The Washington Post reports it obtained a recording of a conversation that took place last June among Republican House leadership in which they laugh over a claim that Vladimir Putin pays Donald Trump, and that Russia was interfering in the election. The conversation suggests House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) may be apathetic to concerns about the ties — and thus the investigations into them.
The June 15th conversation apparently included Ryan, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), and Republican Conference Chairman Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), among others, discussing various news out of Russia, particularly its propaganda efforts in Ukraine and elsewhere. At one point McCarthy said, “The Russians hacked the DNC and got the oppo research that they had on Trump,” referring to the emails obtained from the Democratic National Committee. Though intelligence agencies were aware of the hacks, those emails wouldn’t be published until July 22 — more than a month later — and one of the first people to publicly mention Russia’s involvement was actually Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, Robby Mook.
McCarthy laughed at his own claim and Ryan asked him to whom the Russians delivered the hacked info. “There’s — there’s two people, I think, Putin pays,” McCarthy responds, “Rohrabacher and Trump — swear to God.” Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) has a record of standing up for Russia and Putin.
The audio records laughter all around, and Ryan, through his own laughs, insisted, “This is an off the record — NO LEAKS — alright? This is how we know we’re a real family here.” He also added, “What’s said in the family stays in the family.”
Ryan’s spokesman, Brendan Buck, responded to initial inquiries from the Post by claiming the conversation “never happened” and that the notion that McCarthy would make such claims is “absurd and false.”
Then the Post explained that there was a recording of the conversation, Buck’s response changed:
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.
Even granting the premise that the conversation was “humorously” speculative, it still shows that even a month before the Republican nomination was officially Trump’s, it was wholly believable among the Republican leadership that Russia was trying to interfere in favor of Trump. The conversation puts Ryan’s subsequent actions into question regarding the investigations into Russia’s electoral interference and the Trump campaign’s corroboration with it.
As details have emerged in recent days and months, Ryan’s response has reliably been to downplay concerns about these revelations. Indeed, he’s been perfectly willing to defend Trump and dismiss the importance of the investigations.
For example, after it first came out in February that former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn had spoken with the Russians about sanctions during the transition, Ryan dismissed it as not being controversial at all. “It’s entirely appropriate,” he said at the time. “It’s actually in the job description for incoming national security advisers to talk to other nations, to talk to ambassadors, to start beginning relationships. That’s very much appropriate.”
He had said the previous day that investigating the Trump campaign’s Russia ties wasn’t a priority for him, explaining, “I’m not going to prejudge any of the circumstances surrounding this until we have all of the information.”
As of this week, Ryan’s apparent apathy over investigating Trump hadn’t really changed. “We can’t deal with speculation and innuendo,” he said Wednesday in response to the latest revelations that Trump had tried to ask FBI Director James Comey to shut down the FBI’s investigation into the connections. “There is a lot of politics being played. Our job is to get the facts and be sober about doing that.” He later added, “That means before rushing to judgment, we get all the pertinent information.”
Asked Wednesday if he still has full confidence in Trump, Ryan said, “I do.” The conversation from last June certainly seems to undermine just how much that confidence really means.