A month before Donald Trump clinched the Republican nomination, one of his closest allies in Congress - House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy - made a politically explosive assertion in a private conversation on Capitol Hill with his fellow GOP leaders: that Trump could be the beneficiary of payments from Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“There's two people I think Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump,” McCarthy, Republican-California, said, according to a recording of the 15 June 2016, exchange, which was listened to and verified by The Washington Post. Representative Dana Rohrabacher is a Californian Republican known in Congress as a fervent defender of Putin and Russia.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, Republican-Wisconsin, immediately interjected, stopping the conversation from further exploring McCarthy's assertion, and swore the Republicans present to secrecy.
Before the conversation, McCarthy and Ryan had emerged from separate talks at the US Capitol with Ukrainian Prime Minister Vladimir Groysman, who had described a Kremlin tactic of financing populist politicians to undercut Eastern European democratic institutions.
News had just broken the day before in The Washington Post that Russian government hackers had penetrated the computer network of the Democratic National Committee, prompting McCarthy to shift the conversation from Russian meddling in Europe to events closer to home.
Some of the lawmakers laughed at McCarthy's comment. Then McCarthy quickly added: “Swear to God.”
Ryan instructed his Republican lieutenants to keep the conversation private, saying: “No leaks...This is how we know we're a real family here.”
The remarks remained secret for nearly a year.
The conversation provides a glimpse at the internal views of GOP leaders who now find themselves under mounting pressure over the conduct of President Trump. The exchange shows that the Republican leadership in the House privately discussed Russia's involvement in the 2016 election and Trump's relationship to Putin, but wanted to keep their concerns secret. It is difficult to tell from the recording the extent to which the remarks were meant to be taken literally.
The House leadership has so far stood by the White House as it has lurched from one crisis to another, much of the turmoil fuelled by contacts between Trump or his associates with Russia.
House Republican leaders have so far resisted calls for the appointment of an independent commission or a special prosecutor to investigate Russian interference, though pressure has been mounting on them to do so after Trump's firing of FBI Director James Comey and the disclosure that the president shared intelligence with Russian diplomats.
Late Wednesday, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced he had appointed Robert Mueller III, a former prosecutor who served as the FBI director from 2001 to 2013, as special counsel to oversee the Russia probe.
Evan McMullin, who in his role as policy director to the House Republican Conference participated in the June 15 conversation, said: “It's true that Majority Leader McCarthy said that he thought candidate Trump was on the Kremlin's payroll. Speaker Ryan was concerned about that leaking.”
McMullin ran for president last year as an independent and has been a vocal critic of Trump.
When initially asked to comment on the exchange, Brendan Buck, a spokesman for Ryan, said: “That never happened,” and Matt Sparks, a spokesman for McCarthy, said: “The idea that McCarthy would assert this is absurd and false.”
After being told that The Post would cite a recording of the exchange, Buck, speaking for the GOP House leadership, said: “This entire year-old exchange was clearly an attempt at humour. 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.”
“This was a failed attempt at humour,” Sparks said.
Ken Grubbs, a spokesman for Rohrabacher, said the congressman has been a consistent advocate of “working closer with the Russians to combat radical Islamism. The congressman doesn't need to be paid to come to such a necessary conclusion.”
When McCarthy voiced his assessment of whom Putin supports, suspicions were only beginning to swirl around Trump's alleged Russia ties.
At the time, US. intelligence agencies knew that the Russians had hacked the DNC and other institutions, but Moscow had yet to start publicly releasing damaging emails through WikiLeaks to undermine Trump's Democratic challenger, Hillary Clinton. An FBI counterintelligence investigation into Russian efforts to influence the presidential election would open the following month, in late July, Comey has said in testimony to Congress.
Trump has sought to play down contacts between his campaign and the Russians, dismissing as a “witch hunt” the FBI and congressional investigations into Russian efforts to aid Trump and any possible coordination between the Kremlin and his associates. Trump denies any coordination with Moscow took place.
Presidential candidate Trump's embrace of Putin and calls for closer cooperation with Moscow put him at odds with the House Republican caucus, whose members have long advocated a harder line on Russia, with the exception of Rohrabacher and a few others.
