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McCarthy privately recounts terse phone call with Trump after ouster

Representative Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) spoke to reporters at the Capitol in Washington on Nov. 14, 2023.KENNY HOLSTON/NYT

In the weeks after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, then-House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) traveled down to Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club and threw a lifeline to the former president, who was under a cloud of controversy for provoking the historic assault.

The fence-mending session between the two Republican leaders ended with a photo op of the two men, grinning side by side in a gilded, frescoed room. The stunning turnabout of the House GOP leader, who had previously blamed Trump for the deadly attack, paved the way for the former president's return to de facto leader of the Republican Party.

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When the tables were turned almost three years later, however, Trump did not return the favor.

During a phone call with McCarthy weeks after his historic Oct. 3 removal as House speaker, Trump detailed the reasons he had declined to ask Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) and other hard-right lawmakers to back off their campaign to oust the California Republican from his leadership position, according to people familiar with the exchange who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to disclose a private conversation.

During the call, Trump lambasted McCarthy for not expunging his two impeachments and endorse him in the 2024 presidential campaign, according to people familiar with the conversation.

"F--- you," McCarthy claimed to have then told Trump, when he rehashed the call later to other people in two separate conversations, according to the people. A spokesperson for McCarthy said that he did not swear at the former president and that they have a good relationship. A spokesperson for Trump declined to comment.

The transactional - and at times tumultuous - relationship has seemingly endured despite McCarthy's ouster. The two continue to speak and text, according to people with knowledge of the relationship.

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McCarthy has previously grappled with discrepancies between his private, disparaging comments about Trump to others and his continued fealty to the former president. In her new book, former congresswoman Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) accused McCarthy of repeatedly lying about his relationship with Trump after the Jan. 6 attack. Cheney writes that when she pressed McCarthy about why he visited Trump at Mar-a-Lago, McCarthy claimed that he was summoned by the former president's staff out of concern for his well-being.

"They're really worried. . . . Trump's not eating, so they asked me to come see him," McCarthy told Cheney, according to CNN.

During McCarthy's prolonged fight for the speakership in January, Trump assisted him in clinching the gavel by leaning on some of the holdouts, which he later claimed credit for on social media. But during the Gaetz-orchestrated ouster effort, Trump remained relatively quiet. After McCarthy was removed as speaker, Gaetz indicated in an interview that Trump was supportive of his actions.

"I would say that my conversations with the former president leave me with great confidence that I'm doing the right thing," Gaetz said.

McCarthy has not endorsed Trump or any other candidate for president. But he had always planned to endorse Trump around the Iowa caucuses next year, at a time McCarthy thought the endorsement mattered, according to people familiar with his plans. He told Trump during the call that he was unable to endorse him earlier because he feared that some of his donors would have rescinded their support if he put his thumb on the scale early in the 2024 presidential race, according to a person briefed on the conversation. McCarthy indicated to others that he also withheld his endorsement to protect some of the more vulnerable members of the House Republican conference, another person added.

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Whether McCarthy remains in public office is unclear, as he has privately indicated to allies that he has started exploring a career beyond the halls of Congress, according to people familiar with his thinking. The speaker emeritus faces a Dec. 8 filing deadline, with a five-day leniency period offered to incumbents, to decide whether he will seek another term in 2024.

"If I decide to run again, I have to know in my heart that I'm giving 110 percent. I have to know that I want to do that," McCarthy said at an event Wednesday. "I also have to know if I'm going to walk away, that I'm going to be fine with walking away."

Since his ouster, he has taken a no-holds-barred approach to the people who facilitated his removal from leadership, unloading on individual lawmakers in public interviews. McCarthy and his allies have at times used their power and deep coffers to weed out Republican incumbents who caused headaches in Washington, or were misaligned with McCarthy's interests. This month, McCarthy said in an interview with CNN that Gaetz should face consequences for his actions and predicted that Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.), one of the eight lawmakers who joined Gaetz, would lose reelection for her "flip-flopping."

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McCarthy, a prolific fundraiser, has said he'd continue to assist with the party's fundraising efforts as the new speaker, Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.), establishes himself in the role. On Thursday, McCarthy's top fundraiser and confidant, Jeff Miller, will host a fundraiser for the Johnson Leadership Fund, charging $10,000 to attend, according to a copy of the invitation obtained by The Washington Post. Miller, who has raised hundreds of millions of dollars for House Republicans since McCarthy became House minority leader, previously told The Post that he would start fundraising for Johnson's team.

But it's unclear to what extent McCarthy will personally be involved with fundraising for the House GOP conference going forward. And concerns remain about whether Johnson will be able to re-create McCarthy's fundraising juggernaut that helped win back the House in 2022 - and will be necessary for Republicans to retain power going into the 2024 election season. To date, McCarthy has funneled $35 million in direct contributions to the House GOP campaign effort since January and has sent a total of $23.8 million to the National Republican Congressional Committee and state parties this cycle.

Trump, meanwhile, has in part dragged down the party’s fundraising efforts as he maintains front-runner status in its presidential primary. The Post previously reported that big-dollar donors have cut back on issuing big checks to the NRCC in recent years because they did not want the money being used to help Trump.