for looking the other way while our enemies are emboldened.
What comes next
I do think a caveat from me is in order here. I don’t support McCarthy’s politics. I voted early and voted Democrat this election cycle. I have my reasons for these beliefs, as I’m sure you have your own, but those sorts of political debates aren’t really what we’re about here on this newsletter. I’d prefer we returned to the days when political debates could be hashed out, and we could respect one another’s differing opinions. We’re not there as a country, but I hope we can one day go back. Nevertheless, I can separate my own personal political beliefs from what I consider to be more important issues—problems we’re facing that transcend those very real concerns. To me, continuing to provide support for the Ukrainian people is one of those issues. Kevin McCarthy once agreed with this position. He said so out loud. Repeatedly. Loudly. I believe he was right then, and it seems to me he was so right that he must still believe those things he said about Ukraine seven years ago.
This is only political if we allow it to be, but our action or inaction in Ukraine will have profound consequences for the future. So, no, I don’t support McCarthy’s politics and the positions he’s going to take on several domestic issues as Speaker. I do believe they’re regressive. I do believe that Democrats, for all their flaws, are moving the country in a more positive direction; but what we’re talking about here goes beyond those (nevertheless important) concerns. Our enemies wish to continue exploiting our weaknesses. If we bicker and waver in our support for Ukraine, it’s a sign to Russia, China, Iran and everyone else who opposes us that what they’re doing is working, that what they ought to do is double down because eventually, American political leaders will choose to hold on to power over upholding their principals. It is better for our enemies if we continue eating ourselves. Sure, this is only one statement, and perhaps McCarthy is only posturing to get the votes. Perhaps he plans to return to his hawkish ways once he actually gets the job. I think the question now though is whether or not Tucker, Bannon, Kirk, and all that force of MAGA media will let him keep the job if he tries. Republicans repeatedly stated that during his presidency, they lived in fear of the Trump tweet that would bring down hellfire upon them.
Paul Ryan and John Boehner may have left their Speaker jobs in a hurry, but Kevin McCarthy’s recent track record and the anticipation of finally getting the job indicate the opposite. He’d rather keep Trump’s endorsement than save his soul.
Did Nothing Wrong is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.