Among GOP leaders in the House, McCarthy stood out as a Putin critic who in 2015 called for the imposition of “more severe” sanctions for its actions in eastern Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea.
In May 2016, McCarthy signed up to serve as a Trump delegate at the Republican National Convention, breaking ranks with Ryan, who said he still was not ready to endorse the candidate. McCarthy's relationship with Trump became so close that the president would sometimes refer to him as “my Kevin.”
Trump was by then the lone Republican remaining in the contest for the nomination. Though Ryan continued to hold out, Trump picked up endorsements from the remaining GOP leaders in the House, including Representative Steve Scalise, the majority whip from Louisiana, and Republican Conference Chairman Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Washington) - both of whom took part in the 15 June conversation.
Ryan announced on June 2 that he would vote for Trump to help “unite the party so we can win in the fall” but continued to clash with the candidate, including over Putin. While Trump sought to cast Putin as a better leader than then-President Barack Obama, Ryan dubbed him an “aggressor” who didn't share US interests.
On the same day as Ryan's endorsement, Clinton stepped up her attacks on Trump over his public statements praising Putin. “If Donald gets his way, they'll be celebrating in the Kremlin,” she said.
Ukrainian officials were unnerved by Trump's statements in support of Putin. Republicans, they had believed, were supposed to be tougher on Russia.
When Trump named Paul Manafort as his campaign manager in April 2016, alarm bells in Kiev started ringing even louder. Manafort was already well known in Ukraine because of his influential role as a political consultant to Viktor Yanukovych, the country's former Kremlin-friendly ruler until a popular uprising forced him to flee to Russia. Manafort had also consulted for a powerful Russian businessman with close ties to the Kremlin.
“Ukraine was, in a sense, a testing ground for Manafort,” said Ukrainian political scientist Taras Berezovets, who became a grudging admirer of Manafort's skills in the “dark arts” of political stagecraft while Berezovets was working for one of Yanukovych's political rivals.
At the urging of Manafort, Yanukovych campaigned with populist slogans labelling NATO a “menace” and casting “elites” in the Ukrainian capital as out of touch, Berezovets said. Trump struck similar themes during the 2016 campaign.
The FBI is now investigating whether Manafort, who stepped down as Trump's campaign manager in August, received off-the-books payments from Yanukovych's party, US officials said. As part of that investigation, FBI agents recently took possession of a newly discovered document that allegedly details payments totaling $750,000. Ukrainian lawmaker Sergii Leshchenko, who first disclosed the new document, declined to comment on his contacts with the FBI.
A spokesman for Manafort has said that Trump's former campaign manager has not been contacted by the FBI. Manafort has also disputed the authenticity of the newly discovered document.
Groysman, on an official visit to Washington, met separately with Ryan and McCarthy on 15 June at the Capitol.
He told them how the Russians meddled in European politics and called for “unity” in addressing the threat, according to US and Ukrainian officials. Ryan issued a statement after the meeting saying, “the United States stands with Ukraine as it works to rebuild its economy and confront Russian aggression.”
Later, Ryan spoke privately with McCarthy, Rodgers, Scalise and Rep. Patrick McHenry, Republican-North Carolina, the deputy whip, among others.
Ryan mentioned his meeting with Groysman, prompting Rodgers to ask: “How are things going in Ukraine?” according to the recording.
The situation was difficult, Ryan said. Groysman, he said, had told him that Russian-backed forces were firing 30 to 40 shells into Ukrainian territory every day. And the prime minister described Russian tactics that include “financing our populists, financing people in our governments to undo our governments.”
Ryan said Russia's goal was to “turn Ukraine against itself.” Groysman underlined Russia's intentions, saying, “They're just going to roll right through us and go to the Baltics and everyone else,” according to Ryan's summary of the prime minister's remarks in the recording.
“Yes,” Rodgers said in agreement, noting that the Russians were funding nongovernmental organisations across Europe as part of a wider “propaganda war.”
“Maniacal,” Ryan said. “And guess, guess who's the only one taking a strong stand up against it? We are.”
Rodgers disagreed. “We're not... we're not... but, we're not,” she said.
