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Deflect, minimize, deny: Unraveling the GOP Capitol riot spin

Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) said during a speech on the House floor on May 11 that "remaining silent and ignoring the lie emboldens the liar." (Video: The Washington Post)
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Time, specifically the passage of it, is a powerful tool when it comes to reframing history.

With the ouster of Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming from the third-ranking leadership position in the House Republican caucus, the GOP has completed a remarkable transformation from initial outrage over the Capitol Hill attack to a whitewashing of what happened that day.

Since the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol, Republican leaders have attempted to reckon with their relationship with Donald Trump. Below are a few examples of the verbal gymnastics Republicans have engaged in since the deadly breach of the Capitol.

It’s hard to pinpoint an exact moment when the sentiment began to shift, but in many cases it seems to have happened when Democrats signaled they would impeach Trump and place him on trial, even though his presidency had nearly ended.

Defending Trump from impeachment made it easier for Republicans to begin defending him in other ways, even though House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) initially suggested that a censure resolution might be a more appropriate course. “The president bears responsibility for Wednesday’s attack on Congress by mob rioters,” he said.

Deny: Disentangling Trump from Jan. 6

Since the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, Republicans have tried to reckon with their relationship with Trump. The following illustrates the tonal shift. (Video: Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

Establishment figures and Trump allies such as McCarthy, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and others seemed comfortable laying blame at the feet of a president who would not accept an election loss. The specter of a second impeachment trial just days before Trump was scheduled to leave office, however, was not an appetizing option. As Democrats pushed the use of congressional levers of accountability, Republicans unified their arguments of “politicization” and a push to turn a page toward the future.

Deflection: The false equivalency of ‘riots’

Republicans have falsely compared the deadly violence of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot to peaceful protests that took place in the summer of 2020. (Video: Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

Since Jan. 6, one narrative thread has coalesced among Republicans: the false comparison between the deadly violence of the Capitol riot and peaceful protests that took place in summer 2020. Part of the narrative includes drawing false comparisons between the rhetoric of Democrats such as Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and that of Vice President Harris.

Waters urged supporters in 2018 to “confront” Trump Cabinet officials in public spaces to protest immigration policy that led to family separation at the border. However, Waters was later criticized for her comments by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who cited Trump’s “lack of civility” as provoking “predictable but unacceptable” responses. Waters landed in hot water once more in early April when video emerged of her speaking to protesters in Minnesota ahead of the Derek Chauvin trial verdict, urging them to get “confrontational” if the “verdict goes the wrong way.” Waters later said that her comments were advocating for nonviolent efforts at reform. Local reports from the same night show Waters urging protesters to register and vote to “take the power.”

Harris did support fundraising efforts in 2020 for the Minnesota Freedom Fund, an organization that seeks to mitigate inequities in the cash-bail system. But the vast majority of those arrested and charged during the George Floyd protests — 92 percent — paid no bail upon release. The “whataboutism” illustrated above continues to be stoked insidiously, warping conversations about policing and peaceful demonstrations.

Minimize: Antifa and ‘fake’ Trump supporters

Republicans have attempted to minimize the actions of Donald Trump's supporters on Jan. 6, shifting the blame of violence to antifa and other groups. (Video: Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

Some prominent Republicans have attempted to minimize the actions of Trump and his supporters overall, shifting the blame of violence to antifa and leftist groups. Early reports referenced by Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) on the floor of the House on Jan. 6 have since been retracted. The company XRVision confirmed to The Washington Post that no antifa members were identified through its software at the Capitol.

Others, such as Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), have floated the idea of “fake” protesters or provocateurs as the source of violence. Johnson openly remarked that he did not feel threatened by the mob, saying it “didn’t look like an armed insurrection to me.” Police reports indicated that rioters were armed with an array of weapons, including baseball bats, chemical sprays, a crowbar, fire extinguishers and other blunt objects such as metal flagpoles.

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