A recording of House Leader Paul Ryan and House majority whip Kevin McCarthy joking last year about Vladimir Putin paying off Donald Trump sounds even more ominous after this week’s revelations.
Donald Trump Jr. released emails Tuesday that shows how he enthusiastically arranged a June 2016 meeting with a Russian lawyer promising dirt on Hillary Clinton, and he looped top campaign staffers Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort into the gathering.
The three Trump campaign officials met with Natalia Veselnitskaya on June 9, 2016, at Trump Tower, and Donald Trump tweeted a demand for Clinton’s missing 33,000 emails about 40 minutes after the meeting began.
Five days after the Trump Tower meeting, the Washington Post reported that the Democratic National Committee had been targeted by a massive cyberattack that U.S. intelligence services concluded had been ordered by Russian president Vladimir Putin.
The attack, which lasted for months, resulted in the thefts of emails from the DNC and Clinton campaign chair John Podesta that were later dumped online — as well as the theft of the party’s Trump opposition research file.
The day after that news broke, Ryan and McCarthy were caught by a hidden microphone joking about the DNC hacks — although the conversation wasn’t reported until May 17, also by the Washington Post.
The recording drew a lot of attention when it was revealed, but it strongly suggests Republican leadership understood — in real time — what the hacks meant to the election, in general, and for the Trump campaign, in particular.
“I’ll guarantee you that’s what it is,” McCarthy says on the recording, and then laughs. “The Russians hacked the DNC and got the opp research that they had on Trump.”
Ryan can be heard asking if the Russians hacked the DNC, and McCarthy says it was hacked to obtain the Trump opposition research file, and the House speaker asks who was then sent that stolen data.
That’s when McCarthy, a California Republican, suggests Putin was secretly controlling Trump and Rep. Dana Rohrbacher (R-CA) — who once was warned by the FBI that he was targeted for recruitment by Russian spies.
“There’s two people, I think, Putin pays — Rohrabacher and Trump,” McCarthy says, as other Republican lawmakers laugh. “Swear to God.”
Then Ryan reminds his fellow Republicans the conversation was off the record, and they can be heard laughing again.
“No leaks — alright?” the House speaker says.
Trump accused the DNC of hacking itself as a distraction, and his son denied accusations — which were confirmed by the emails he released this week — that Russia aimed to assist the Republican candidate’s campaign.
U.S. intelligence services concluded by midsummer that Clinton was right about Russia, but Republican lawmakers privately shot down any efforts by the Obama administration to push back against Kremlin interference.
Trump and some former Obama administration officials have faulted the Democratic president’s response, but GOP lawmakers made clear they weren’t willing to help stop Russian meddling.
The Post reported in December that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) threw doubts on the intelligence during an October meeting and told Obama that he would accuse Obama of partisan interference if he publicly challenged the Russians.
Obama did respond, with a mild warning to “cut it out,” which Trump and other Republicans have mocked as weak, and by imposing sanctions against Russia the current administration is now working to scale back.
It’s impossible to know what classified information Ryan and McConnell learned during the campaign about Russian interference.
But it’s clear from that recording, in the context of what was then publicly known, that the House speaker and other GOP leaders had a good idea of what Putin was up to — and why.