McConnell’s next contradiction came 12 days later.
Asked on Feb. 25 whether he would support Trump again were he the Republican nominee for president, McConnell said he would. That was less than two weeks after saying that Trump was derelict in his duty as president.
These contradictions have played out repeatedly among Republicans over the past two months as the party struggles to define a role for someone they have said bears responsibility for the deadly Capitol riot. But many Republicans who initially criticized Trump for the attack have since demurred or recommitted themselves to him when asked about his role in the party. You can watch examples of this in the video above.
Republicans like House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), and Sens. Ted Cruz (Tex.) and Tom Cotton (Ark.) have called for Trump to remain active in the party. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) has said Trump is the party’s presumptive presidential nominee in 2024. And others, like retiring Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), have avoided criticizing Trump in recent weeks, instead pointing to his accomplishments.
One week after the attack, McCarthy said Trump bore “responsibility” for it. By the following week, McCarthy had shifted to saying that Trump did not “provoke” the riot. And by the time McCarthy spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) on Saturday, he had pivoted to praising Trump for helping Republicans win races across the country.
The day after the attack, Cruz said that Trump’s rhetoric had “crossed a line.” On Feb. 13, Cruz referred to Jan. 6 as a “terrorist attack.” By Friday, Cruz told CPAC attendees that Trump would remain a force in the Republican Party.
Six days after the attack, former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley (R) told Politico that Trump led Republicans “down a path he shouldn’t have” and that Republicans “shouldn’t have followed him.” By Sunday, Haley was back to praising Trump for his speech to CPAC.
The shifts by Republicans on Trump are perhaps not surprising, considering his support within the party. A January Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 79 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents approve of Trump and 56 percent of Republicans said he bore no responsibility for the storming of the Capitol.
In some ways these contradictions mirror 2016, when Republicans warned Americans about Trump’s rhetoric only to later deflect criticism of it. But unlike 2016, the current criticism of Trump follows the worst attack on the Capitol in more than two centuries and the most bipartisan impeachment vote in history for Trump’s role in that attack.
“I don’t think [Trump] will be our nominee,” Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), who voted to impeach Trump following the deadly riot, told CNN on Sunday. “ … Over the last four years, we have lost the House, the Senate and the presidency. Political campaigns are about winning.”