House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy suggested last year to fellow top Republicans that Russian President Vladimir Putin was paying Donald Trump, according to a published report. A spokesman for McCarthy says the remark was a bad joke.
The Washington Post reported Wednesday that it heard a recording of the conversation, which occurred last June 15.
Trump, at the time a GOP presidential candidate, formally received his party's nomination the following month. McCarthy backed his candidacy.
The McCarthy quip came during a campaign when Trump frequently praised Putin as a strong leader.
"There's two people I think Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump," said McCarthy, R-Calif., according to the report.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., has said policymakers in Washington have been too harsh on Russia and should work more closely with Moscow to fight extremist groups.
McCarthy's comment prompted laughter from some Republicans in the room.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., told his colleagues to not share the remarks, the Post reported.
"No leaks, all right? This is how we know we're a real family here," Ryan reportedly said.
McCarthy spokesman Matt Sparks called the leader's comments "a failed attempt at humor," adding, "The idea McCarthy would assert this is absurd and false."
Brendan Buck, spokesman for Ryan, said, "This entire year-old exchange was clearly an attempt at humor. No one believed the majority leader was seriously asserting that Donald Trump or any of our members were being paid by the Russians."
Rohrabacher spokesman Ken Grubbs told the Post that the lawmaker was an advocate of "working closer with the Russians to combat radical Islamism. The congressman doesn't need to be paid to come to such a necessary conclusion."
This story has been updated.