Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s (R-Calif.) move to give Fox News host Tucker Carlson access to tens of thousands of hours of Capitol security footage from the Jan. 6 attack has the potential to warm his relationship with cable television’s most powerful conservative commentator. 

Over the last few years, Carlson has taken high-profile jabs at McCarthy, knocking the GOP leader as a “puppet” Democrat better suited for MSNBC than the Speakership. In granting Carlson exclusive access to the footage, McCarthy fulfilled an explicit request from Carlson during last month’s Speaker’s fight.

The move has sparked a firestorm of controversy on Capitol Hill, where Democrats are hammering the decision to give sensitive security footage to a media figure whose 2021 “Patriot Purge” documentary series suggested the riot was a “false flag” operation designed to persecute Trump supporters.

Yet Carlson has become the most-watched cable news pundit not despite such controversies, but largely because of them. And Carlson’s influence is unmatched by any other commentator in the conservative ecosystem — a dynamic, sources say, that likely influenced McCarthy’s decision to grant him exclusive access to the Jan. 6 footage.

“If you’re a Republican politician and Tucker mentions you in a negative way, you’re immediately making phone calls trying to figure out how to make it stop. I don’t think there’s anyone else who really has that type of influence,” said one GOP operative. “Tucker’s influence on the right, we have not seen anything like it since the days of Rush Limbaugh.”

McCarthy moves to win over GOP allies

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) speaks with Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.)

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) speaks with Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) during the fourth ballot for Speaker on the second day of the 118th session of Congress on Wednesday, January 4, 2023. (Greg Nash)

McCarthy has taken long strides in recent months to build the trust of conservatives on and off Capitol Hill who’ve been wary of his right-wing credentials, and his move to grant Carlson access to the tapes is widely seen as an extension of that. 

“He’s done a masterful job of building bridges inside the conference — [Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.)] has become a major ally, for example — and now with the most influential conservative media figure in the country, Tucker,” said a source who has spoken to both Carlson and McCarthy. “Kevin has actually given them a seat at the table and put wins on the scoreboard on issues they care about.”

Tapes a ‘goodwill gesture’

Tucker Carlson. (AP/Richard Drew)

When asked for comment for this story and the relationship between McCarthy and Carlson, the Speaker’s office pointed to a previous McCarthy statement on granting Carlson’s team access to the tapes.

“I was asked in the press about these tapes, and I said they do belong to the American public. I think sunshine lets everybody make their own judgment,” McCarthy told The New York Times last week.

The list of McCarthy’s conservative doubters has included Carlson, and some observers familiar with the touchy history between the two power brokers say McCarthy has granted Carlson access to footage in order to gain favor with the popular pundit and his millions of viewers.  

“This is clearly a goodwill gesture from Kevin to show Tucker that he’ll make sure to listen to the conservative wing of the Republican Party. And Tucker obviously appreciates that,” said another Republican operative familiar with the relationship between Carlson and McCarthy. “But look, I’m sure eventually Kevin will make some sort of vote or comment, and then Tucker will criticize him. But that’s his job, to call balls and strikes.”

McCarthy’s working with Carlson on the Jan. 6 footage marks a notable evolution in their sometimes icy public relationship.

McCarthy and Carlson’s history

Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.)

Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) arrives to speak with reporters following a meeting with President Biden at the White House in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, February 1, 2023. (Greg Nash)

After the revelation of a taped conversation between McCarthy and GOP leaders in the aftermath of Jan. 6, when McCarthy wondered whether Twitter could take away the accounts of some House Republicans, Carlson said that McCarthy was “a puppet of the Democratic Party” and “in private sounds like an MSNBC contributor.” 

In 2021, Carlson slammed McCarthy for renting a room from pollster Frank Luntz, who Carlson charged had lobbied on behalf of “some of the most left-leaning” causes. And Carlson separately criticized McCarthy’s stance on Big Tech antitrust issues.

Some sources thought that while McCarthy and Carlson are not necessarily best friends, the animosity between them has been overblown. The Fox News host is a frequent critic of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), but those critiques do not often get as much attention as the handful of times that Carlson has directly gone after McCarthy. 

As McCarthy faced opposition to being elected Speaker from 20 House Republicans, forcing a days-long floor battle, Carlson described McCarthy as “ideologically agnostic.” 

But the Fox News host did not join the hard-line GOP members in staunchly opposing McCarthy or demanding an alternative. Carlson also called McCarthy “skilled in politics” and in some ways “perfectly suited” to lead a divided House.

Carlson also suggested some concessions from McCarthy to earn support. Chief among them: releasing security footage from Jan. 6.

The Speakership negotiations

Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) speaks Rep. Andrew Garbarino (R-N.Y.)

Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) speaks Rep. Andrew Garbarino (R-N.Y.) as the House votes to adjourn following the fourteenth ballot for Speaker on Friday, January 6, 2023. (Greg Nash)

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) has said that, as part of the Speakership negotiations, McCarthy had promised to release the full library of Jan. 6 surveillance video from around the Capitol complex.

Carlson had suggested releasing the tapes online. Instead, McCarthy is granting Carlson and his team exclusive access to the footage.

The moves have won McCarthy praise from the right, but have also led to charges that he’s using the powers of the Speakership for his own personal political advantage, not that of the party or the country. 

“It’s part of a pattern of pandering to the fringe elements of his own party. And I say pattern because we’ve just seen that unfold since he, after 15 rounds of voting, finally won the Speaker’s race — narrowly — and promptly rewarded those who led the fight against his election with plum assignments,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), a senior member of the House Oversight and Accountability Committee. 

“It’s pure pandering to the biggest audience of the right that he can find, to keep them happy and complacent, and win some brownie points with Tucker Carlson and his viewing audience,” he added. “And the consequences be damned.”

Carlson said on his show last week that his team was working on looking through the roughly 44,000 hours of footage, saying that his team has been granted “unfettered access” — but did not specifically mention McCarthy.

His team is working to figure out how the footage “contradicts — or not — the story we’ve been told for two years,” Carlson said. “We think, already, that in some ways it does contradict that story.”