Republican Leaders Remain Silent as Trump Casts Perpetrators of January 6 Attack as Political Prisoners

Mike DeBonis and Marianna Sotomayor / The Washington Post
Republican Leaders Remain Silent as Trump Casts Perpetrators of January 6 Attack as Political Prisoners Supporters of defendants being prosecuted in the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol pray during a rally in Washington, D.C., U.S., September 18, 2021. (photo: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

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The Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol and the falsehoods that inspired it continue to shape the Republican Party, with former president Donald Trump ramping up his defense of the rioters who participated in the violence while marshaling opposition to GOP lawmakers who have denounced the attack as an insurrection and a threat to American democracy.

The state of the party was put into focus this week with the sudden retirement announcement of Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (R-Ohio), a onetime rising GOP star who became one of 10 House Republicans to vote to impeach Trump after the riot, which earned him a Trump-backed primary challenger. He cited a “chaotic political environment” and “the toxic dynamics inside our own party” for his decision.

Meanwhile, Trump this week expressed sympathy for his supporters who participated in the attack and are now being prosecuted by federal authorities ahead of a Saturday rally at the Capitol that is expected to attract a small cohort of far-right protesters, claiming that the arrestees are being held as “political prisoners.”

“Our hearts and minds are with the people being persecuted so unfairly relating to the January 6th protest concerning the Rigged Presidential Election,” Trump said in a statement Thursday, adding that the prosecutions have “proven conclusively that we are a two-tiered system of justice.”

On Friday, Trump hailed Gonzalez’s retirement, saying “Good riddance to Anthony” and “1 down, 9 to go!” His primary opponent, former Trump aide Max Miller, thanked the former president for his continued support.

Trump’s willingness to not only sweep the Jan. 6 riot under the rug, but to embrace its perpetrators as political martyrs, has been met with silence by GOP congressional leaders, despite their stated desire to move on from the past and focus the party on opposing President Biden’s governing agenda.

House Republican leaders have yet to fully denounce the “Justice for J6” rally in Washington, D.C., on Saturday, even as pro-Trump members in the conference, like Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), previously argued in defense of insurrectionists outside of the Justice Department this summer. With Trump warning his supporters not to attend, calling it a “setup” meant to embarrass him in a recent interview, even sympathetic right-wing lawmakers have kept their distance from the event.

But none of the top six Republican congressional leaders offered a fresh rebuke of Trump after he issued his Thursday statement of solidarity with the rioters. A spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) referred a reporter back to his earlier denunciations of the violence, while aides to the other leaders declined to comment or did not respond.

The refusal to engage directly with Trump has led some of his Republican critics to warn that party leaders are adopting the same nonconfrontational posture that allowed his rise to the presidency — and later enabled his promotion of the false claim that the 2020 election was stolen and the subsequent violence at the Capitol.

“That’s not leadership, it’s simply trying to hang onto what you got,” said Mark Sanford, the former GOP congressman and governor from South Carolina who lost his House seat in a 2018 primary after crossing Trump. “I get it that that’s the operating paradigm for most people in politics. But that’s also what makes Gonzalez a hero.”

The silence among GOP leaders when it comes to condemning attacks by Trump supporters that are aimed at fellow Republicans and their families has made it difficult for some to find their footing in an unrecognizable party.

Gonzalez made his decision not to seek reelection exclusively with his wife, a Republican aide familiar with his thinking but who was not authorized to speak publicly told The Washington Post. He did not consult House Republican leadership or close friends such as Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) during the process, instead publicly announcing his decision late Thursday evening.

House Republicans leadership did not release a statement in support of Gonzalez following his decision, another indicator of just how much sway Trump holds on the party and its elections.

But the aide contends that Gonzalez still maintains a good relationship with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and other members of leadership, all of whom actively considered him a rising star in the party when he beat a fervent Trump supporter in 2018. McCarthy recently announced Gonzalez would serve on his advisory team on Cuba.

Though Gonzalez no longer faces the pressure of reelection, he is unlikely to suddenly become as prominent as Reps. Cheney and Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), fellow impeachers who have vocally opposed Trump and his hold on the Republican Party. The Republican aide said the congressman will continue to focus on issues of importance to him and his constituents but not shy from commenting when appropriate.

