Rep. Kevin McCarthy stood just outside the White House following a meeting with President Biden. Across from him were members of the White House press corps. In what was like a dress rehearsal for who he hopes to be in about a month - speaker of the House - McCarthy began taking questions.
Reporters wanted to get McCarthy's reaction to the dinner that former President Donald Trump had with the artist previously known as Kanye West and Nick Fuentes, one of America's foremost white supremacists and misogynists. The event occurred two days before Thanksgiving, at Trump's Florida estate.
"I don't think anyone should be spending any time with Nick Fuentes," McCarthy began. "He has no place in this Republican Party. I think President Trump came out four times and condemned him, and didn't know who he was."
Reporters pressed McCarthy further, saying in a check of his previous statement how Trump had, in fact, not yet condemned what Fuentes stood for. "Well, I condemn his ideology," McCarthy said. "It has no place in society at all." He reiterated that Trump did not know Fuentes.
On the positive side, McCarthy was clear about his own condemnation of Fuentes. McCarthy utterly rejected the 24-year-old and his hateful rhetoric.
But it is what McCarthy did not say that is telling.
No criticism for Trump
McCarthy, the Republican leader in the House who now represents Clovis and other parts of Fresno County, did not criticize Trump for the former president's failure to disavow Fuentes.
Nor did McCarthy blame Trump for having dinner with Fuentes and West in the first place.
West, who chooses now to be called Ye, staked out an anti-Semetic position in the last few months that caused many of his corporate sponsors to drop him. As much as it is outrageous for Trump to share a table with Fuentes, it was doubly bad that West was the other guest.
Making matters worse, it took McCarthy a full week to offer any comment about Fuentes, Trump and the dinner.
Simply put, that is a failure of leadership as the House minority leader. If McCarthy was the House speaker right now, and took a week to make his thoughts known, such a delay would be disgraceful.
Yet that is well where America's politics could be headed. The GOP recaptured control of the House following the Nov. 8 election. McCarthy is now pushing hard among his GOP colleagues to back him when members vote on Jan. 3 for the next speaker. So everything McCarthy does between now and then can be seen in the view of how he might be as House speaker, a role he has long coveted.
Fuentes no innocent guest
In a story published Tuesday, New York Times reporter Peter Baker summed up Fuentes this way:
"At age 24, Fuentes has become a star on the far right for a font of extremist statements that would have disqualified him from meeting with any other modern president. He has used a racist slur for Black people; called homosexuality 'disgusting'; asserted that the Republican Party was 'run by Jews, atheists and homosexuals'; said it would be better if women could not vote; compared himself to Hitler and hoped for 'a total Aryan victory'; declared that 'the First Amendment was not written for Muslims'; and maintained that Jim Crow segregation 'was better for them, it's better for us, it's better in general.'"
Whether Trump knew Fuentes or not, the former president well understands how influential he remains in U.S. politics and the GOP. He should not lend an ear to anyone he does not know at least something about. But good organization was never a strong point of the Trump White House, and shoddy guest management appears to be the standard at Mar-a-Lago.
If McCarthy becomes House speaker, he will be second-in-line to lead the nation, just behind the vice president. He must have the courage to tell Trump he was wrong. But McCarthy did not do that, likely because he craves Trump's backing to become speaker.
Outside the White House Tuesday, it was like the perfect movie set for McCarthy and his speaker aspirations. That's where the Hollywood dream fizzled and McCarthy's own lack of words betrayed him.