What should we make of the private exchange last summer, now made public, between Rep Kevin McCarthy, Republican House Majority Leader, and other legislators including Paul Ryan in which Mr McCarthy opined that “There’s two people I think Putin pays: [Congresswoman] Rohrabacher and Trump”? When this elicited laughter, McCarthy continued “Swear to God”. McCarthy now asserts that this was a joke, albeit a bad one.
Well, of course, no one is suggesting that this represents evidence that Trump was on the take. And we need to be careful to make allowance for irony, sarcasm, innuendo and joking when we interpret the spoken word. Only the most crass of interpreters imagines that all statements are to be understood literally. But that does not mean that ironic, sarcastic and joking statements don’t carry meaning. Of course, they do. They wouldn’t be ironic or sarcastic or jokes (good or bad) unless they communicated something. The fact that Rep McCarthy elicited laughter indicates that his hearers understood him to be communicating something funny. [Strictly speaking his listeners might have been laughing at him rather than sharing the joke, but even then that would probably be because he had said something, albeit something silly. Of course, they might just have been laughing at him because of his silly grin or embarrassing tie.]
So while McCarthy wasn’t asserting that he had definitive evidence that Trump was in the pay of Putin, he was almost certainly saying something about Trump. Let’s take Mr McCarthy at face value and assume that his statement was a joke. Indeed, his listeners seemed to have taken it was such. But McCarthy’s statement is only funny, it is only a joke, if the idea of Putin paying Trump is arresting in some way. If Mr McCarthy had said that his neighbour in California was in the pay of Putin, there would not even have been a snigger. In reality, the statement was only likely to be funny because either what was asserted was utterly preposterous, like saying that Putin pays the Pope, or because it developed an idea – Trump regularly speaking as an apologist for Putin – in an exaggerated way. And here we have it, McCarthy’s statement was only a joke because he and his listeners had a shared understanding that Trump support for Putin was very strange and inconguous.
And then we have Kevin McCarthy’s rejoinder: “swear to God”. Again, words carry meaning. And these words carried meaning. A quite possible meaning is: “No. I know you thought I was making a joke but I really meant it.” Another possible meaning and, probably, the more likely: “Yes. I see you get the joke. But let me emphasise: Trump’s defence of Putin really is so bizarre that the idea that Putin is paying him is not quite as ridiculous as it first sounds.” Of course, we can’t climb into Mr McCarthy’s skull. He may have meant to communicate something completely different and chosen his words peculiarly badly. But the most careful analysis of Mr McCarthy’s comments indicates this: Trump’s support for Putin was odd and lacking in a clear explanation and that was obvious even to those who were supporting his candidacy. And that provides further justification (if any were needed) for a full and proper investigation into the links between the Trump campaign and Putin’s Russia.