In the Republicans’ disinformation campaign, the arrested Capitol rioters are political prisoners and Speaker Nancy Pelosi is to blame for the attack.
In the hours and days after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, rattled Republican lawmakers knew exactly who was to blame: Donald J. Trump. Loyal allies began turning on him. Top Republicans vowed to make a full break from his divisive tactics and dishonesties. Some even discussed removing him from office.
By spring, however, after nearly 200 congressional Republicans had voted to clear Mr. Trump during a second impeachment proceeding, the conservative fringes of the party had already begun to rewrite history, describing the Capitol riot as a peaceful protest and comparing the invading mob to a “normal tourist visit,” as one congressman put it.
This past week, amid the emotional testimony of police officers at the first hearing of a House select committee, Republicans completed their journey through the looking-glass, spinning a new counternarrative of that deadly day. No longer content to absolve Mr. Trump, they concocted a version of events in which those accused of rioting were patriotic political prisoners and Speaker Nancy Pelosi was to blame for the violence.
Their new claims, some voiced from the highest levels of House Republican leadership, amount to a disinformation campaign being promulgated from the steps of the Capitol, aimed at giving cover to their party and intensifying the threats to political accountability.
This rendering of events — together with new evidence that Mr. Trump had counted on allies in Congress to help him use a baseless allegation of corruption to overturn the election — pointed to what some democracy experts see as a dangerous new sign in American politics: Even with Mr. Trump gone from the White House, many Republicans have little intention of abandoning the prevarication that was a hallmark of his presidency.
Rather, as the country struggles with the consequences of Mr. Trump’s assault on the legitimacy of the nation’s elections, leaders of his party — who, unlike the former president, have not lost their political or rhetorical platforms — are signaling their willingness to continue, look past or even expand his assault on the facts for political gain.
From his private club in New Jersey, Mr. Trump suggested that Ms. Pelosi should “investigate herself,” yet again falsely insinuating that antifa and Black Lives Matter — not his followers — caused the destruction on Jan. 6 and that a democratically decided election had been stolen from him.
All the while, in the Senate, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the top Republican, who once led his party in condemning both the riot and Mr. Trump’s role in it, made no visible attempt to stop the flood of fabrications, telling reporters he had not watched the hearing and had little new to say about the most violent attack on the Capitol since the War of 1812.
House Republicans’ desire to bury the attack on their own workplace has created a dysfunctional governing atmosphere. Ms. Pelosi has increasingly treated them as a pariah party, unworthy of collaboration or trust, and has expressed deep disdain for Representative Kevin McCarthy, the minority leader, whom she called a “moron” this past week.
“Anytime you mention his name, you’re not getting an answer from me,” she told reporters. “Don’t waste my time.”
Almost as soon as the police retook control on Jan. 6, hard-core defenders of Mr. Trump in Congress began recasting the gruesome scenes of violence that left five people dead.
Mr. McCarthy, the California Republican, responded differently at first: He angrily demanded that Mr. Trump stop the rioters, according to an account he gave fellow Republicans at the time. A week later, as the House moved to impeach Mr. Trump, Mr. McCarthy said that “the president bears responsibility” for the “attack on Congress by mob rioters” and called for a fact-finding commission.
But in the months since, that early resolve has given way to an out-and-out intent to bury the attack. Mr. McCarthy, who is trying to win back the majority in 2022, moved quickly to patch things up with Mr. Trump, gave latitude to far-right members of his caucus and worked furiously to block the creation of an independent 9/11-style commission.
This past week, just before the officers began to deliver anguished testimony about the brutality they had endured, Mr. McCarthy repeatedly laid blame not with Mr. Trump, the rioters or those who had fueled doubts about the election outcome, but with Ms. Pelosi, one of the invading mob’s chief targets.
“If there is a responsibility for this Capitol, on this side, it rests with the speaker,” Mr. McCarthy said.
Representative Elise Stefanik of New York, the recently selected House conference chairwoman, went even further, saying Ms. Pelosi “bears responsibility” as speaker “for the tragedy that occurred on Jan. 6” and deriding her as “an authoritarian who has broken the people’s house.”
Ms. Pelosi is not responsible for the security of Congress; that job falls to the Capitol Police, a force that the speaker only indirectly influences. Republicans have made no similar attempt to blame Mr. McConnell, who shared control of the Capitol at the time.
Outside the Justice Department, meanwhile, a group of conservative lawmakers gathered to accuse prosecutors of mistreating the more than 500 people accused in the Jan. 6 riot.
Encouraged by Mr. Trump, they also echoed far-right portrayals of Ashli Babbitt, a rioter who was shot trying to break into the House chamber, as a patriotic martyr whose killing by the police was premeditated.
As if to show how anti-democratic episodes are ping-ponging around the globe, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia in June seized on Ms. Babbitt’s killing — calling it an “assassination” — to deflect questions about his own country’s jailing of political prisoners.
Some senior Republicans insist that warnings of a whitewash are overwrought.
For Mr. Cornyn and other lawmakers, continuing to talk about the attack is clearly an electoral loser at a time when they are trying to retake majorities in Congress and avoid Mr. Trump’s ire.
Most Republican lawmakers instead simply try to say nothing at all, declining even to recount the day’s events, let alone rebuke members of their party for spreading falsehoods or muddying the waters.
Asked how he would describe the riot, in which a hostile crowd demanded the hanging of Vice President Mike Pence, his brother, Representative Greg Pence of Indiana, responded curtly, “I don’t describe it.”
