Republicans try but can’t escape Jan. 6
Republicans would really like to move beyond Jan. 6, but it’s not going very well.
Four months into the Biden administration, as GOP leaders are racing to shift the focus away from the violent attack by a pro-Trump mob at the Capitol, they’re being forced to confront the rampage at every turn.
Democrats are charging ahead with plans for deep-dive investigations into the assault.
Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), joined by like-minded Republicans critical of Donald Trump, is taking every opportunity to condemn the former president for his role in the attack.
Some conservative lawmakers have taken to rejecting the idea that the riot was a riot at all — a denialism that’s only thrust the episode back into the headlines.
And Trump has continued to press his case that the election was stolen by corrupt officials — the same falsehood that inspired the mob to storm the Capitol on Jan. 6.
The combination of factors has made it all but impossible for GOP leaders to turn the public gaze away from the extraordinary attack and toward their criticisms of Biden and his policy agenda.
Those difficulties were on full display at a news conference this week when Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) sought to shine a spotlight on Biden’s Cuba policy and the dangers of socialism. Instead, McCarthy faced a barrage of questions from reporters about Jan. 6 and the 9/11-style investigative commission he’d voted against just a day earlier.
Would he testify before the commission about his phone call with Trump as the Jan. 6 attack was underway?
“Sure, next question,” McCarthy replied.
Were you surprised that 35 Republicans voted with the Democrats to create the Jan. 6 commission?
“No, not at all. I thought it would be higher,” McCarthy said.
Is it a conflict of interest for lawmakers to be voting on creating a commission that might ultimately call them to testify?
“No, because who knows what they’re going to do on the commission,” McCarthy answered.
You’re absolutely sure no GOP lawmakers were in communication with the rioters who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6?
“I don’t believe they are, but thank you for the question,” McCarthy said as fellow lawmakers could be seen behind him leaving the press conference.
Complicating McCarthy’s efforts to turn the page, there are dozens of Republicans in his conference who say the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol needs further exploration.
That 35 Republicans bucked both McCarthy and Trump to support the outside commission surprised lawmakers in both parties, who were expecting only between 15 and 25 defections.
“I have limited confidence that a traditional partisan committee process will lead us very close to the truth about Jan. 6,” Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.), who was among those 35 defectors, told The Hill. “There are some serious answers we need to get to the bottom of and an independent commission is the right way to do it.”
Others, such as conservative GOP Rep. Ken Buck (Colo.), said their constituents back home are still pressing for answers about whether Trump’s rhetoric or actions incited the Capitol riot, why some Black Lives Matters demonstrations turned violent last year, and Trump’s false assertion the 2020 election was stolen.
“I think the public on both sides wants more information about Jan. 6. I think they want more information about political violence that occurred in the summer of 2020. I think they want more information about the election. It’s going to be very difficult to pivot and not talk about those things,” Buck told The Hill outside the Capitol.
“I think there will be some value to gaining info about” the election and Jan. 6, he added. “We in Congress have a duty to try to elicit facts that would settle some of those issues.”
GOP leaders seem to have other ideas.
They opposed the bill creating the Jan. 6 commission, though it was negotiated by Republican Rep. John Katko (N.Y.). And their decision to remove Cheney, the most powerful Republican woman in Congress, was based primarily on Cheney’s refusal to remain silent about what she considers Trump’s complicity in the Capitol attack. Her replacement, Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), is a centrist-turned-Trump-loyalist who is promising a different focus — one that keeps Trump in the fold and indulges his false election claims.
Cheney is “looking backwards; Republicans are looking forward,” Stefanik told Fox News at the start of the week. “We are unified, and we are talking about conservative principles. President Trump is an important voice in the Republican Party.”
Yet Cheney, the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, has not fallen quietly. Instead, she’s sounding existential warnings that Republicans’ fealty to Trump will be the party’s downfall. And to the chagrin of GOP leaders, she’s taking that message into the 2022 midterms.
“Remaining silent and ignoring the lie emboldens the liar. I will not participate in that,” Cheney said from the House floor on the eve of her ouster. “I will not sit back and watch in silence while others lead our party down a path that abandons the rule of law and joins the former president’s crusade to undermine our democracy.”
Some Trump loyalists have unwittingly kept the Jan. 6 attack in the news with recent comments downplaying its severity.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) this week called the violent assault on the Capitol a largely “peaceful protest,” while Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) said the protesters who’ve been arrested “are being abused” in custody.
They’re hardly alone. During a hearing last week, Rep. Andrew Clyde (R-Ga.) characterized the attack as “acts of vandalism,” rejected its portrayal as an “insurrection” and compared the rioters’ conduct to that of “a normal tourist visit.”
It was later revealed the first-term lawmaker had helped to barricade the House chamber on Jan. 6, as the mob sought to topple the doors to the floor. Capitol Police officers have told The Hill they had pulled numerous firearms off rioters who had breached the complex.
In the same hearing, Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.), another Trump loyalist, suggested the rioters were the victims on Jan. 6, not the assailants. And Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.) questioned whether the mob consisted of Trump followers at all.
“I don’t know who did a poll that it’s Trump supporters,” he said.
The revisionist claims have helped to keep the story in the spotlight as exasperated lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have accused those voices of flagrant denialism.
“To all my GOP friends, when are you going to say enough is enough?” Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), a sharp Trump critic, tweeted this week.
Yet the single source most responsible for driving the debate has been Trump himself. Though he’s banned from Twitter and Facebook, the former president has issued a long and growing string of statements in recent weeks, amplifying his false claims that the election was stolen; attacking the Republican voices pushing back against those falsehoods; and warning Republican leaders to oppose any move to create an outside commission to investigate the violence carried out by the mob of his supporters.
“Republicans must get much tougher and much smarter, and stop being used by the Radical Left,” Trump said this week in a statement opposing the Jan. 6 commission. “Hopefully, Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy are listening!”
Democrats, meanwhile, are only happy to amplify the GOP divisions as they seek to investigate the causes of the Jan. 6 attack — and keep it in the public eye.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has said such an investigation will take place even if the bill creating the outside commission dies in the Senate, in which case she’ll likely form a special congressional panel to pursue the probe. And other prominent Democrats are also charging ahead, saying Republican efforts to turn the page belie the historic nature of the attack.
“This was a national trauma. Do we turn the page on 9/11? Do we turn the page on the Civil War? Or do we try to learn from a traumatic event like this?” said Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), who led the prosecution in Trump’s impeachment trial.
“The idea of sweeping it all under the rug is morally abominable and politically unsustainable. It just doesn’t work,” he added. “That’s not how history proceeds.”