Former Speaker Kevin McCarthy reflects on his legacy, jabs critics as he exits Congress

"I don't have regrets," McCarthy said.

December 14, 2023, 10:07 PM

Kevin McCarthy took his final vote on the House floor Thursday, concluding his contributions within the halls of Congress and putting a period on a 16-year tenure that peaked with his historic election as the 55th speaker, but ended as the first one to be ousted -- all in the same year.

As the House embarks on a three-week holiday recess, McCarthy's resignation will take effect at the end of the year. But with no more votes anticipated in the lower chamber this year, Thursday was effectively the end of an era.

In his final floor speech Thursday, McCarthy said he "will be departing. But that doesn't mean I'll stop serving."

"But one thing I think we must quite understand and if there's advice I can give: Do not be fearful If you believe your philosophy brings people more freedom. Do not be fearful that you could lose your job over it," McCarthy said on the floor.

After McCarthy delivered his speech, he shook some hands of colleagues and walked off the floor into the speaker's lobby, down a marble staircase that's trimmed with cast bronze railings. He continued walking with a small entourage into H-128, the Board of Education Room, a hideaway office on the first floor in the Capitol where McCarthy has operated since he lost the gavel in October.

Former Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy looks on while holding a photo line for Congressional staff on his last day at the Capitol, Dec. 14, 2023.
Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

Thursday afternoon, McCarthy invited a half-dozen congressional reporters to the ornate office for an off-camera exit interview. For more than an hour, McCarthy shared his final thoughts on everything from his place in history to the rivals who brought him down. He also didn't pull any punches when discussing his critics.

"It's kind of bittersweet," McCarthy admitted, sitting back in a leather chair and gazing at the ceiling.

McCarthy began by sharing his reasoning for leaving Congress now -- rather serve out his term set to end in January 2025 or try to win back the speaker's gavel in 2025. First, he pointed at California's Dec. 8 filing deadline and a fear that if he waited to resign later next year, California Gov. Gavin Newsom could keep the seat vacant for the rest of the session.

But McCarthy said he also fully realized he is still a dividing force within the House Republican conference.

"What really sealed it was I told [Speaker Mike] Johnson when he won, I said, 'Look, I'm not going to go to conference,'" McCarthy said, explaining that he didn't want to undermine the new speaker. "If I go, I'm undercutting you or, you know, people are looking to me instead of looking at you, you got to carry on."

"But before I made my final decision, I went to conference that week to ... make sure if my decision was right," McCarthy said. "Spending a few moments in conference kind of sealed it."

McCarthy came to Congress in 2007, teaming with Reps. Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor to usher in an era of "young gun" conservatives. Four years later, they helped bring then-Speaker John Boehner a historic Republican majority in 2011. Ryan, Cantor and Boehner have left Congress, and now McCarthy's final act is coming to an end as well.

"I don't have regrets," McCarthy insisted, despite suffering a stinging public defeat.

Former Speaker Kevin McCarthy spoke with ABC News’ John Parkinson about his time in Congress and legacy.
John Parkinson/ABC News

"I don't regret keeping government open and paying the troops, not at all," McCarthy said in reference to negotiations he made to avert a government shutdown earlier this year.

McCarthy continued to openly express his disdain for Florida Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz, who led the effort to vacate the chair and remove McCarthy from power.

"In the end, history will write what's true," McCarthy said.

He said Gaetz will do anything to make sure a House Ethics Committee investigation doesn't come out. The House Ethics Committee launched an inquiry in the 117th Congress to investigate whether Gaetz violated House rules amid allegations of sexual misconduct and misuse of funds. But the panel deferred judgment on the matter amid an investigation at the Department of Justice, which did not charge Gaetz. Over the summer, several months into the 118th Congress, it became clear that the Ethics Committee's probe of Gaetz was not over.

"He doesn't care about anything else," McCarthy continued. "People study that type of crazy mind, right? Mainly at the FBI. And so, I think from the perspective, history will prove right what we did."

McCarthy hammered Gaetz throughout the conversation and questioned the Florida congressman's political longevity in the face of the ongoing House Ethics Committee investigation.

"The Ethics Committee typically operates through leaks and so this is no surprise, but the Ethics Committee has never found me to be in violation of House rules, though they've been investigating me during my entire seven years in Congress," Gaetz previously said.

When ABC News reached out to Gaetz about McCarthy's comments, Gaetz said, "Thoughts and prayers to the former congressman."

McCarthy also indicated he feels betrayed by several members who he helped get elected, including Gaetz, who he says he endorsed during a primary.

"He changed," McCarthy said of Gaetz. "Nancy Mace. She wouldn't be here if I didn't fund. [Matt] Rosendale. I endorsed him in the primary and helped fund him. Bob Good. I spent $3 million."

McCarthy said he knew that such a small Republican majority would create challenges, including threats to his speakership.

"I knew on election night, I'd have a problem, because we didn't win enough seats," McCarthy said.

After serving as speaker for just nine months, McCarthy dismissed criticism that his speakership was a failure.

"If you want to go apples-to-apples, I think the first nine months, it was some of the most productive," he said. "Since that time period, I think you could play into the chaos and, 'what have we done since?'"

He said he hasn't connected with Johnson to trade any advice.

McCarthy wouldn't say whether he would target Republicans who acted to oust him by funding primary opponents. Instead, he said he would use his campaign war chest to help incumbents in challenging races.

"I've got a good chunk of money. I've got probably the best fundraising team out there," he said. "I've had people who've believed in what we were doing. We've been successful in elections. I'm gonna keep doing that. I'm good at recruiting, good at helping them. I'm just going to do that from the outside. And I got a little freer to do the things I want."

With the the House GOP's recruiting class largely in place before McCarthy lost the gavel, McCarthy expressed confidence that their majority will grow after the next election. So why not stick around and see if he could win the speakership again?

"These are the things that weighed on me inside. Do I stay around?" he recalled wondering. "So some people will stay around and go win more seats to become speaker again. Okay, so let's walk through that scenario. So I stay here. I focus on my legislation, I focus on winning. I got my recruits and we have a current speaker and we win more seats and I should take the current speaker out? Nah, that doesn't seem right. You know, seems kind of petty."

He said he wanted to do what was "best overall" for the Republican party.

"So I didn't think that was right," McCarthy said. "I wouldn't want someone to do that to me. I just didn't feel that was the right thing to do."

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