"It was a bad attempt at a joke," McCarthy told reporters leaving the House floor Wednesday, minutes after The Washington Post reported
his comments from a private Capitol Hill conversation during the 2016 campaign.
"That's all there is to it," McCarthy added. "No one believes it to be true."
But the comments take on new resonance in the wake of a blockbuster week on Capitol Hill in which news out of the White House is constant and Republican leaders are struggling to protect themselves, their rank-and-file and their agenda from being swallowed up by the news of the day,
The Post reported McCarthy said in a conversation with fellow Republican leaders in 2016 that "there's two people I think Putin pays: (Rep. Dana) Rohrabacher and Trump," according to a recording of the June 2016 exchange.
Lawmakers laughed at McCarthy's 2016 comment, the Post reported before McCarthy added, "swear to God."
McCarthy and House Speaker Paul Ryan's aides initially denied the story, the Post reported, which McCarthy said was because "no one even remembers it transpiring."
"You don't have a sense of humor anymore? People aren't supposed to be able to laugh?" McCarthy said Wednesday when asked why he'd joke about that. "There's a reason why I'm not a comedian."
The surfacing of the audio Wednesday was just one of several major stories to break Wednesday. The Post story was posted almost simultaneously with the news that the Department of Justice was appointing former FBI Director Robert Mueller was named as special counsel
to oversee the federal investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
It followed a long week of news that has gripped the Capitol. On Monday, reports surfaced that Trump had apparently leaked classified information to the Russians during an Oval Office meeting. On Tuesday, the contents of a memo by former FBI Director James Comey surfaced, alleging that Trump had encouraged Comey to let go of an investigation into Trump's former national security adviser, Michael Flynn go.
On Wednesday, in a closed door meeting with the GOP conference, Ryan encouraged his members to remain "sober" in answering questions about various breaking news reports related to the ongoing investigation into the Trump campaign's ties to Russia and Republican rank-and-file have admitted the volume of news has become distracting at times.
During his news conference Thursday morning, Ryan told reporters that "It's always nice to have less drama."
"People in the country need to know that we're busy at work trying to solve their problems so I realize that there's a lot in the media these days that doesn't seize up Congress. That doesn't stop us from doing our jobs to work on people's problems," Ryan said.