Sources within House Republican leadership told Breitbart News on Thursday that they believe former 2016 presidential candidate Evan McMullin may have spied on them last year, while he was policy director of the House Republican Conference.

Suspicions arose after the ‘s Adam Entous reported Wednesday that House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) “made a politically explosive assertion in a private conversation on Capitol Hill with his fellow GOP leaders: that Trump could be the beneficiary of payments from Russian President Vladimir Putin.”

The story was treated by other news outlets as a potential “smoking gun” implicating Trump. A closer look, however, raises serious questions about the story, as well as its sources.

The  based its reporting on an audio recording of a conversation between McCarthy and Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), Steve Scalise (R-LA), and Patrick McHenry (R-NC) on June 15, 2016.

It is not clear who recorded the conversation, or what kind of device was used. (Entous did not return a request for comment.)

The  did not post the actual audio recording for readers to listen to and judge for themselves. Instead, it posted a supposed transcript of the recording, riddled with typographical errors that would be atypical for the , at least in an important story.

(The  routinely accuses conservative journalists like James O’Keefe — falsely — of editing their videos in a misleading manner. In 2012, the ‘s media critic, Erik Wemple, mocked O’Keefe: “A great deal of work is required to heavily edit surreptitious encounters with folks throughout the professional world.” Yet now the  has published a blockbuster story based on audio that may be edited deceptively — and there is no way to know.)

On Wednesday evening, Entous told Lawrence O’Donnell on MSNBC: “The source, which basically let us listen to the recording, has not provided us with the audio for us to release, otherwise I think we would. So I have listened to it, and some of my colleagues have listened to it several times … There’s about four of us that listened to it.”

He did not say how they had listened to it — whether over the telephone, or in a voice mail, or as an email attachment.

The  does not appear ever to have had the audio in its possession. Entous merely wrote that the audio “was listened to and verified by The Washington Post.”

The term “verified” could mean anything — it could simply mean the audio Entous heard matched the transcript. It does not mean that the had confirmed that the audio was unedited, nor does it mean that the  confirmed the authenticity of the recording with the people present.

Curiously, the dateline on Entous’s story was Kiev, the capital of Ukraine. McCarthy and Ryan held talks earlier that day with Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman on Capitol Hill. None of the  reporters involved in the story — including “Andrew Roth in Moscow, Michael Birnbaum in Brussels and Robert Costa in Washington” — is based in Ukraine. It is not clear why overseas reporters were involved in the story.

Breitbart News’ sources, who agreed to speak about the story without attribution, raised suspicions about Evan McMullin, a former CIA agent who ran a small third-party presidential campaign in 2016.

McMullin was the policy director of the House Republican Conference at the time of the conversation, and reportedly participated in the discussion.

In February, McMullin publicly encouraged U.S. intelligence officials to leak information about President Trump, taking to Twitter and appearing on CNN to claim that intelligence agents who were breaking the law were doing so in service of their oath to defend the Constitution against “domestic and foreign enemies.” He told CNN that “Donald Trump presents a threat to the country,” and referred to “a security threat coming from the White House.”

He also offered Entous a comment for his story in the : “It’s true that Majority Leader McCarthy said that he thought candidate Trump was on the Kremlin’s payroll. Speaker Ryan was concerned about that leaking,” he said.

The transcript itself suggests McCarthy was joking. The context of the private conversation was a discussion about how Russian propaganda has infiltrated Ukraine and beyond.

McCarthy told his colleagues that the Russians had hacked the Democratic National Committee to find opposition research on Trump, and then laughed. According to the transcript at the , the conversation then proceeded as follows — punctuated by repeated bouts of laughter:

McCarthy: The Russians hacked the DNC and got the opp [sic] research that they had on Trump.

McCarthy: laughs

[Crosstalk]

Ryan: The Russian’s [sic] hacked the DNC…

McHenry: …to get oppo…

Ryan: …on Trump and like delivered it to…to who?

[Unintelligible]

McCarthy: There’s…there’s two people, I think, Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump…[laughter]…swear to God.

Ryan: This is an off the record…[laughter]…NO LEAKS…[laughter]…alright?! [Laughter]

Ryan: This is how we know we’re a real family here.

Entous seemed determined to portray that exchange as a serious revelation of evidence against Trump. Several paragraphs into his article, he admitted: “It is difficult to tell from the recording the extent to which the remarks were meant to be taken literally.” Yet he has since been at pains to paint McCarthy’s statement as a serious one.

On MSNBC’s , Entous told Chris Matthews: “I listened to it very carefully, and he says it very seriously.” Later, he told O’Donnell, “I want to be really honest … Frankly, it’s kind of hard to tell. Certainly the conversation is very, very serious.” (O’Donnell chimed in to offer “Catholic boy guidance,” saying that “people with names like Kevin McCarthy and Paul Ryan,” the phrase “swear to God” means that a statement is to be taken literally.)

Entous went on to say that McCarthy had spoken “very matter-of-factually,” but admitted “some people in the room laugh[ed].”

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