WASHINGTON (The Hill) — Republicans are attempting a difficult balancing act as the nation marks one year since the Capitol was attacked by violent supporters of former President Trump. To this day, he remains the undisputed leader of the party.
As the solemn Jan. 6 anniversary arrives Thursday, Republicans seek to make clear they don’t condone violence. Yet they are largely avoiding any direct reckoning of what motivated hundreds of rioters to tear down security barricades and storm the Capitol: Trump’s ongoing falsehoods about the 2020 election.
In a letter to House Republicans exemplifying the GOP straddle, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) reiterated that “the actions of that day were lawless and as wrong as wrong can be.” He wrote, “Our Capitol should never be compromised and those who broke the law deserve to face legal repercussions and full accountability,” but he then went on to accuse Democrats of using the events of Jan. 6 “as a partisan political weapon to further divide our country” and argued they should be focusing on improving Capitol security.
“Unfortunately, one year later, the majority party seems no closer to answering the central question of how the Capitol was left so unprepared and what must be done to ensure it never happens again,” McCarthy wrote. Unsaid was why one of the worst security breaches in the Capitol’s history, which left five people dead and scores of police officers injured, happened in the first place.
Trump, for his part, did Republicans a rare favor on the issue when he scrapped a planned Thursday news conference at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, where he was expected to dig in on his false claims of election fraud. The former president canceled the event Tuesday, citing “the total bias and dishonesty of the January 6 Unselect Committee of Democrats, two failed Republicans, and the Fake News Media.” He announced that he would instead “discuss many of those important topics” at a rally in Arizona on January 15.
The decision by Trump to scrap his sure-to-be-incendiary press conference means Republicans will no longer have to face a split-screen of solemn commemoration events at the Capitol and the most powerful figure in their party renewing the falsehoods that led his supporters to break into the seat of American democracy.
When asked Wednesday if canceling the press conference was the right move, Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) said tersely that the former president’s advisers “apparently thought it was the right thing to do.”
Even before Trump’s Tuesday announcement, GOP lawmakers outside of his most ardent allies had expressed little enthusiasm for the event. When asked hours before Trump changed his plans if the press conference would be helpful for the GOP, Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the second-ranking Senate Republican, sought to thread a needle of deferring to the former president without explicitly endorsing his plans.
“I don’t know what he’s going to say, but I think we all know that there isn’t anything we can say or do to influence or shape what he’s gonna say or do,” Thune said. “Hopefully, his comments will be helpful, not harmful.”
But Thune, who, like other Senate GOP leaders, voted to certify President Biden’s electoral victory, didn’t deny the severity of what happened on Jan. 6. “Out of respect for the Capitol Police and others, people who were harmed, and the loss of life that occurred here, as a result of that, I think we all need to respect and reflect on what happened here and again, take steps to make sure it never happens again,” he said.
Democrats are planning a series of events on Thursday to mark one year since the assault on the Capitol, including a prayer vigil, a panel with historians “to establish and preserve the narrative” of January 6 and testimonials from lawmakers to reflect on their experiences escaping from the mob. Biden and Vice President Harris will also deliver remarks at the Capitol on Thursday morning.
Since the House is not scheduled to be in session on Thursday and many GOP senators are attending the late Sen. Johnny Isakson’s (R-Ga.) funeral that day, it’s increasingly likely that the commemorative events at the Capitol will be predominantly attended by Democrats. But at least two of Trump’s most ardent allies, GOP Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.) and Matt Gaetz (Fla.), will be on Capitol Hill on Thursday to hold what they described as “a Republican response” to the January 6 anniversary, which they announced after Trump canceled his own event.
If there’s one area of consensus between Democrats and Republicans about January 6, it’s ensuring the Capitol Police isn’t caught flat-footed in an emergency again. Lawmakers in both parties have sought investigations and held committee hearings over the past year into why the Capitol Police was vastly underprepared for the violent mob as Congress certified the Electoral College votes. And over the summer, lawmakers enacted a $2.1 billion spending bill to provide funding for the force and to fortify the Capitol complex.
Capitol Police Chief Thomas Manger outlined this week how the department has enacted—or is in the process of completing—a series of recommendations from reviews by its inspector general and congressional committees since last January, including overhauling its intelligence operations, updating police equipment, improving coordination with other law enforcement agencies and distributing cell phones to all officers.
But after months of far-right Republicans allied with Trump and right-wing media downplaying the severity of the attack on the Capitol, Republicans are decidedly more reluctant to dive into why the insurrection happened in the first place.
There are a few exceptions, most notably Reps. Liz Cheney (Wyo.) and Adam Kinzinger (Ill.), who were tapped by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to serve on the select committee investigating the events. But the two have been ostracized for openly pushing back against Trump, with Cheney booted from House GOP leadership and Kinzinger ultimately opting not to run for reelection.
By contrast, just days ahead of Thursday’s anniversary, a group of far-right House Republicans allied with Trump sent a letter to the Federal Bureau of Prisons director condemning what they described as “the abhorrent persecution” of people held in pre-trial detention over crimes related to January 6.
But Republicans who neither want to cross Trump nor lionize the rioters would rather keep the focus on strengthening Capitol security. Rep. Rodney Davis (Ill.), the top Republican on the House Administration Committee, circulated a memo to GOP offices this week identifying remaining security deficiencies, including that the Capitol Police is still short more than 400 officers and how there is still remaining work to harden the Capitol’s physical infrastructure.
Davis accused Democrats of prioritizing what he called a “partisan witch-hunt” against Trump and his associates for their roles in the attack on the Capitol over scrutinizing the law enforcement response. “Instead, their entire focus has been on settling political scores and creating a distraction that takes the institution further from answering the most important question: why was the Capitol so unprepared on January 6?”
House Administration Committee Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), who’s also a member of the January 6 panel, acknowledged that Capitol security could still stand to be bolstered further. But she emphasized that the Capitol Police’s preparation failures a year ago aren’t to blame for the attack itself. “Institutional failures did not cause the violent attack on our Capitol and our democracy,” she said.