A rash of new evidence has made clear that Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the legitimate results of the 2020 election were more sophisticated and far-reaching than Americans knew in real time.
Trump’s pressure on the Department of Justice, in particular, was relentless. He reportedly plotted to elevate a staunch loyalist, and fellow election conspiracy theorist, Jeffrey Bossert Clark, to the post of attorney general. Newly uncovered documents show how Clark had endeared himself to Trump by circulating a draft letter in December that would have demanded the Georgia legislature “immediately call a special session” to consider overturning Trump’s narrow loss there, citing unspecified “irregularities.” (Trump reportedly backed down from installing Clark only in the face of a threat of mass resignations at DOJ.) On December 27th, according to notes recently uncovered by the House Oversight Committee, Trump himself pushed top DOJ officials to “just say that the election was corrupt” and “leave the rest to me.”
In light of these fresh details, the January 6th insurgency — whipped to motion by Trump’s orders to “fight like hell” against the certification of the Electoral College results — appears to have been the serious, last-ditch act of a would-be tyrant to hold on to power. Yet even as the context of the coup attempt has become clearer, the moral clarity of Republicans in Washington about the blame for January 6th has become increasingly cloudy.
In real time, GOP leaders had blamed Trump for the day’s violence. “The president bears responsibility for Wednesday’s attack by mob rioters,” House minority leader Kevin McCarthy said on January 13th. Mitch McConnell, then Senate majority leader, was even more direct, insisting Trump was “practically and morally responsible” for provoking the siege on the Capitol by people who “believed they were acting on the wishes and instructions of their president.”
For a brief moment, it appeared as if Trump — deprived of his Twitter megaphone and exiled to Mar a Lago — might have lost his stranglehold on the Republican Party. But as the weeks and months passed — and Trump not only prevailed against impeachment (again) but steadily reasserted himself as the GOP’s one true king — most Republicans cowered. (For some prominent Republicans the bravery only lasted days: McCarthy backtracked by January 21st, saying of Trump: “I don’t believe he provoked it if you listen to what he said at the rally.”) Those who stood up to Trump’s flamboyant falsehoods about the 2020 election paid a price. Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyoming), who voted for Trump’s impeachment, lost her leadership post for refusing to toe Trump’s authoritarian line. “If you want leaders who will enable and spread his destructive lies, I’m not your person,” she told her colleagues on the eve of her ouster. Cheney was replaced by Rep. Elaine Stefanik (R-N.Y.), a onetime critic of the 45th president who has shamelessly morphed into a Trump toady.
This summer, the vast majority of GOP politicians refused to back an independent commission to investigate January 6th. South Dakota’s John Thune, the GOP Senate whip, admitted that getting to the bottom of Trump’s complicity in that assault on our democracy pales in importance to 2022’s midterm elections. “Anything that gets us rehashing the 2020 elections is a day lost on being able to draw a contrast between us and the Democrats’ very radical left-wing agenda,” he said.
But rather than simply avoid the subject, D.C. Republicans have increasingly painted Trump’s attempted “autogolpe” as an innocent protest that got a little out of hand. Others have attempted to deflect attention from Trump by insisting that January 6th was relatively harmless compared to the (utterly unrelated) urban unrest in the aftermath of the George Floyd murder. Still others have followed the president’s lead to argue — without any logic or evidence — that culpability for the violence that day lies not with the man who riled up the mob, but with a woman whose Capitol office was breached: Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.
Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) is one of a pair of House Republicans now serving on a special committee to investigate January 6th. He’s blasted his party’s “insane” rhetoric, and argued that it smacks of the GOP’s “desperation to try to derail” an effective inquiry — while still seeking the validation of dear leader Trump. But he’s practically alone in his party.
Below are four tortured arguments Republicans have put forward to dismiss or minimize the democracy-shaking events of January 6th:
It Wasn’t That Bad!
Of all the arguments marshaled by Trump’s GOP defenders, the effort to gaslight Americans into thinking the events of January 6th just weren’t that bad are perhaps the most offensive. In addition to the deaths of four members of the mob, including Ashli Babbitt, who was shot dead while attempting to break into the House Chamber, the day’s violence resulted in 138 officers being injured, with at least 15 requiring hospitalization. A total of four officers have since died by suicide. Another died of a stroke on the day after the attack. Had Capitol Police not sacrificed their bodies to slow and blunt the actions of the mob, it’s impossible to say what heinous acts might have been executed, as Trump supporters, who’d set up a gallows in the shadow of the Capitol, stormed the halls chanting, “Hang Mike Pence!”
Republicans have long positioned themselves as defenders of police, calling on America to “Back the Blue.” But faced with the reality that Trump’s backers savagely beat and insulted officers (as detailed by the officers themselves in a recent congressional hearing), powerful Republicans have shrugged their shoulders. None of the carnage of January 6th — or the fact that the mob disrupted the counting of Electoral College votes key to the peaceful transfer of power — appears to weigh on the conscience of senators and representatives who’ve attempted to rewrite history, chiefly by contesting that the events of that day could be called an “insurrection.”
In a May interview on Fox News, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.) insisted of January 6th that, “by and large, it was peaceful protest,” while arguing that “it wasn’t… an insurrection.” Johnson later embellished: “To say there were thousands of armed insurrectionists breaching the Capitol intent on overthrowing the government is just simply a false narrative.”
