When he appeared before the press on July 21, the day that Speaker Nancy Pelosi booted two Republicans from a panel to investigate the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy made a pledge.
“We will run our own investigation,” the California Republican said. “Why was the Capitol so ill-prepared for that day… and what have we done to make sure that never happens again?”
More than six weeks later, and well into the official Jan. 6 committee’s own work, there’s no sign that McCarthy and the House GOP will make good on that pledge. Several House Republican aides said they hadn’t seen any indication that such a probe is imminent. A McCarthy spokesperson didn’t answer repeated requests for comment.
For the vast majority of the GOP, those crickets sound good. Most Republicans would be happy to never talk about Jan. 6 again, and with the party increasingly focused on President Joe Biden’s handling of the end of the war in Afghanistan, some are baffled that McCarthy might lift any finger to remind the public of the low point of Donald Trump’s presidency.
“None of us want this to be a priority,” said a House Republican aide. “I don’t think there’s any member that wants to serve on this committee.”
Some Republicans expect that McCarthy’s “investigation” might be palmed off to a handful of lawmakers who could produce a report that narrowly focuses on Capitol security failures. Despite the fact that a bipartisan Senate investigation has already covered much of that turf, many Republicans clearly feel more comfortable about focusing on security failures because it allows them to hammer Pelosi—who is nominally in charge of House security—and avoid the question of Trump’s culpability.
In an interview on Thursday with local TV station KGET in his Bakersfield district, McCarthy did not talk about any GOP-led Jan. 6 probe when asked, only reiterating questions around security preparedness that day.
It’s the latest stage of congressional Republicans’ gradual backpedaling from reflection on the root cause of Jan. 6 to denial that the former president’s refusal to concede and his encouragement of election fraud conspiracies brought the mob to the Capitol in the first place.
There was a time, immediately after the attack, when even McCarthy admitted that Trump was to blame for the chaos and violence at the Capitol. “The President bears responsibility for Wednesday’s attack on Congress by mob rioters,” McCarthy said that night. “He should have immediately denounced the mob when he saw what was unfolding.”
Other House Republicans agreed too, if not publicly then privately. But as Jan. 6 recedes further into memory, even those Republicans who believe Trump is at fault feel the attack is now squarely a political cudgel for Democrats, and don’t see much of a point in dwelling on it.
Now, the only GOP voices that seem interested in talking about Trump’s role on Jan. 6 are those determined to erase it through conspiracies and revisionist history—even as extreme pro-Trump forces are angling to protest at the Capitol again this month.
On Sept. 18, as many as 700 far-right activists are planning to gather at the Capitol for a rally branded as a call for “justice” for Jan. 6 rioters currently in jail as they await trial on criminal charges for their roles in the insurrection. U.S. Capitol Police are closely monitoring the event, and officials are considering re-installing the fencing around the complex that stood for months after Jan. 6.
The alarming possibility of another Capitol confrontation comes as a faction of MAGA lawmakers continues to downplay the severity of the riot and discredit the raw testimony from police officers who fended off the mob that day.
Despite the fact that a number of Jan. 6 rioters have pleaded guilty—including the so-called “Q Shaman,” who went inside the Senate chambers that day—these Republicans have helped to seed future protests by referring to those facing prosecution for breaking the law on Jan. 6 as “political prisoners,” evoking those unfairly jailed for their political beliefs.
The rhetoric has quickly reached potentially dangerous conclusions. In remarks last week at a local GOP event, Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-NC) lamented “we don’t actually know where all the political prisoners are” and speculated about being “able to go and try and bust them out.”
“Let me tell you, the reason why they’re taking these political prisoners is because they}re trying to make an example, because they don’t want to see the mass protests going on in Washington,” Cawthorn claimed. When someone in the crowd asked “when are you going to call us to Washington again?” the congressman responded, “this is something that we’re working on.”
“There are a lot of Republicans,” he said, “who don’t want to talk about this."
In an interview days later, Cawthorn attempted to clean up the backlash by claiming he was not responding to that question and was not, as it appeared, encouraging another Capitol rally—a prospect that is far more than a pipe dream.
No one interviewed expects McCarthy to do anything to reprimand Cawthorn, who is just the latest member of the House Republican Conference who seemed to encourage more violence. Meanwhile, more than a dozen Republicans—Cawthorn included—wrote last week to McCarthy, demanding that he expel Reps. Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger from the GOP for their participation in the Jan. 6 select committee.
