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Republicans want history to hold Donald Trump accountable — when it won’t matter

AP Photo/Nathan Howard
Former President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally at Waco Regional Airport Saturday, March 25, 2023, in Waco, Texas.

At the annual Gridiron Dinner in Washington this month, former Vice President Mike Pence declared that what happened on “that tragic day,” Jan. 6, 2021, “was a disgrace, and it mocks decency to portray it any other way.” The then-president’s “reckless words,” Pence added, endangered his family, members of Congress, and the Capitol Police, “and I know that history will hold Donald Trump accountable.”

That said, neither Pence nor any of the other declared or potential candidates for the GOP presidential nomination have advocated holding Trump politically or morally accountable now. When it matters.

After the assault on the Capitol, Nikki Haley, former governor of South Carolina and U.N. Ambassador, indicated that Trump “would be judged harshly by history.” Asked how he should be held accountable, she said he was so isolated and had “fallen so far” he would no longer “be in the picture.” Several months later, Haley maintained, “We need him in the Republican Party. I don’t want us to go back to the days before Trump.” And she indicated she would not run for president in 2024 if Trump was a candidate.

In February, 2023, Haley announced her candidacy for the GOP presidential nomination. She emphasized the need for a “new generation of leadership,” and did not mention the former president.

On Jan. 7, 2021, Florida governor Ron DeSantis called the assault on the Capitol “totally unacceptable and those folks need to be held accountable. It doesn’t matter what banner you’re flying under — the violence is wrong, the rioting and disorder is wrong.” Since then, apart from decrying the dissemination by the “D.C.-New York media” of “narratives that are negative,” DeSantis has exercised his right to remain silent about Jan. 6, President Trump’s role in it, and accountability.

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson has maintained that because Trump was “politically and morally responsible” for Jan. 6, he “disqualified himself” from seeking another term in the White House. Last year, Hutchinson told reporters he would not support Trump for re-election in 2024. He blasted Trump’s call for terminating parts of the U.S. Constitution in order to overturn the 2020 election, as “tearing at the fabric of our democracy.” This month, Hutchinson castigated Trump’s promise of “retribution” against Democrats in a second term as an appeal “to the angry mob.”

But Hutchinson did not rule out backing Trump if he became the Republican nominee in 2024: “I want to see what the alternatives are. And it’s premature to get into what might happen in 2024.”

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin characterized the Jan. 6 Capitol riot as a “blight on our democracy.” Asked if he agreed with Winsome Earle-Sears, Virginia’s Republican lieutenant governor, who deplored the former president’s “racist” comments about Trump administration Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chow and denounced him as a “liability” to the GOP, Youngkin (mocked by Trump as “Young Kin… Sounds Chinese doesn’t it?”), dodged: “I haven’t made comments about that right now. What I am is focused on is bringing everybody together.”

Larry Hogan, former governor of Maryland, did not vote for Trump in 2016 or 2020. Hogan called the Jan. 6 assault “one of the darkest days in American history” and indicated Trump should have resigned or been removed from office because of his role in inciting it. Before he decided against running for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, however, Hogan told conservative talk show host Hugh Hewitt he would support the candidate selected by the GOP. He subsequently clarified that — right now — he would not commit to supporting Trump if he became the nominee.

“America will never forget 1/6/2021 — a day when domestic terrorists attacked our Capitol,” New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu predicted. And “it is clear that President Trump’s rhetoric and actions contributed to the insurrection.” At the 2022 Gridiron Dinner in Washington, a comedy event, Sununu appeared to be impressed by Donald Trump’s “experience” and “integrity,” then paused, and yelled, “Nah, I’m just kidding. He’s f—–g crazy!” Sununu added that Trump is not “so crazy you could put him in a mental institution. But I think if he were in one, he ain’t getting out.

Earlier this month, Sununu predicted Trump would not be the Republican standard bearer in 2024: “that’s just not going to happen.” But he added, “I’m a lifelong Republican. I’m going to support the GOP nominee.”

Although Donald Trump uncovered no credible evidence of widespread fraud, he spent the last months of his presidency sowing distrust in democracy, pressuring state officials to “find votes,” lobbying legislators to overturn the popular vote in battleground states, weaponizing the Justice Department, endorsing a fake elector scheme, pressuring Pence to refuse to certify the Electoral College results, and encouraging his supporters to “fight like hell” to keep him in office.

This behavior, a raft of Republican leaders once proclaimed, disqualified Trump from holding political office again.

At this perilous moment for our country, it seems reasonable to expect that history will hold each of them accountable for retreating from this self-evident truth.

More importantly, given most Republican leaders’ apparent timidity and deafening silence, it’s far less likely, alas, that Republican voters will conclude that Mr. Trump has in fact “fallen so far” that he should not now “be in the picture.”

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Stuart Blumin) of “Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century.”

Tags 2024 gop primary 2024 hopefuls 2024 presidential campaign 2024 presidential candidates 2024 Republican primary 2024 Republicans Accountability Asa Hutchinson Chris Sununu Donald Trump Donald Trump Glen Youngkin Glenn Youngkin Jan 6 Capitol riot Jan. 6 Capitol attack January 6 attack on the Capitol Larry Hogan Mike Pence Nikki Haley Republican Party Ron DeSantis Trump legal battles Trump legal issues Winsome Sears

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