That's when McCarthy brought the conversation about Russian meddling around to the DNC hack, Trump and Rohrabacher.
“I'll guarantee you that's what it is... The Russians hacked the DNC and got the opp [opposition] research that they had on Trump,” McCarthy said with a laugh.
Ryan asked who the Russians “delivered” the opposition research to.
The biggest names involved in the Trump-Russia investigation
The biggest names involved in the Trump-Russia investigation
1/11 Paul Manafort
Mr Manafort is a Republican strategist and former Trump campaign manager. He resigned from that post over questions about his extensive lobbying overseas, including in Ukraine where he represented pro-Russian interests.
2/11 Mike Flynn
Mr Flynn was named as Trump's national security adviser but was forced to resign from his post for inappropriate communication with Russian Ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak. He had misrepresented a conversation he had with Mr Kislyak to Vice President Mike Pence, telling him wrongly that he had not discussed sanctions with the Russian.
3/11 Sergey Kislyak
Mr Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the US, is at the centre of the web said to connect President Donald Trump's campaign with Russia.
4/11 Roger Stone
Mr Stone is a former Trump adviser who worked on the political campaigns of Richard Nixon, George HW Bush, and Ronald Reagan. Mr Stone claimed repeatedly in the final months of the campaign that he had backchannel communications with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and that he knew the group was going to dump damaging documents to the campaign of Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton - which did happen. Mr Stone also had contacts with the hacker Guccier 2.0 on Twitter, who claimed to have hacked the DNC and is linked to Russian intelligence services.
5/11 Jeff Sessions
The US attorney general was forced to recuse himself from the Trump-Russia investigation after it was learned that he had lied about meeting with Russian Ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak.
6/11 Carter Page
Mr Page is a former advisor to the Trump campaign and has a background working as an investment banker at Merrill Lynch. Mr Page met with Russian Ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak during the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland. Mr Page had invested in oil companies connected to Russia and had admitted that US Russia sanctions had hurt his bottom line.
7/11 Jeffrey "JD" Gorden
Mr Gordon met with Russian Ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak during the 2016 Republian National Convention to discuss how the US and Russia could work together to combat Islamist extremism should then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump win the election. The meeting came days before a massive leak of DNC emails that has been connected to Russia.
8/11 Jared Kushner
Mr Kushner is President Donald Trump's son-in-law and a key adviser to the White House. He met with a Russian banker appointed by Russian President Vladimir Putin in December. Mr Kushner has said he did so in his role as an adviser to Mr Trump while the bank says he did so as a private developer. Mr Kushner has also volunteered to testify in the Senate about his role helping to arrange meetings between Trump advisers and Russian Ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak.
9/11 James Comey
Mr Comey was fired from his post as head of the FBI by President Donald Trump. The timing of Mr Comey's firing raised questions around whether or not the FBI's investigation into the Trump campaign may have played a role in the decision.
10/11 Preet Bharara
Mr Bahara refused, alongside 46 other US district attorney's across the country, to resign once President Donald Trump took office after previous assurances from Mr Trump that he would keep his job. Mr Bahara had been heading up several investigations including one into one of President Donald Trump's favorite cable television channels Fox News. Several investigations would lead back to that district, too, including those into Mr Trump's campaign ties to Russia, and Mr Trump's assertion that Trump Tower was wiretapped on orders from his predecessor.
11/11 Sally Yates
Ms Yates, a former Deputy Attorney General, was running the Justice Department while President Donald Trump's pick for attorney general awaited confirmation. Ms Yates was later fired by Mr Trump from her temporary post over her refusal to implement Mr Trump's first travel ban. She had also warned the White House about potential ties former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn to Russia after discovering those ties during the FBI's investigation into the Trump campaign's connections to Russia.
“There's... there's two people I think Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump,” McCarthy said, drawing some laughter. “Swear to God,” McCarthy added.
“This is an off the record,” Ryan said.
Some lawmakers laughed at that.
“No leaks, all right?,” Ryan said, adding: “This is how we know we're a real family here.”
“That's how you know that we're tight,” Scalise said.
“What's said in the family stays in the family,” Ryan added.
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