Many of the same Republican members of Congress who voted to reject the results of the presidential election have reacted to the Jan. 6 violent insurrection in a way that avoids blaming President Donald Trump’s supporters for their attack on the Capitol.
In statements, those lawmakers have used well-worn tactics, such as the passive voice, a focus on the acts instead of the actors and a vagueness that leaves a comment open to interpretation. That allows them to deflect from the reality that it was Republican supporters who attacked Capitol Police to occupy the Capitol for the first time since the War of 1812, and to conflate the mob with other protests over the summer.
Take Missouri Republican Sen. Josh Hawley, who led the charge Jan. 6 to try to reject the results of President-elect Joe Biden’s win in Pennsylvania, even though courts that examined Trump’s unfounded allegations of election fraud found no reason to question the outcome.
In the days leading up to the mob attack at the Capitol, Hawley used direct language to describe a protest outside his house, saying, for example, that “Antifa scumbags” went to his house “and threatened my wife and newborn daughter.”
But in Hawley’s carefully worded press statement after the Jan. 6 attack, the Yale-trained lawyer focuses on the idea that violence is criminal and crimes should be prosecuted — self-evident and uncontroversial conclusions that nobody is questioning — and makes no mention of who the perpetrators are.
“These acts of violence were criminal. They must be condemned,” Hawley said. “And they must be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”
Such a linguistic construction of the passive voice has long been a parody of the Washington politicians from both sides of the aisle, who, when trying to evade responsibility for a series of decisions, say, “Mistakes were made.”
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, on the floor in the hours after the attack, made his contribution to that genre with his blameless description of Wednesday’s events: “Police officers were attacked.”
“The violence, destruction and chaos we saw earlier was unacceptable, un-democratic, and un-American,” McCarthy said, before he voted to reject the election results from Arizona and Pennsylvania. “The Capitol was in chaos. Police officers were attacked.”
Texas GOP Sen. Ted Cruz, who led a dozen of his colleagues in a plan to reject election results from up to six other states because of baseless allegations from Trump, also condemned the violence without naming whom Congress should condemn.
Cruz, a Harvard-educated lawyer who has argued before the Supreme Court, had repeatedly named antifa, a decentralized collection of far-left activists, as responsible in connection to protests over the summer. But in his only press release about the attack on Congress, Cruz didn’t specifically name the groups or individuals responsible.
"The attack at the Capitol was a despicable act of terrorism and a shocking assault on our democratic system,” Cruz said. “The Department of Justice should vigorously prosecute everyone who was involved in these brazen acts of violence.”
Compare those to more direct statements from other Republicans, such as Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, who said on the Senate floor that it was Trump’s supporters, “whom he has deliberately misinformed for the past two months and stirred to action this very day. What happened here today was an insurrection that was incited by the president of the United States.”
And Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, who leads the House Republican Conference, minced no words about “a violent mob” that tried “to prevent us from carrying out our Constitutional duty.”
“There is no question that the president formed the mob, the president incited the mob, the president addressed the mob. He lit the flame,” Cheney said on Fox News.
A toxic mix of lies, misinformation
Romney and Cheney voted against the Trump-backed efforts to reject election results from key states based on the president’s unsubstantiated claims of fraud. Those allegations consisted mainly of a toxic mix of lies, misinformation, conspiracy theories and bogus legal arguments that state and federal judges, even those Trump appointed, quickly booted from court.
On the other hand, Republican statements often broadened the discussion to equate the mob that raided the Capitol — the physical heart of American democracy as lawmakers debated whether to accept the results of the presidential election — to the protests and demonstrations nationwide about police misconduct.
Hawley, for example, spoke on the Senate floor just hours after the mob attack, but didn’t focus solely on the day’s events.
“I just want to acknowledge that, when it comes to violence, it was a terrible year in America this last year,” he said. “We have seen a lot of violence against law enforcement, and today, we saw it here in the Capitol of the United States. In this country, in the United States of America, we cannot say emphatically enough: Violence is not how you achieve change. Violence is not how you achieve something better.”
Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio did not vote to reject any election results, but in a video statement, he conflated the Trump-inspired attack on the Capitol with the arsons, graffiti and other crimes that protesters of police violence committed this summer.
“I don’t care what hat they wear, I don’t care what banner they’re carrying, riots should be rejected by everyone, every single time,” Rubio said. “Now, are the left hypocrites? Absolutely. I remember what they now are calling insurrection, they were justifying just this summer. They called it the language of the unheard when rioters were burning cities.”
Missouri Republican Rep. Jason Smith, in a post on his website Friday, also suggested that Democrats contributed to the violence at the Capitol because they were hypocrites for excusing the violence that occurred over the summer, although he didn’t identify the people perpetrating the violence in either instance.
“Over the past year, we have seen violent protests spread throughout our country, and over and over, those who committed violence were not held accountable,” wrote Smith, who voted to throw out the results of the presidential election. “In fact, when the statue of Christopher Columbus was torn down this past summer in Baltimore, Speaker Nancy Pelosi shrugged it off as ‘people will do what they do.’”
“This lack of accountability undoubtedly contributed to the shameful display this week in the United States Capitol building,” Smith said. “Glass was broken and tear gas had to be administered to prevent rioters from breaking down the doors.”
Others went further and suggested without evidence that antifa was behind the mob that had come to Washington that day on Trump’s invitation and listened to the president speak near the White House just before the insurrection.
Florida Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz, on the House floor when the chamber reopened after the attack, said he “didn’t know if the reports were true” but cited a Washington Times article that said there was some “pretty compelling evidence from a facial recognition company showing that some of the people who breached the Capitol today were not Trump supporters.”
“They were masquerading as Trump supporters, and, in fact, were members of the violent terrorist group antifa,” said Gaetz, who also posted the article on Twitter and Facebook.
The Washington Times later issued a correction, saying the software did not identify any antifa members. Federal authorities who are investigating the mob told reporters on Jan. 8 they did not have any indication that antifa conspired to frame Trump supporters for violence at the Capitol.
“If it isn’t true, the point still stands that our nation has endured both left and right wing violence & I condemn it all,” Gaetz, who voted against counting the results of the presidential election in key states, later tweeted. “Specifically, I condemned the attacks on the Capitol and on Speaker Pelosi’s home.”
On Monday afternoon, McCarthy reportedly discussed with Trump whether he bore some responsibility for the attack. But the minority leader sent a letter Monday to his Republican Conference that only talked vaguely about “avenues available to the House to ensure that the events of January 6 are rightfully denounced and prevented from occurring in the future,” including a censure resolution.
The Republican leader never mentioned the target of such a resolution, although some of his members have floated censuring Trump as an alternative to impeachment.
“Zip ties were found on staff desks in my office. Windows were smashed in. Property was stolen,” McCarthy wrote in the letter. He did not mention who did those actions.