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By James Oliphant and Chris Kahn
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Since the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, former President Donald Trump and his Republican allies have pushed false and misleading accounts to downplay the event that left five dead and scores of others wounded. His supporters appear to have listened.
Three months after a mob of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol to try to overturn his November election loss, about half of Republicans believe the siege was largely a non-violent protest or was the handiwork of left-wing activists "trying to make Trump look bad," a new Reuters/Ipsos poll has found.
Six in 10 Republicans also believe the false claim put out by Trump that November's presidential election "was stolen" from him due to widespread voter fraud, and the same proportion of Republicans think he should run again in 2024, the March 30-31 poll showed.
Since the Capitol attack, Trump, many of his allies within the Republican Party and right-wing media personalities have publicly painted a picture of the day’s events jarringly at odds with reality.
Hundreds of Trump’s supporters, mobilized by the former president's false claims of a stolen election, climbed walls of the Capitol building and smashed windows to gain entry while lawmakers were inside voting to certify President Joe Biden’s election victory. The rioters - many of them sporting Trump campaign gear and waving flags - also included known white supremacist groups such as the Proud Boys.
In a recent interview with Fox News, Trump said the rioters posed “zero threat.” Other prominent Republicans, such as Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, have publicly doubted whether Trump supporters were behind the riot.
Last month, 12 Republicans in the House of Representatives voted against a resolution honoring Capitol Police officers who defended the grounds during the rampage, with one lawmaker saying that he objected using the word “insurrection” to describe the incident.
The Reuters/Ipsos poll shows a large number of rank-and-file Republicans have embraced the myth. While 59% of all Americans say Trump bears some responsibility for the attack, only three in 10 Republicans agree. Eight in 10 Democrats and six in 10 independents reject the false claims that the Capitol siege was "mostly peaceful" or it was staged by left-wing protestors.
“Republicans have their own version of reality,” said John Geer, an expert on public opinion at Vanderbilt University. “It is a huge problem. Democracy requires accountability and accountability requires evidence.”
The refusal of Trump and prominent Republicans to repudiate the events of Jan. 6 increases the likelihood of a similar incident happening again, said Susan Corke, director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups.
"That is the biggest danger – normalizing this behavior," Corke said. “I do think we are going to see more violence.”
In a fresh reminder of the security threats the U.S. Capitol faces since Jan. 6, a motorist rammed a car into U.S. Capitol police on Friday and brandished a knife, killing one officer and injuring another and forcing the Capitol complex to lock down. Officers shot and killed the suspect.
Allie Carroll, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee, said its members condemned the Capitol attack and referred to a Jan. 13 statement from Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel. "Violence has no place in our politics ... Those who partook in the assault on our nation's Capitol and those who continue to threaten violence should be found, held accountable, and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law," McDaniel said.
A representative for Trump did not respond to requests for comment.
'DANGEROUS SPIN ON REALITY'
The disinformation campaign aimed at downplaying the insurrection and Trump's role in it reflects a growing consensus within the Republican Party that its fortunes remain tethered to Trump and his devoted base, political observers say.
According to the new Reuters/Ipsos poll, Trump remains the most popular figure within the party, with eight in 10 Republicans continuing to hold a favorable impression of him.
“Congressional Republicans have assessed they need to max out the Trump vote to win,” said Tim Miller, a former spokesman for Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush. “That that is the path back to the majority.”
Republicans in Congress show few signs of breaking with Trump. Right after the deadly Capitol siege, 147 Republican lawmakers voted against certifying Biden's election win. The Democratic-led House of Representatives impeached Trump for "inciting an insurrection", making him the only U.S. president to be impeached twice, but most Senate Republicans acquitted him of the charge in a trial.
Last week, Republican congressman Jim Banks of Indiana said the party must cater to the working-class voters that comprise Trump’s political base ahead of next year’s critical midterm elections that will dictate control of Congress.
"Members who want to swap out working-class voters because they resent President Trump’s impact... are wrong," Banks wrote in a memo to Republican House leader Kevin McCarthy, contents of which he posted on Twitter.
Banks was one of the 147 lawmakers who voted to block certification of Biden's win, and he later voted against impeaching Trump. Banks did not respond to requests for comment.
Some mainstream Republicans contend that after Republicans lost both the White House and control of both chambers of Congress on Trump's watch, the party must move on from the former president in order to attract suburban, moderate and independent voters.
In the latest Reuters/Ipsos poll, only about three in 10 independents said they have a favorable view of Trump, among the lowest level recorded since his presidency. Most Americans -- about 60% -- also believe Biden won the November election fair and square, and said Trump should not run again.
Representative Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, one of Trump's top Republican critics in Congress, has criticized the push to rewrite the history of the Capitol attack.
The disinformation effort is “such a dangerous, disgusting spin on reality,” Kinzinger wrote in a fundraising appeal to supporters last month, “and what’s even worse is that it goes unchallenged by so many in the Republican Party.”
The window for the Republican Party to distance itself from Trump seems to have passed, Miller said.
“There was a chance after January 6 for Republican leaders to really put their foot down and say, ‘We can’t be the insurrectionist party,’” he said. “Now that opportunity is totally gone.”
The Reuters/Ipsos poll was conducted online, in English, throughout the United States. It gathered responses from 1,005 adults between March 30-31. The poll has a credibility interval, a measure of precision, of about 4 percentage points.
Click here to see the full poll results: https://tmsnrt.rs/3mnB1Gw
(Editing by Soyoung Kim and Alistair Bell)