House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., was almost certainly joking when he suggested during the 2016 Republican primary that President Trump was a Russian agent.
"There's two people I think [Russian President Vladimir] Putin pays: [Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif.] and Trump. Swear to God," the California Republican said to laughs during a meeting on June 15, 2016.
The Washington Post, which broke news of McCarthy's comments, claimed it reviewed audio of the meeting, which included House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington and Steve Scalise of Louisiana. The paper said it verified that the voice suggesting Putin paid Trump did indeed belong to the House majority leader.
There are a few possible explanations for the congressman's remarks, including that he was being deadly serious about Trump's supposed Russian connections. However, the likeliest interpretation is that McCarthy was just kidding.
One can read McCarthy's comments as him earnestly suggesting a conspiracy involving the Russians and the then-leading GOP presidential candidate. This idea is sort of bolstered by the fact the congressman's remarks were followed by Ryan reminding everyone that the meeting was strictly off the record.
"No leaks, alright?" Ryan said. "This is how we know we're a real family here."
"That's how you know that we're tight," Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., said.
Ryan added, "What's said in the family stays in the family."
The McCarthy-was-being-serious theory gets an additional boost from the fact that Rohrabacher is notoriously pro-Putin.
Taken together, it's not insane that some people read McCarthy's remarks Wednesday evening and wondered whether he was being serious.
The problem with the serious interpretation is that it's no match for Occam's Razor. The easiest explanation is usually the right one.
The idea that McCarthy simply was cracking wise about Trump is much likelier than the idea he was seriously outlining a theory alleging the Queens businessman had been on Putin's payroll, and that the other Republicans were trying to hush the scandal.
Also, it's important to note that the congressman's remarks came amid a lighthearted moment during the 2016 meeting in which the attendees were laughing about the presidential election, the hacking of the Democratic National Committee and the possibility that the Russians had opposition research on Trump.
McCarthy, for his part, maintained Wednesday evening that he was just fooling around during the 2016 meeting.
It was "a bad attempt at a joke," he told reporters. "If you listen to it, everybody laughs. So you know that it's a bad attempt at a joke, and that's all there is to it."
"No one believes it to be true," he added, saying he is "100 percent" confident in the president.
Rohrabacher, who was also targeted by McCarthy's comments, laughed off the news reports Wednesday.
"You have to be very careful when you're using humor," the congressman said. "I remember that I was trying to make fun of the scientists who claimed that cow farts make global warming. So at a hearing, I said, oh, do you think the dinosaurs disappeared because of dinosaur flatulence."
"Do you know that to this day, you have these environmental wackos saying 'Dana Rohrabacher believes that flatulence killed the dinosaurs?'" Rohrabacher added. "It was humor, but you've got to watch out for it. Kevin didn't mean any harm."
For what it's worth, the Post itself was careful in its initial report to note that it was unclear whether McCarthy was joking.
"[I]t is difficult to tell from the recording the extent to which the remarks were meant to be taken literally," the paper reported.
We're going to go with McCarthy was just goofing. Whether he was referring to his own concerns, or whether the joke was meant as a riff on media and the Clinton campaign's warnings on Trump and Russia is unclear. But it almost certainly seemed he was kidding.