Kinzinger, 42, a former star of the 2010 tea party class, said the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol served as a final breaking point for the direction of the Republican Party, providing a stark divide between those who want to continue a path toward autocracy and those who want to return to traditional conservative values.
In an interview Sunday on NBC News’s “Meet the Press,” Kinzinger formally unveiled his Country 1st PAC and a six-minute campaign-style video launching what he hopes will become a movement.
“The reality is this: This is a time to choose. . . . And my goal in launching Country1st.com . . . is just to say, ‘Look, let’s take a look at the last four years, how far we have come in a bad way, how backwards-looking we are, how much we peddle darkness and division,’ ” Kinzinger said on the program. “And that’s not the party I ever signed up for. And I think most Republicans didn’t sign up for that.”
Kinzinger previewed the launch in a Saturday interview with a small group of reporters on a Zoom call, alternating between taking shots at freshman Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), whose promotion of the QAnon extremist ideology has drawn great attention in recent days, and being dismissive toward what he views as the weak leadership of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).
“Republicans must say enough is enough. It’s time to unplug the outrage machine, reject the politics of personality, and cast aside the conspiracy theories and the rage,” Kinzinger says in the launch video.
Kinzinger said that in the days after the assault on the Capitol he felt some optimism as McCarthy said Trump “bears responsibility” for encouraging the rioting mob to attack Congress and target then-Vice President Mike Pence. McCarthy quickly backed away from that remark, and on Thursday he praised the ex-president after a meeting at his Palm Beach resort.
“That’s a heck of a move in about three weeks. It’s hard to square that circle,” Kinzinger told reporters Saturday.
Kinzinger also suggested that McCarthy is not even the most powerful member of the GOP caucus anymore, but that it was Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) “for sure” now.
Jordan was an outcast just a few years ago who banded together with about 30 other far-right Republicans and, after forging a strong alliance with Trump, has soared to vast power over McCarthy’s leadership team while making alliances with figures like Greene and trying to expel Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) from the leadership team because she voted to impeach Trump.
“They’re political terrorists,” Kinzinger said of Jordan and his allies.
McCarthy’s and Jordan’s embrace of Trump is more in line, however, with the majority of the GOP. Earlier this week, 45 Republican senators — including some who had tied Trump’s actions to the Capitol insurrection — voted to dismiss Trump’s impeachment trial as unconstitutional, rendering his conviction unlikely. The trial is slated to start on Feb. 9.
Kinzinger himself had been slated to appear on “Meet the Press” with other GOP members of Congress who had voted to impeach Trump, host Chuck Todd noted, but the Illinois congressman wound up speaking alone.
“It’s really difficult. I mean, all of the sudden, imagine everybody who supported you . . . has turned against you,” Kinzinger told Todd, adding that he has received certified letters from relatives disowning him and claiming he is “possessed by the devil.”
He called Wednesday’s formal meeting of the House Republican Conference — when Republicans will debate Cheney’s status and discuss whether to punish Greene for her controversial actions — “the opening salvo in the fight for the party.”
In particular, Greene — who was elected in November and who has a history of making racist and anti-Semitic remarks — has emerged as one of the most incendiary members of Congress since she took office. She also has tied herself inextricably to Trump, meaning that any Republicans who rebuke her could risk angering him and drowning in the undertow of Trumpism within the party.
In numerous social media posts, Greene has parroted false claims that deadly school shootings were staged and endorsed political violence against Democratic leaders. On Friday, a major Jewish nonprofit group condemned Greene for supporting an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory that space lasers caused California’s Camp Fire, the deadliest wildfire in the state’s history.
That same day, Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) announced she was moving her congressional offices away from Greene for the safety of her staff, after claiming Greene had accosted her in the hallway without a mask. In response, Greene called Bush a liar and the leader of a “terrorist mob” for supporting Black Lives Matter.
Though many Democrats have called for Greene to be expelled from Congress — or at least censured — she has so far faced no repercussions for her rhetoric or behavior. Last week, GOP leaders appointed her to the House Education Committee, prompting a fresh round of protest and calls for her removal.
On Sunday, a handful of Republicans spoke out against Greene, but stopped short of saying she was unfit to serve. Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who recently announced he will retire, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” that he “wouldn’t be surprised” if Greene is removed from her committee assignments.
“I think Republican leaders ought to stand up and say, ‘It is totally unacceptable what she has said,’ ” Portman said. He added: “The voters who elected her in her district in Georgia ought to be respected. On the other hand, when that kind of behavior occurs, there has to be a strong response.”
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) also couched his criticism of Greene by saying the voters should decide if she should serve in Congress — and cautiously warned his colleagues not to allow the GOP to crumble because of Trumpism.
“President Trump has helped build the party over the last four years,” Hutchinson said on ABC News’s “This Week” on Sunday. “I hope he does not help to destroy the party in the coming four years. We need to have a level of accountability. We also need to make sure that we don’t tear ourselves apart.”
Hutchinson is term-limited and cannot seek reelection. Trump’s former press secretary Sarah Sanders announced last week she would be running to replace him.
There has been little benefit for Republicans who have rebuked Trump. Several of the 10 GOP members of Congress who voted to impeach Trump have faced censure — or the threat of it — by their state or county party officials.
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) on Sunday dismissed efforts in his own state by fellow Republicans to censure him and former senator Jeff Flake, as well as Cindy McCain, wife of the late senator John McCain, for criticizing Trump’s attempts to overturn the election. Arizona was among the states that Trump falsely claimed he had won.
“The state party chairman should focus on winning races,” Ducey said on “State of the Union,” responding to one of his most prominent critics.
Ducey was more equivocal on whether congressional Republicans should punish lawmakers who espouse false claims. Ducey said House Republicans would have to address Greene’s behavior, but he also tried to suggest Democrats were also guilty of promoting baseless theories — though he didn’t name any — and said he was reluctant to clamp down even on lawmakers who are spreading falsehoods.
“I’m not for this cancel culture,” Ducey said, adding: “I don’t think we should limit speech.”
Kinzinger said he does not want to play any leading role in the GOP and has no ambition to run for higher office, but said too many Republicans were remaining quiet and just hoping Trumpism would fade away without being fully confronted.
He said that his push is not really about ideology so much as driving conspiracy theorists and racists out of the GOP.
“We don’t embrace conspiracy theories to win anymore,” he said. “Would we lose the Proud Boys? Maybe. I’m fine with that.”
Shane Harris contributed to this report.