Senate

GOP can’t escape Trump-fueled election controversies

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and members of his leadership team and inner circle are pushing back hard against former President Trump’s latest statements related to the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol and the 2020 election.

McConnell on Tuesday told reporters that he would oppose granting pardons to Trump supporters who pleaded guilty to breaking the law on Jan. 6, 2021, when a violent mob stormed the U.S. Capitol, resulting in the death a Capitol police officer, scores of police injuries and more than $1 million in damage.

The remarks represented the latest effort by McConnell and many of his Senate Republican colleagues to put the 2020 election behind them.

The Senate GOP thinks they can win back the majority this fall — and the House majority as well.

They want to talk about inflation and other issues they think will be drags on President Biden and Democrats at the ballot box in November.

Their problem? Trump keeps dragging them back into a controversy that he has largely manufactured and that Senate GOP leaders view as a political loser.  

Trump at a Saturday rally publicly discussed the idea of pardons for those convicted of Jan. 6 crimes, saying, “If I run and if I win, we will treat those people from Jan. 6 fairly.”

“And if it requires pardons, we will give them pardons, because they are being treated so unfairly,” Trump said.  

The remarks were not music to McConnell’s ears.

“I would not be in favor of shortening any of the sentences for any of the people who pleaded guilty to crimes,” McConnell told reporters when asked about Trump’s statement during the Texas rally. 

“The election of 2020 was decided Dec. 14 of 2020 when the Electoral College certified the winner of the election. What we saw here on January the 6th was an effort to prevent the peaceful transfer of power from one administration to another, which has never happened before in our country,” said McConnell, who is persona non grata with the former president for his criticisms of Trump. 

Other Republicans also shot down Trump’s suggestion that people convicted of Jan. 6-related crimes should receive pardons.  

“I think I was clear on that topic on January the 5th when we had the hearing with the chief of Capitol Police and I’m supportive of the Justice Department efforts to investigate and prosecute anybody’s actions or their plans for that day,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Rules Committee and a member of the GOP leadership team.  

Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) said voters are more interested in seeing political leaders focused on substantive public policy challenges than rehashing the 2020 election.

“You can’t let that be a distraction. I’m focusing on all the other challenges we have, like Ukraine, the economy, continuing to recover from COVID. Those are the things that most people care about,” he said.

At the same time, he said that people who damaged federal property and injured police officers “have to be held accountable.”

“The QAnon Shaman, all those folks, I have no sympathy for. I think they need to be prosecuted,” he said, while also expressing some sympathy for “some people” who “got swept up in” last year’s protest and are “remorseful.” 

McConnell’s remarks on Jan. 6 pardons were just one of the Trump questions GOP senators were fielding on Tuesday. 

A huge subject was also a New York Times report on Monday evening that Trump was personally involved in a discussion over whether to seize voting machines in key swing states after Biden was declared the winner of the 2020 election.  

The Times reported that Trump directed his lawyer Rudy Giuliani to ask the Department of Homeland Security whether it could legally take control of voting machines in states where Trump lost narrowly to Biden. It reported that Ken Cuccinelli, the acting deputy secretary of Homeland Security, informed Giuliani that agency officials could not take part in the plan.  

When Trump asked Cuccinelli in a meeting on another matter about the possibility of appointing a special counsel to investigate election fraud, the senior official told the president it was not a good idea, according to the Times, which cited two people briefed on the conversation.  

Some Republicans on Tuesday expressed relief that someone in the administration had stood their ground. 

“I’m just glad that there were people in the right places and that the system worked,” said Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.). “Obviously people who had positions of responsibility held their ground even when being asked to do things that they knew they shouldn’t do. Things may have bent a little bit, but they didn’t break.” 

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who is leading a bipartisan group negotiating reforms to the 1887 Electoral Count Act, said she had not read the Times report on Trump’s role in discussing the seizure of voting machines but said her group would review the matter.   

“I’m not familiar with the report, but that’s something that we’ll take a look at,” she said.  

A third topic this week has been a statement issued Sunday evening by Trump that former Vice President Mike Pence should have overturned Biden’s victory when he presided over the joint session of Congress to tally the Electoral College vote, which Biden won 306 to 232.  

Retiring Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), one of seven Republicans who voted last year to convict Trump on an article of impeachment accusing him of inciting insurrection, said he disagrees with the president on whether pardons are appropriate or whether Pence could have decided the winner of the 2020 election.  

“I think it’s inappropriate,” he said when asked about the possibility of granting pardons for people convicted of Jan. 6-related crimes.  

Burr also questioned the claim that Pence had the authority to declare Trump the winner.  

“I’m not sure I agree with his interpretation of the authorities the vice president had,” he said. 

Almost a year ago, Burr said the attack on the Capitol “was an attempt to undermine our democratic institutions and overrule the will of the American people through violence, intimidation and force.” 

Explaining his vote to convict Trump after the Senate trial, Burr said “the president promoted unfounded conspiracy theories to cast doubt on the integrity of a free and fair election because he did not like the results.”

Even Trump’s closest allies are distancing themselves from Trump’s suggestion that people convicted of Jan. 6-related crimes deserve pardons.  

“No, I don’t want to send any signal that it was OK to defile the Capitol,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday.  

Thune on Tuesday said he agrees with Graham that pardons would be inappropriate.  

“I don’t think you want to encourage unlawful behavior,” he said. “Lindsey answered that question well.”  

He said it wasn’t “any particular surprise” that Trump said Pence should have overturned the 2020 election results but noted that Pence had legal advice stating he had no such authority.   

“Pence obviously had legal counsel opinions on that which fortunately held up,” he said. “I’m just glad again there were people in the right places at the right time [and] held their ground and knew what their constitutional limitations were and abided by them.”

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a member of McConnell’s leadership team, said Republicans need to move onto other issues instead of relitigating the 2020 election. 

Asked if he’s getting tired about getting asked about Trump’s statements about the last election, Cornyn said, “I think we need to move on, that’s my attitude.”  

Updated: 7:27 p.m.

Tags Capitol riot Donald Trump Jan. 6 panel Joe Biden John Cornyn John Thune Lindsey Graham Mike Pence Mitch McConnell Richard Burr Roy Blunt Rudy Giuliani Susan Collins Thom Tillis
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