A North Carolina congressman threw confusion over House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s sudden departure from the speaker’s race with a letter he later insisted had nothing to do with McCarthy at all.
As reporters and lawmakers alike scrambled Thursday to understand precisely why McCarthy withdrew from a race he had been expected to win, the missive from Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., seemed to some a relevant piece of evidence.
Jones, who has had troubled relations with House GOP leaders, warned in his letter that House members with “skeletons in their closet” should stay away from leadership races.
The two former House members from the 1990s that Jones cited as examples, Republicans Newt Gingrich and Bob Livingston, were both revealed to have engaged in extramarital affairs.
Coming amid the hothouse atmosphere of a congressional leadership campaign, when rumors spread at viral speed, the wording and focus of Jones’ letter raised red flags across Capitol Hill.
For several days before what was to be the critical vote, a story from a controversial website about McCarthy’s private life had been circulated to House members. One McCarthy supporter, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., dismissed the story as “ridiculous.” McClatchy could not corroborate the report.
Fox News invited Jones to talk about what he meant, with news anchor Shepard Smith pressing him on whether he was referring to McCarthy. Jones said he was not. A reporter likewise shouted out a question about the letter to McCarthy, standing next to his wife at a news conference.
McCarthy shook his head.
“One thing I’ve found in talking with everybody is if we are going to unite and be strong, we need a new face to help do that,” McCarthy said. “Nothing more than that.”
In an interview Thursday night, Jones denied that his letter to Rep. Cathy McMorris Rogers of Washington state, the chair of the Republican Conference, was motivated by anything more than his belief in integrity.
“My belief is that when you have people in leadership position, who have the privilege to service, they need to say to the conference that I have nothing in my background that will embarrass the Congress,” he said.
Pressed whether there was a trigger that related to the speaker’s race, Jones added that he doesn’t “deal in rumors.”
“The trigger has been the lack of integrity that brought bills to the floor for no reason but to raise money,” Jones said.