GOP House members have been driving home the same deplorable talking point. In a May House hearing, Rep. Andrew Clyde (R-Ga.) insisted that “to call it an insurrection… is a bold-faced lie.” Clyde alternatively suggested the siege of the Capitol resembled “a normal tourist visit” or at worst “an undisciplined mob.” Rep. Pat Fallon (R-Texas) likewise described the insurgency as “a mob of misfits.”
The Insurgents Weren’t Trump Supporters!
One of the earliest lies about January 6th is that the violent agitators were not in fact Trump supporters, but rather undercover Antifa agents trying to harm the reputation of honest conservatives. Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) — accused of inciting the violence in his own speech to the mob that day — was an early spreader of this disinformation:
In reality, as federal prosecutions have underscored, the overwhelming majority who participated in the events of January 6th were, indeed, Trump supporters who had been summoned to gather in D.C. by the president (who’d tweeted: “Be there. Will be wild!“) — including members of organized, militant right-wing groups like the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers.
But in that May House hearing, Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.) contested the obvious. He took issue with an entry in an official timeline: “’2:07 PM: A mob of Trump supporters breached the steps’?” he said, incredulous. “I don’t know who did a poll that this is Trump supporters.” Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.) took this absurd argument and twisted it even further, painting the assailants as the victims. “In fact, it was Trump supporters who lost their lives that day,” Hice said, “not Trump supporters who were taking the lives of others.”
In early July, Rep Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) sent around a fundraising email surfacing a new conspiracy theory: “Facts are coming to light that the FBI might have had a hand,” he wrote, “in planning and carrying out that event.” But by late July Trump himself took things full circle, releasing a tweet-like statement in which he falsely claimed that evidence might yet implicate Antifa or BLM activists: “Will Nancy release the thousands of hours of tapes so we can see the extent to which ANTIFA and Black Lives Matter played a role?”
Black Lives Matter Demonstrations Were Worse!
Republicans have attempted to deflect responsibility for the events of January 6th by pointing to the unrelated unrest that arose out of the murder of George Floyd in the spring and summer of 2020. In trying to gin up a reason to oppose the creation of an independent January 6th commission, Republicans insisted that the commission should also investigate what GOP partisans shorthanded as “BLM riots.”
These talking points came from the top. In May, Trump released a statement in which he demanded Republicans oppose “the Democrat trap of the January 6 Commission” calling it “just more partisan unfairness… unless the murders, riots, and fire bombings in Portland, Minneapolis, Seattle, Chicago, and New York are also going to be studied.” He concluded, “Hopefully, Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy are listening!” (McConnell, as if taking his cue from Trump, would call the independent commission a “purely political exercise” and join with 35 GOP senators who succeeded in blocking its creation by using the filibuster.)
In the May House hearing, Rep. Clay Higgins (R-La.) cited injuries to police and other fallout “from BLM riots last year” to strike a pose of outrage that “we’re going to discuss today — as if none of that happened — the events of January 6th. The hypocrisy of this body is, indeed, disturbing!”
Republicans are still banging the drum that unrest over racial injustice somehow connects to the Capitol insurrection. “I think it’s important to point out that Democrats created this environment sort of normalizing rioting, normalizing looting, normalizing anarchy in the summer of 2020,” said Rep. Jim Jordan (R. Ohio) in late July. “And I think that’s an important piece of information to look into.”
It Was Nancy Pelosi’s Fault!
The oddest, laziest argument Republicans have yet surfaced is that Pelosi is somehow to blame for the carnage of January 6th because she failed to anticipate — and fortify the Capitol against — the eventuality that the president of the United States would turn loose a mob to attack a co-equal branch of government.
Forget for a moment that Pelosi was in the Capitol at the time and her office was breached, and that this argument amounts to blaming a victim for that day’s crimes. The truth of the matter is that the speaker of the House has no special role to play when it comes to directing the security of the building, which is guarded by the Capitol Police. Aside from the reflexive GOP impulse to blame Pelosi for everything, condemning her makes no more sense than blaming her GOP counterpart McConnell, about whose actions Republicans have been totally silent.
It’s of little surprise that this demented rhetoric comes from the mind of the man who actually set January 6th in motion. In a July 26th statement, Trump lofted the idea that Pelosi’s actions should be scrutinized, leveling false charges: “Will Nancy investigate herself and those on Capitol Hill who didn’t want additional protection, including more police and National Guard, therefore being unprepared despite the large crowd of people that everyone knew was coming?”
The very next day, Stefanik, newly the third-ranking House Republican, stepped in front of cameras to blast Pelosi: “The American people deserve to know the truth that Nancy Pelosi bears responsibility as Speaker of the House for the tragedy that occurred on January 6th.” The most powerful House Republican, McCarthy — who recently fantasized aloud about striking Pelosi with the Speaker’s gavel if he were to succeed her in 2022 — also parroted this nonsense: “If there is a responsibility for this Capitol, on this side, it rests with the Speaker,” McCarthy said.
This reckless and debasing behavior by top Republicans is an indication of the stranglehold Trump has over the modern GOP, and the extent to which he remains the “audience of one” for whom GOP politicians perform on TV. Republican congressman — and rare Trump antagonist — Kinzinger of Illinois insists that his party continues to make a mockery of itself, and its obligations to defend our democracy, to please the 45th president.
“All Donald Trump needs to see is that you’re making a defense, no matter how nonsensical that defense is,” Kinzinger said in a recent interview. “If you stand in front of the proper news channel that Trump watches and say, ‘This is Pelosi’s fault,’ you’ve just done your job. It doesn’t matter if it makes sense anymore. It just matters is that you’ve said something to placate him.”
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