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Kevin McCarthy on Trump: America doesn't want "retribution"

Kevin McCarthy: The exit interview
Kevin McCarthy: The exit interview 06:55

California Republican Kevin McCarthy holds a place in history as the first-ever Speaker of the House to be voted out of that position. Historic, but looking at how his tenure began, hardly a shock. Back in January, it took McCarthy 15 ballots – more than any Speaker dating back before the Civil War – to win the gavel.  

McCarthy said, "When you go into the Senate, it's like being in a country club – not a lot of people around. The House is like you walk into a truck stop to have breakfast. But that's the way the founders designed it. We're a microcosm of society, so everything good and bad in society is gonna be here."

"It's rough. Truck-stop rough," said Costa.

"But it's good."

"But eight of them kicked you out of the Speakership," Costa said. "[And] there are still those in the ranks who want to burn the House down."

"I never said it'd be fair," McCarthy replied. "But, you know, I give as good as I get."

Former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), right, with CBS News' Robert Costa. CBS News

Since he was elected to Congress in 2006 and rose as a so-called "Young Gun," McCarthy has made no secret of his ambition. And he claims, during the protracted votes for Speaker last January, he never said to himself, Maybe I don't want this job.

"I love the challenge," McCarthy said. "I knew at the time I probably wouldn't be able to end the job, I mean, not on my terms. I knew who I was dealing with. I think history will say they were wrong in that decision."

Now, the 58-year-old McCarthy is quitting Congress a year before his term is out. He leaves Republicans with a slim majority that is struggling mightily to find consensus.

On Friday McCarthy sat down with "CBS News Sunday Morning" for his first TV interview since announcing his retirement from Congress.

Former Speaker Kevin McCarthy with CBS News chief election & campaign correspondent Robert Costa.  CBS News

Costa asked, "Let me read you a quote from the famous Speaker Sam Rayburn: 'Any jackass can kick a barn down, but it takes a carpenter to build it.' Is he right? Especially when it comes to this place, the House of Representatives?"

"Yeah," McCarthy replied. "And it takes a lot of builders. I mean, I've had the privilege of being here 17 years, and I got to be a part of building two majorities.

"I come from California. I grew up in a family that were Democrats. I applied for [an] internship in a Congressional seat. I got turned down. And now, I got elected to that seat I couldn't get an internship for, and I got to be the 55th Speaker of the House. Tell me any other country is that possible in?"

"But at the same time, how do you reconcile all of that good feeling with the eight who pushed you out?" Costa asked. "And they showed the country they don't really want to govern. They like chaos."

"That's true, but you're gonna have that in any industry, in any place that you live."

"I think this is pretty particular to this place."

"Yes, but remember this: For everybody in America, we don't get to hire who works with us, and we don't get to fire who works with us," replied McCarthy.

But it wasn't hard for rank-and file Republicans to fire him. In October, when McCarthy struck a deal to keep the government funded, eight Republicans responded by pushing him out. His chief antagonist: a Congressman from Florida.

Costa asked, "When you hear the name Matt Gaetz, what word comes to mind?"

McCarthy laughed. "Uhm, I think history will show who Matt Gaetz really is," he replied.

"Will you support a primary challenge against him, and the others who went against you, in 2024?"

"I'm not focused on that."

"You're not ruling it out?"

McCarthy said, "Look, we have too many challenges. And you know what? That doesn't determine the future."

Kevin McCarthy. CBS News

Of course, McCarthy does have a focus these days on the prospects of another Florida resident.

Costa asked, "Will Donald Trump be the nominee?"

"Yes. In the Republican Party? Yes," McCarthy replied. "And if Biden stays as the nominee for the Democrats, I believe Donald Trump will win, I believe that Republicans will gain more seats in the House, and the Republicans will win the Senate."

"Can he count on your support?"


"That's an endorsement?"

"I will support the pres — I will support President Trump," McCarthy replied.

"Would you be willing to serve in a Trump cabinet?" Costa asked.

"In the right position. Look, if I am the best person for the job, yes," McCarthy said. "Look, I've worked with President Trump on a lot of policies. We worked together to win the majority. But we also have a relationship where we're very honest with one another."

That relationship with Trump has become a central part of McCarthy's own political story. His stark reversal after the January 6th insurrection – going from blaming Trump (stating on the House floor on January 13, 2021, that "The president bears responsibility for Wednesday's attack on Congress by mob rioters"), to standing with him two weeks later at Mar-a-Lago – drew scorn from Democrats, and some Republicans, who saw him rehabilitating a dangerous figure.

Former President Donald Trump and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy meet at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida, on Thursday, January 28, 2021. Handout / Save America

Costa said, "You went to visit Trump at Mar-a-Lago. You threw him a lifeline. He might've been finished if you didn't go. Would you do it again?"

"Well, that's your opinion," McCarthy replied. "Look, I know a lot's been written about that. I think at the day, I'll write a story all about it in the book."

"What are you holding back?"

"I'm not holding anything back!" McCarthy said.

Costa asked, "You praise Trump's policies. You say he's a good guy. But many Americans, they look at his language, they listen to his speeches, and they hear an authoritarian. Some say even a fascist on the horizon in this country. What do you say to those people who have those real concerns?"

McCarthy replied, "Look, I don't see that, and this is what I tell President Trump, too. What President Trump needs to do in this campaign, it needs to be about rebuilding, restoring, renewing America. It can't be about revenge."

"He's talking about retribution, day in, day out."

"He needs to stop that," McCarthy responded. "He needs to stop that."

"You think he's going to listen to you saying, 'Stop that. Stop that'? He hasn't listened to anybody before."

"That's not true," said McCarthy. "He will adapt when he gets all the facts."

"He's not backing away from his calls for retribution," said Costa.

"Yeah, but remember, you have a check and balance system. And I think, at the end of the day–"

Costa asked, "Where's the check and balance on him in the Republican Party?"

"America doesn't want to see the idea of retribution," said McCarthy. "If it's rebuild, restore and renew, then I think you'll see that. And look – that's him. But I'm not gonna change who I am. And I'm not gonna stop giving him the advice. And look, I lost the job of Speaker. Maybe I don't have the best advice. But I know one thing is, I love this country. I want tomorrow to be better than today. And I'm gonna do everything in my power, and I'm gonna be engaged in the process to make it better."

Story produced by Ed Forgotson, Robert Marston and Alisa Wiersema Lucaci. Editor: Chad Cardin.

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