That juxtaposition exposes a sorry state of affairs for the party, a senior GOP aide lamented.
“That elements of the Republican Party are comfortable defending insurrectionists as political prisoners is a new low in the post-Trump era, and proof that post-Trump isn’t really post-Trump, people are still clearly playing to him,” said the aide, who called any notion of a McCarthy-run investigation “illegitimate” and remained baffled that the GOP leader didn’t just take a bipartisan deal for an independent Jan. 6 commission that was brokered months ago.
Privately, some Republicans expect that the “political prisoners” talk will only spread within the party. A senior House GOP aide observed to The Daily Beast that the talking point is a “good landing spot” for lawmakers who faced pressure at home for not challenging the 2020 election results, or who only face questions about it in Washington.
“You don’t have to sanction specific behaviors or support specific people—you’re just supporting equal justice,” said the aide, who added that some hardcore activists might “ruin it as a no-cost messaging zone” with attention-grabbing antics.
As for the instigator of the riot and current leader of the GOP, Donald Trump appears to have lost interest—if he ever had much to begin with—in McCarthy’s pledge for a counter-investigation.
Two people close to Trump say they haven’t heard the ex-president talk or ask about it recently. The sources say the former president has been much more focused on huddling with his lawyers to figure how to deny the current House Jan. 6 committee’s requests for various records from that day.
Trump, the two sources said, has expressed particular annoyance about what the committee could want from Mark Meadows, Trump’s former White House chief of staff, and has privately griped that White House chiefs of staff shouldn’t be subjected to this type of “harassment.”
Trump’s political priority on the Jan. 6 riot has remained focused squarely on continuing spreading his lies about the 2020 election outcome, to recast many of the violent rioters as MAGA martyrs or as peaceful allies, and to denounce those who stood in his way of clinging to power as the enemy. Since the Capitol assault, he’s maintained his towering popularity among GOP voters, and many powerful Republican politicians and conservative groups have been more than willing to continue defending and supporting Trump.
It’s a reality that Trump himself predicted in his final days as occupant of the White House early this year.
In January, following the riot in Washington, D.C., Trump repeatedly demanded that aides keep bringing him print-outs of public polls conducted after the Capitol attack—polls that even then showed Trump holding onto strong approval numbers among Republicans.
According to one person with direct knowledge of the matter, at one point in his last few days sitting in the White House, the then-president was reviewing some of this data with a pair of political advisers when he began discussing several of his prominent GOP allies and some former top Trump officials, such as his former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley. Trump’s gripe was that they had criticized him over the riot, blamed him, or had suggested that the mob violence was a reason for the party to finally move on from Trump.
At that meeting, after days of marveling at post-riot poll numbers that underscored his sustained, solid approval rating among U.S. conservatives, Trump remarked with a slight smirk, “They’ll never talk bad about me again,” this source recounted.
Soon enough, Trump’s prediction was validated. After the riot, it did not take long at all for leaders in the mainstream Republican Party and conservative movement to come crawling back to Trump. In fact, it took three short weeks, tops.
There may be a limit, however, to how much McCarthy and Republicans can avoid a question that the official Jan. 6 committee will undoubtedly probe as it moves ahead: Trump’s exact role on that day, and that of other top Republicans, McCarthy included.
It’s well-known that the GOP leader spoke to Trump by phone at least once on Jan. 6, including one blow-up fight that was confirmed publicly by Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-WA). In response to McCarthy’s urgings that Trump tell his supporters to stand down, the president reportedly responded that “I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are.”
And Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), a key Trump ally whose nomination to the Jan. 6 committee was vetoed by Pelosi, also spoke to the president that day.
On Thursday, CNN reported that the Jan. 6 committee requested the phone records of hundreds of people—including McCarthy and several staunchly pro-Trump lawmakers. In response, McCarthy threatened to punish any telecommunications or tech companies that comply with those records requests, saying that a GOP majority “will not forget.”
Privately, there were Republicans who grimaced at that saber-rattling, wondering what it would accomplish. It reflected, for some, that McCarthy had lost control of the Jan. 6 narrative.
“I think this is going pretty poorly for him,” said a House GOP aide of McCarthy.
To many Democrats, the development—and McCarthy’s own closeness to Trump on Jan. 6—underscored the perils of having him play any role in investigating aspects of the Capitol attack.
During his interview in Bakersfield on Thursday, McCarthy insisted he has nothing more to say about his conversations with Trump on Jan. 6.
“I have nothing to hide,” he said, “but I have nothing to add.”