Yet the silence of party stalwarts, including nearly all of the House Republicans who voted to impeach Mr. Trump for his role in the attack and the Republican senators who voted to convict him, has created an information void that hard-right allies of Mr. Trump have readily filled. And they have found receptive audiences in a media environment replete with echo chambers and amplifying algorithms.
In a July poll by CBS News, narrow majorities of Trump voters said they would describe the attack as an example of “patriotism” or “defending freedom.”
That silence follows a familiar pattern: Rather than refute false allegations about a stolen election and rampant voter fraud, many leading Republicans have simply tolerated extremist misinformation.
Perhaps no one’s silence has been more significant than that of Mr. McConnell, who criticized Mr. Trump and his party in the immediate aftermath of the attack, denouncing it as a “failed insurrection” fueled by the former president’s lies.
Since Mr. Trump’s impeachment acquittal by the Senate in February, when Mr. McConnell declared him “practically and morally responsible,” the minority leader has all but refused to discuss Jan. 6.
The quiet acquiescence of party leaders has effectively left Representatives Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois as the only two Republicans still willing to speak out against a majority of their party.
“Clearly there were security failings at the Capitol, but there was a mob that tried to prevent us from carrying out our constitutional duty,” Ms. Cheney said in an interview. “It’s very hard for me to understand why any member of Congress of either party would want to whitewash that.”
Ms. Cheney has already paid a price: Republicans ousted her this spring from their No. 3 leadership position, replacing her with Ms. Stefanik.
Now, House hard-liners want to expel her and Mr. Kinzinger from the Republican conference altogether, portraying them as “snitches” and “spies” in league with Democrats.
The message is clear: Adherence to facts cannot overcome adherence to the party line.
July 31, 2021
Though it includes elements of past partisan games, this is ground-breaking. It recalls, for example, a previous conservative effort to delegitimise a Democratic president: millions believed Barack Obama was a foreign-born Muslim. Yet that lie was not embraced by Republican leaders. By contrast, the fantasy that Joe Biden stole the election from Mr Trump has been actively promoted or quietly acquiesced to by most of them. Only a handful, including Ms. Cheney and Mr. Kinzinger, have firmly repudiated it.
Similarly, Mr. McCarthy and his House colleagues once hounded Hillary Clinton over a mendacious claim that she was responsible for an attack on American officials, just as they are now hounding Ms. Pelosi. Yet few Americans knew or cared about the earlier incident in faraway Benghazi, in Libya. The violence that Mr. McCarthy and most House Republicans are now misrepresenting or wishing away in an effort to minimise Mr. Trump’s hand in it could not have been more conspicuous or significant. Nor could it have been more graphically documented, as was underlined by the inquiry’s opening testimonies, given by four police officers who battled the rioters.
Hollywood action flicks have been less dramatic than the scenes they described. Aquilino Gonell, an Iraq veteran, described a “medieval battle” in which, blood pouring from two lacerated hands, he fought for survival. Harry Dunn recalled the rioters advancing on him, chanting “Boo fucking nigger”, close by us democracy’s holy of holies, the Capitol’s Rotunda. Michael Fanone described, with recourse to his body camera to fill in the blanks, being dragged through the mob, electrocuted until he suffered a heart attack, then beaten unconscious. All the officers—black, white, and brown—stated or implied that Mr. Trump was responsible; “Trump sent us,” one recalled the rioters telling him.
More harrowing testimony is rarely heard on Capitol Hill—and the events described took place there. Yet most Republican voters believe there has already been too much focus on the insurrection, that Mr. Biden was chiefly to blame for it and, as Mr. McCarthy knows, the inquiry has little chance of changing that. Denialism of this kind is again familiar—it got Mr. Trump through two impeachment trials—yet, on this scale and issue, also unprecedented. It is evidence for what Jonathan Rauch describes in a new book, “The Constitution of Knowledge”, as an “epistemological crisis” to which the future of American democracy is now hostage.
Mr. Rauch (once of this newspaper, now with the Brookings Institution) acknowledges that the crisis has many causes, from the decline of deference to the anarchy of the internet, and that it is to some degree also evident in left-wing cancel culture. Yet he diagnoses it mainly on the right, where he attributes it to a deliberate five-year assault by Mr. Trump on Republicans’ perception of reality. The former president’s daily barrage of small or ludicrous lies, from the numbers who attend his rallies to the path of a hurricane off the coast of Alabama, wore away at his supporters’ attachment to truth. He also rubbished all experts and institutions—cogs in the process of cross-checking and corroboration by which shared facts are produced—that might try to repudiate him.
By the time Mr. Trump began predicting—fully seven months before the election—that his opponents would steal it, the Republican base had become vulnerable to whatever delusion he proposed. The fact that many liberals did not take his truth-bending as seriously as they should have done was further testament to his genius for scrambling America’s senses. Writing even before the success of Mr Trump’s stolen-election lie had become clear, Mr. Rauch cites the most dreadful sentences George Orwell ever wrote to describe its effect: “The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.”
Vandals at the gate
It is possible that matters will improve. Next year’s mid-terms may show that moderate Republicans find Mr. Trump’s distortions and violence, in the end, intolerable. That could create space for stronger leaders than Mr. McCarthy to redirect the party to reality. Yet it must be acknowledged, in the week that four visibly traumatised police officers described a mortal fight against Mr. Trump’s supporters, and his party shrugged, that most of the evidence is pointing the other way.