The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Top GOP lawmaker in Michigan falsely claims Capitol riot was ‘staged,’ dismisses Trump supporters’ role

Michigan Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, the state's top Republican official, told members of his party that the storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 was “all staged.” (Junfu Han/Detroit Free Press/AP)

Michigan’s Republican Senate majority leader told members of his party that the storming of the U.S. Capitol was “all staged” and not perpetrated by Trump supporters in a moment captured on video that drew calls for his resignation Tuesday from Democrats.

State Sen. Mike Shirkey’s false claims about the Capitol attack — contradicted by reporting, video and statements from the rioters themselves — circulated as Republicans remain divided over basic realities of the 2020 election and former president Donald Trump’s role in the lead-up to the Jan. 6 insurrection, underscoring the continued promotion of debunked theories by prominent members of the GOP. Newly elected Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) on Tuesday also suggested that Trump supporters were not to blame, testing her party’s willingness to condemn falsehoods and echoing her past claims that mass shootings were “false flag” events orchestrated by supporters of gun-control laws.

“Republicans need to decide for themselves if they are going to hold their leaders accountable for spreading lies,” Michigan Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D-Flint) said in a statement to The Washington Post. “They will either face the facts now or face the consequences with voters. One thing’s for sure, history will not gloss over this moment.”

Michigan Democratic Party Chair Lavora Barnes called for Shirkey’s immediate resignation, saying in a statement to The Post that the comments about the Capitol insurrection were “outrageous” and the lawmaker has “proven he is totally unfit to lead.”

Shirkey apologized Tuesday in a statement for “insensitive comments” and said he regretted his choice of words after the Detroit Metro Times and other news outlets reported on the lawmaker’s claims during a Feb. 3 meeting with a handful of fellow Republicans.

“I said some things in a videoed conversation that are not fitting for the role I am privileged to serve,” Shirkey’s statement said. “I own that. I have many flaws. Being passionate coupled with an occasional lapse in restraint of tongue are at least two of them.”

A spokeswoman did not respond to further questions, and the Michigan GOP did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

In the video, Shirkey allowed that Trump supporters were among the mob at the Capitol but played down their involvement: Some of those Trump folks probably just got caught up in the emotion of it,” he said.

Shirkey’s comments came during a meeting at a restaurant with leaders of the Hillsdale County Republican Party, a day before the county GOP voted to censure the Senate majority leader while describing him to local media as a “fair-weather RINO” (Republican in name only) and criticizing him for insufficient opposition to the coronavirus rules of the state’s Democratic governor, among other offenses.

Jon Smith, the Hillsdale County party’s secretary, told The Post he filmed the conversation with Shirkey via a phone in his shirt pocket and posted it to his YouTube channel, R.O.A.R. (Reclaim Our American Republic). He said Shirkey requested the meeting with them and then received a letter about his impending censure ahead of the gathering.

Smith said he did not inform Shirkey that he was being recorded, though he says Shirkey later claimed he realized that he was.

The lawmaker’s comments on video highlighted divisions within the Republican Party. He spoke critically of Trump lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani’s efforts to overturn the presidential election results: “So unorganized,” he said. Discussing the U.S. Capitol riot, Shirkey claimed that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was “part of it” and “wanted to have a mess.”

“It was ridiculous. It was all staged,” he said at one point.

Shirkey was then asked if Democratic D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser played a role.

“I think she’s just a puppet,” he responded, before going on to name McConnell.

Staffers for McConnell did not comment Tuesday. McConnell has condemned the “unhinged crowd” that disrupted Congress’s certification of the presidential vote for hours and sent lawmakers into hiding in a riot that left five people dead.

Shirkey, who was first elected to the state Senate in 2014, last year resisted pressure from Trump to interfere with Michigan’s election results, as the former president met with Michigan legislative leaders in Washington and shared Shirkey’s contact information online.

“I was an enthusiastic supporter until he did that, then I got a little pissed off,” Shirkey said in the restaurant video, recounting how Trump released his phone number.

Shirkey affirmed in the fall that Joe Biden was the president-elect amid rampant false claims of a stolen election and dismissed efforts to give Trump Michigan’s electoral votes. “Michigan’s Democratic slate of electors should be able to proceed with their duty,” he said in a statement as the state’s electoral college vote approached in December.

But in his recent conversation with the Hillsdale County GOP, Shirkey expressed a belief in other baseless theories, echoing those on the right who have claimed despite copious evidence that antifa or other left-wing actors were behind the Capitol attack. His comments on the riots begin when someone asks him about “the D.C. thing.”

“That wasn’t Trump people,” Shirkey says, shaking his head as Smith films from across the table.

“Not at all?” he is asked.

“That’s been a hoax from day one,” Shirkey said. “That was all prearranged.” He wonders aloud why there was not “more security.”

Shirkey also speaks crudely of Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, saying he has considered “inviting her to a fistfight on the Capitol lawn” and that “we’ve spanked her hard on budget, spanked her hard on appointments.”

“It’s disappointing that Sen. Shirkey is spending his time on political potshots, indulging conspiracy theories, and expressing empathy for the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol building,” Whitmer’s office said in a statement, saying Whitmer is focused on “keeping people safe and getting Michigan back to work.”

As news of the video spread Tuesday, Shirkey was already under renewed fire from Democrats in his state. The Michigan Democratic Party issued a statement Tuesday referring to a New York Times report that described Shirkey’s communications and appearances with leaders of armed protests, including with someone who was charged with conspiring to kidnap Whitmer. Barnes, the Democratic Party chair, said Shirkey “has embraced right-wing extremists with open arms.”

Reis Thebault contributed to this report.