Then and now: GOP lawmakers’ evolution on the Capitol riot

Jun 8, 2022, 7:15 AM | Updated: 7:35 am
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., listens during a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on the fis...

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., listens during a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on the fiscal year 2023 budget for the FBI in Washington, DC on Wednesday, May 25, 2022. (Ting Shen/Pool Photo via AP)

(Ting Shen/Pool Photo via AP)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Most every Republican lawmaker expressed outrage in the days after the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Some even blamed then-President Donald Trump.

But the larger GOP narrative shifted in the weeks and months that followed. Republican House leader Kevin McCarthy, who had said in the hours after the attack that it had been “the saddest day I have ever had serving as a member of this institution,” went on to visit Trump at his Florida home only weeks after the riot.

Others went further, with some Republican lawmakers defending the rioters or playing down the violence of the mob that beat police officers and smashed its way into the Capitol. The rioters, echoing Trump’s falsehoods about widespread fraud in the election, temporarily stopped the certification of Joe Biden’s presidential victory.

A few Republicans have consistently criticized Trump, putting their own political future in peril.

A look at comments from key Republicans in the year-and-a half since the attack as the House committee investigating the riot prepares to begin public hearings Thursday night.

HOUSE GOP LEADER KEVIN MCCARTHY, R-CALIF.

On Jan. 13, 2021, just before the Democratic-led House voted to impeach Trump over the insurrection, McCarthy said that ” the president bears responsibility for Wednesday’s attack on Congress by mob rioters.”

McCarthy said Trump should have immediately denounced the mob when he saw the violence unfolding.

“These facts require immediate action by President Trump: accept his share of responsibility, quell the brewing unrest, and ensure President-elect Biden is able to successfully begin his term,” McCarthy said. “And the president’s immediate action also deserves congressional action, which is why I think a fact finding commission and a censure resolution would be prudent.”

Just a week later, McCarthy told reporters, “I don’t believe he provoked it, if you listen to what he said at the rally,” referring to Trump’s speech to his supporters in front of the White House shortly before the assault on the Capitol. Trump had said to march peacefully to the Capitol, but he also told people in the crowd to “fight like hell” or “you’re not going to have a country anymore.”

McCarthy later voted against forming a bipartisan commission to investigate the attack and has called the Democratic-led Jan. 6 committee a partisan sham. He is now appearing with Trump and praising the former president at fundraisers.

Trump never accepted responsibility for the insurrection and has defended the rioters.

___

SENATE REPUBLICAN LEADER MITCH MCCONNELL, R-KY.

McConnell spoke of the “failed insurrection” the night of the attack and said Congress “will not be kept out of this chamber by thugs, mobs, or threats.”

He voted weeks later to acquit Trump for inciting the insurrection. But he delivered a scorching rebuke of Trump after that vote, saying that “there is no question that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of that day. The people who stormed this building believed they were acting on the wishes and instructions of their president.”

McConnell continued: “Their having that belief was a foreseeable consequence of the growing crescendo of false statements, conspiracy theories, and reckless hyperbole which the defeated president kept shouting into the largest megaphone on planet Earth.”

That same month, McConnell said he would “absolutely” vote for Trump if he were the GOP nominee in 2024.

___

FORMER VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE

Pence was under more pressure than any other Republican on Jan. 6, 2021 because Trump was calling on him to object to Biden’s certification even though the vice president had no legal authority to do so in his ceremonial role presiding over the count.

Pence refused Trump’s entreaties. As he hid in the Capitol during the insurrection, rioters breaking in were chanting “hang Mike Pence.”

Bringing the Senate back to session in the hours after the insurrection, Pence said he condemned the violence “in the strongest possible terms.”

“To those who wreaked havoc in our Capitol today, you did not win,” Pence said. “Violence never wins. Freedom wins. And this is still the People’s House.”

Two weeks later, Pence attended Biden’s inauguration. Trump refused to go.

Since then, Pence has repeatedly defended his decision to abide by his constitutional role. He has called for the GOP to move on from 2020 as he lays the groundwork for a potential presidential run that could put him in direct competition with his former boss.

He reinforced his stance in a speech this year, saying that “President Trump is wrong. I had no right to overturn the election.”

Still, he has walked a careful line, praising the Trump-Pence administration’s policy accomplishments as he courts support from the party’s base.

___

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, R-S.C.

Graham spoke emotionally and forcefully the night of the insurrection, suggesting that he would permanently break ties with Trump after the two had forged a close relationship during Trump’s presidency.

“Trump and I have had a hell of a journey,” Graham said on the Senate floor in the hours after the attack. “I hate it being this way. Oh my God, I hate it. From my point of view, he has been a consequential president. But today, the first thing you will see, all I can say is, count me out. Enough is enough. I tried to be helpful.”

Graham voted to certify Biden’s victory and praised Pence for resisting the pressure to object.

In the months afterward, Graham softened his stance, and he and the former president continued to talk.

“Can we move forward without President Trump? The answer is no,” Graham told Fox News host Sean Hannity in the spring of 2021. “I’ve determined we can’t grow without him.”

___

REP. MO BROOKS, R-ALA.

Brooks is the rare House Republican to have stepped up his criticism of Trump since the insurrection.

The Alabama Republican was one of Trump’s most forceful allies on Jan. 6, 2021, telling the crowd at the rally near the White House before the riot, “Today is the day American patriots start taking down names and kicking ass.”

Brooks was one of several GOP lawmakers who tried to help Trump overturn his election defeat. Brooks said on the House floor after the violence that in his judgment, “if only lawful votes cast by eligible American citizens are counted, Joe Biden lost and President Trump won the Electoral College.”

In August, though, as he was running in a GOP primary for the Senate, Brooks told a crowd that it was time to move on from the 2020 election. Trump didn’t like that and withdrew his Senate endorsement.

Brooks claimed that Trump rescinded his support after the two had a conversation in which he told Trump there was no legal way to rescind the results or hold a “do-over” of the 2020 election.

Brooks is now in a runoff for the GOP Senate nomination, having risen in the polls after Trump dropped him. And Brooks is asking the former president to back him again.

___

REP. LIZ CHENEY, R-WYO.

Cheney has been the most prominent and consistent GOP critic of Trump — and she’s staked her political career on it.

A week after the attack, Cheney was one of only 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump. In a statement, Cheney said that “the president of the United States summoned this mob, assembled the mob, and lit the flame of this attack. Everything that followed was his doing.”

She said Trump should have intervened, but did not. “There has never been a greater betrayal by a president of the United States of his office and his oath to the Constitution,” Cheney said. “I will vote to impeach the president.”

Cheney, who was then a member of House leadership, faced immediate backlash from her party for the impeachment vote and for her forceful remarks. But she has not wavered in the year since, and accepted an invitation from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to sit on the committee that is investigating the insurrection.

House Republicans booted Cheney from leadership and the party censured her and Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger, the only other Republican on the Jan. 6 committee. And she faces a strong challenge in the Wyoming primary from a Trump-backed candidate.

“When I know something is wrong, I will say so,” Cheney said in a campaign video announcing that she had filed for reelection. “I won’t waver or back down.”

___

Associated Press writer Jill Colvin contributed to this report.

For full coverage of the Jan. 6 hearings, go to https://www.apnews.com/capitol-siege

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Then and now: GOP lawmakers’ evolution on the Capitol riot