GOP's Jan. 6 problem returns to its doorstep

·7 min read

The Saturday rally defending some rioters arrested during the Capitol insurrection is reminding the GOP of an uncomfortable reality: Part of its base believes the Jan. 6 attack was justified.

Saturday’s rally comes as some conservative lawmakers fan outrage on the right over former President Donald Trump’s false claims that the election was stolen from him — rhetoric that worries some fellow Republicans, who warn that their colleagues are riling up the biggest fans of the former president. That still-simmering discord within the GOP puts party leaders in an awkward position ahead of the Sept. 18 "Justice for J6" rally on Capitol Hill, organized by a former Trump campaign aide.

So far, top Republicans are staying as quiet as possible about the Sept. 18 protest on the Hill, which has prompted police officials to re-install the Capitol security fence to safeguard against potential violence. They aren’t endorsing it — nor are they condemning it. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy told reporters Monday that out of his Republican conference, he “doesn’t think anyone is” going to attend. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell did not respond to a question about whether leaders should be encouraging other rank-and-file members not to attend as he headed to a briefing on the rally.

Their approach appears to be working, as no Republican lawmakers have publicly said they will attend — even some who have repeatedly and publicly claimed some Jan. 6 defendants are “political prisoners” being treated unfairly because of their political views. However, the offices of Reps. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), and Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) — all of whom have peddled the "political prisoners" claim repeatedly — have declined multiple requests for comment about whether they plan to appear.

Amid the waiting game, some influential conservatives are trying to change the subject; Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) said Monday that he wouldn't attend the rally and didn't "know anything about it." Others are shrugging off the question of whether Republicans should appear; Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), chair of the House Freedom Caucus, said it was "none of my business.”

One GOP lawmaker in a safe red seat spoke candidly on condition of anonymity about the conundrum facing the party ahead of the rally in support of some insurrection defendants: "The majority of the Republican base feels that Jan. 6 was justified. And because those people didn't have arms, they shouldn't be incarcerated right now."

“Every day, I hear the word 'Civil War' — every day," the Republican added, recalling a return home one day after Trump supporters descended on the Capitol. This lawmaker expected sympathy and disgust about the attack on Congress and instead heard constituents commenting in support.

Other Capitol Hill offices reported similar calls from constituents who insisted the rioters did not go far enough in the weeks after the attack, which included more than 1,000 violent acts against law enforcement and is tied to multiple deaths of rallygoers as well as police officers.

Prosecutors have charged multiple defendants with carrying guns to the Capitol on Jan. 6, including a former DEA agent who flashed his service weapon for the camera. Hundreds of rioters brandished other weapons — knives, poles, clubs, bats, bear mace and even hockey sticks and a crutch — many of which were used in assaults on police.

It is unclear how many people are expected to appear at the Saturday rally, with organizer Matthew Braynard insisting he is working closely with law enforcement to ensure the event does not turn violent. Some Members of the far-right extremist Proud Boys — which has had multiple members arrested for some of the more extreme acts of violence on Jan. 6 — are urging group members on message boards to skip the event, warning that the rally is a trap for them to get arrested.

Privately, Republicans grumbled about the rally as a distraction that pulls attention away from their policy-centered critiques of the Biden administration over inflation and Afghanistan. (Hawley, for his part, said "everything else is secondary" to Biden's handling of Afghanistan.) And some in the party are taking solace that Trump has not promoted the event so far, a decision that they say would draw a crowd far greater than they expect to appear on Saturday.

But some of the intra-GOP tension over inflammatory rhetoric that plays to the base has already spilled into public view.

Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.) last month replied to a constituent who asked when the freshman firebrand would "call us back to Washington again" by saying there would be “bloodshed” if elections continue to be "rigged.” Cawthorn and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) have said they do not plan to attend the Saturday rally, but they and other conservatives have shifted their tone after initially claiming that far-left groups like Antifa were behind the violence at the Capitol, rather than Trump supporters.

Now that some Trump backers are imprisoned, the right flank of McCarthy's conference is arguing that Jan. 6 defendants are being treated more harshly as a result of their political views compared to progressive activists like Black Lives Matter protesters.

“There’s a two-track justice system in America, and the treatment of the J6 political prisoners compared with violent Antifa [and] BLM rioters proves it,” Greene said in a statement.

There's no evidence that any rules are being applied differently to Jan. 6 defendants than to others facing federal charges.

Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-N.D.), a former criminal defense attorney in federal court, said he believes some of his colleagues are responding based on misguided views of the federal court system.

“I think some of these people are being treated unfairly, absolutely. Do I think they're being treated uniquely unfairly? Absolutely not,” Armstrong said in an interview, noting that the longest he had someone held without bail during a federal case was 34 months.

Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), who became one of Trump’s fiercest critics after Jan. 6, claimed in an interview with CBS that Cawthorn’s comment last month was “language that seems intended to incite violence” — a characterization that a spokesperson for the North Carolina conservative vehemently denied at the time.

More than 600 people have been charged in connection with the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol, facing alleged crimes that range from trespassing to violent assault on police officers to conspiracy to stop the certification of the 2020 election. The overwhelming majority of suspects have been released while they await trial, while several dozen defendants have been detained — determined by judges to either be too dangerous to release into the community or a likely flight risk.

Whether or not any Republicans attend on Saturday, Democrats have described rhetoric from the handful of Republicans who've defended certain insurrection defendants as dangerous. Such comments “encourage more of the same kind of rioting we saw on Jan. 6," said Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), chair of the House Judiciary Committee and a former Trump impeachment manager.

“I think the people who are coming here Sept. 18 are of the same mind,” Nadler added.

As the war of words continues, Capitol security officials are preparing for a possible threat to the building amid widespread criticism that preparation was insufficient for eight months ago.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer both said Monday that the Capitol appears more prepared heading into Saturday compared with the runup to Jan. 6. And this time, lawmakers and staff are largely not expected to be in the building during the protest.

Nevertheless, Monday's announcement of the arrest of a man found with a bayonet and machete and parked near the Democratic National Committee headquarters, blocks from the Capitol, has heightened concerns about violence. Police say it is unclear if the arrested man was planning to attend the Sept. 18 rally.

Kyle Cheney, Burgess Everett and Nicholas Wu contributed to this report.

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