Meanwhile, Trump’s endorsements this cycle have elevated not only loyalists but key promoters of his false claims about rampant fraud in the 2020 president election. Trump on Thursday endorsed lawyer Matthew DePerno for Michigan attorney general, who filed a lawsuit calling for a statewide audit after Trump’s loss there based on alleged election fraud in one rural country. A tabulation error by an election worker was quickly identified as the reason for an election-night inconsistency, and a judge dropped the lawsuit in May.

Another Trump endorsee, Joe Kent, said on Twitter this week that he planned to speak at Saturday’s rally, calling those being prosecuted “political prisoners” who are being denied their constitutional rights “due to their political affiliation & a narrative based on lies.” Kent is running against Rep. Jamie Herrera Beutler (R-Wash.), another one of the 10 Republican impeachers.

Trump’s endorsements have forced fellow Republicans into the position of deciding whether to support their colleagues get behind Trump’s pick. Many have tried a third option — the squishy middle. Wyoming Sens. John Barrasso and Cynthia M. Lummis, for instance, have declined to say whether they would support Cheney’s reelection bid while saying they are also not endorsing her challenger.

McCarthy has assisted some of the pro-impeachment Republicans financially, including Gonzalez — contributing $10,000 in March to the Ohioan from his leadership PAC. Another GOP PAC with ties to McCarthy, Take Back the House 2022, has donated $100,000 each to Herrera Beutler, John Katko (N.Y.), Fred Upton (Mich.), David G. Valadao (Calif.) and Peter Meijer (Mich.), all of whom also voted to impeach Trump. But he has had frosty relations with others, including Cheney and Kinzinger, who joined an investigative committee focused on Jan. 6 created by Democrats over McCarthy’s objections.

The risks for the GOP of having another election cycle focused on Trump were on full display this week in California, where Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom easily repelled a Republican-led recall campaign by tying his most prominent GOP opponent, conservative talk show host Larry Elder, to Trump’s policy and personality.

That result has buoyed Democrats as Biden’s approval ratings have sagged in recent weeks, giving the party hope that they will be able to cast the 2022 midterms as a choice between Biden and Trump rather than a referendum on the incumbent.

Chris Taylor, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said “there’s no wonder why” Gonzalez chose to retire, citing some Republicans’ embrace of anti-vaccine and anti-mask rhetoric as well as Trump’s false election claims. “Fed up with crazytown, we bet voters will reject the GOP’s dangerous agenda too,” he said.

Meanwhile, Gonzalez’s decision to leave the House rather than face a hard-fought battle against Miller demonstrates how Trump continues to purge GOP lawmakers whose moderation and independence were once crucial to allowing the party to compete in key suburban districts that have steadily drifted toward Democrats.

Former GOP Rep. Ryan Costello (Pa.), a moderate who retired in 2018 after his district was redrawn and is now considering a Senate run, said “I understand exactly why” Gonzalez chose to retire.

“Having said that, I think it is a loss for the party, and I think there are a lot of people in the country that, had they gotten to know Anthony better over time, would realize that’s exactly the kind of person you want in public office,” he said. “He was pragmatic. He had an independent streak. … It’s a loss for our representative democracy.”

Instead it has fallen to a familiar and dwindling cast of anti-Trump Republicans to warn about the perils to American democracy.

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) delivered such a warning Thursday during an event at Brigham Young University, declaring that “our resolve to follow the Constitution’s path, avoiding the perils of authoritarianism on one hand and pure democracy on the other, that’s wavering.”

“No more stunning evidence of that was the attempt to prevent the lawful and constitutional transfer of power on Jan. 6,” he said. “It followed from the president of the United States claiming that the election had been stolen from him.”

Meanwhile, the tension and violence inflamed — and rarely denounced — by Trump has become a growing point of concern for Republicans not aligned with the former president. In an interview with the New York Times, Gonzalez made clear that he would not have felt fulfilled in the job had he won reelection because the party has learned to take its cues only from Trump.

“It’s incredibly dangerous stuff that we’re playing with right now, and it hurts the party, it hurts the conservative movement, hurts our country,” Sanford said. “It needs to be stamped out and people need to speak up. And that’s why you’ve got to give credit to someone like Gonzalez, who did speak up.”

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