Four months ago, the U.S. Capitol was overrun. Lawmakers fled their chambers as the mob surged past police lines. Many feared for their lives as former President Donald Trump did nothing to halt the rioters’ march through the building in his name.
Since then, we’ve seen a shift in tone from Republicans who were there that day. I’ve argued that the GOP is taking advantage of Trump’s social media silencing to work undistracted on making the next election easier to overturn.
They aren’t just denying that Trump incited a mob as they rewrite election laws: They’re denying that the mob was ever a threat at all, justifying the violence of that day.
But it’s becoming clear to me that it’s worse than that. Some members of Congress are getting bolder in their defense of Trump’s actions before and after the election. They aren’t just denying that Trump incited a mob as they rewrite election laws: They’re denying that the mob was ever a threat at all, justifying the violence of that day.
A hearing on Wednesday in the House Oversight and Reform Committee was meant to get some answers to the many questions about what was going on inside the Trump administration on Jan. 6 as the mob tried to stop the count of electoral votes. Unfortunately, the star witnesses of the day, former acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller and former acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen, were less informative than hoped. Miller in particular walked back his written testimony during his opening statement, refusing to say Trump had incited the protesters that day.
That wasn’t the worst rewrite of history at the hearing, though. That dubious honor goes to Republicans on the panel. In their telling, what happened on Jan. 6 was just some Trump supporters taking an unscheduled walk through the halls of Congress and the Capitol Police overreacting.
"There was no insurrection,” Rep. Andrew Clyde, R-Ga., said. “To call it an insurrection is a bold-faced lie.” He also said the only insurrection he’s witnessed in Washington was … the Russia investigation.
In their telling, what happened on Jan. 6 was just some Trump supporters taking an unscheduled walk through the halls of Congress and the Capitol Police overreacting.
"It was Trump supporters who lost their lives that day, not Trump supporters who were taking the lives of others," Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga., likewise stated. It’s worth noting that Hice is running for Georgia secretary of state, trying to replace Brad Raffensperger, who refused to declare Trump the winner in the state last year. Hice has Trump’s backing in the race.
And Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., to nobody’s surprise, went further, saying the Department of Justice’s prosecution of the people who stormed the Capitol is “harassing peaceful patriots."
The job of putting these members in their place should fall to the leaders of the Republican Party. But they’re too busy either claiming that any lingering sentiment about who won or lost the election is all in the past or ignoring the topic altogether. It would be entertaining to watch them try to tap dance around the matter if it wasn’t so cowardly.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., met with President Joe Biden at the White House on Wednesday to talk about a potential deal on infrastructure. Afterward, the press asked McCarthy about Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., getting kicked from her role as conference chair for daring to keep talking about Trump’s attempt to overturn the election.
“I don’t think anybody is questioning the legitimacy of the presidential election,” McCarthy responded. “I think that is all over with. We’re sitting with the president today.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is walking the same tightrope as McCarthy. During the markup of the For the People Act on Tuesday, McConnell scolded the Democrats for saying there are no major examples of voter fraud that require limiting access to the polls.
“I don’t think that anybody on our side has been arguing that it’s pervasive all over the country,” McConnell said then, causing my jaw to drop.
I’m sure McCarthy and McConnell wish what they said was true — but that’s not what the party’s members or voters actually believe, and there’s no way that they don’t know this. They have to know the new election laws being passed in GOP-led states around the country are based in the "big lie," the claim that Trump only lost the election because of Democrats cheating and encouraging voter fraud. They have to know half of Republicans think there’s “solid evidence” out there that shows Biden didn’t actually win the election.
And they have to know the people they’re supposedly leading are busy twisting themselves in knots to avoid saying Biden lawfully won the election.
I asked back in November what the off-ramp looked like for Republicans humoring Trump’s baseless claims that the election was stolen from him. They still don’t seem to know, six months later, mostly because there is no end given the current cycle of constant campaigning — and thus constant agitation — that the GOP relies on to motivate their base. Everyone on Capitol Hill is already looking ahead to the midterms, and for Republicans that means fending off any challengers from their right during primary season.
So even as some former officials ponder starting a new party, a center-right bastion against Trumpism, the problem there is that there’s always someone who’s willing to say dumb, mean, incendiary things for money and power. It’s a formula that has dragged the GOP further and further to the right since the 1960s, each decade chipping away at the veneer of respectability that once hid the party’s darker impulses.
The nation went through a severe trauma on Jan. 6. And like all trauma, it can’t just be willed away or made as though it never happened if it just isn’t talked about. As much as some Republicans who know better hope and wish that was the case — that Trump’s social media ban or Cheney’s punishment for heresy means they won’t have to confront the fact that he sent a mob to hurt them so he would remain in power — that’s not how this works.
As they say, hurt people hurt others. The members of the caucus who were afraid on Jan. 6 are still afraid today. They’re afraid of losing office in the next election, afraid of the base turning on them, afraid of missing an opportunity to advance their own personal power. And that fear is primed to hurt a lot of people in the coming years.