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‘Legitimate political discourse’: Three words about Jan. 6 spark rift among Republicans

Use of the phrase in connection with the Capitol insurrection has led to days of attempted political cleanup over a Republican Party resolution censuring Reps. Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

When the Republican Party voted to censure two of its own members of Congress last week at its winter meeting in Salt Lake City, it justified the move in part by declaring that efforts to investigate the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection amounted to the persecution of individuals engaging in “legitimate political discourse.”

Those three words have since sparked a massive backlash among GOP senators who fear the resolution could jeopardize the party’s fortunes in the midterm elections. The move has also led to days of attempted political cleanup by the Republican National Committee over the language and the accompanying censures of Reps. Liz Cheney (Wyo.) and Adam Kinzinger (Ill.).

While RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel and party officials say they did not intend to defend violent insurrectionists in the resolution — which passed the committee of grass-roots members overwhelmingly — the words have been widely criticized by Republicans and Democrats alike.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Feb. 8 criticized the RNC for censuring GOP Reps. Liz Cheney (Wyo.) and Adam Kinzinger (Ill.). (Video: The Washington Post)

On Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) became the highest-ranking Republican elected official to criticize the RNC for the resolution censuring Cheney and Kinzinger for serving on the House panel investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob.

McConnell described the attack as a “violent insurrection for the purpose of trying to prevent the peaceful transfer of power, after a legitimately-certified election, from one administration to the next.”

“The issue is whether or not the RNC should be sort of singling out members of our party who may have different views from the majority. That’s not the job of the RNC,” he said.

Several other Senate Republicans similarly voiced disapproval of the censure resolution. Some, such as Sen. Susan Collins (Maine), said it was “absurd” for the RNC to defend the events of Jan. 6 as “legitimate political discourse.”

“Every moment that is spent re-litigating a lost election or defending those who have been convicted of criminal behavior moves us further away from the goal of victory this fall,” Collins told reporters at the Capitol.

Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) on Tuesday praised “my Republican colleagues who have been willing to speak the truth in the last few days,” but he said that “the vast majority of my Republican colleagues remained silent while the party leaders declared Jan. 6 legitimate.”

Members of the RNC voted overwhelmingly for the resolution by voice vote Friday, with only a smattering of “no” votes, highlighting the divide between the party’s elite and grass roots. Former president Donald Trump called McDaniel on Saturday to congratulate her on the resolution, a person familiar with the matter said.

“After the resolution was submitted, Chairwoman McDaniel and a number of other members believed censure was the most appropriate action the body to take,” Danielle Alvarez, a RNC spokeswoman, said. “ … Outside of the D.C. bubble, our grass roots are very supportive of the decision to hold Cheney and Kinzinger accountable.”

The resolution denounces the House committee’s investigation as “a Democrat-led persecution of ordinary citizens engaged in legitimate political discourse” and states that the behavior of Cheney and Kinzinger “has been destructive to the institution of the U.S. House of Representatives, the Republican Party and our republic.” Violent pro-Trump supporters stormed the Capitol after months of the former president falsely saying the election was stolen, resulting in five deaths.

The phrase “legitimate political discourse” did not appear in an original draft of the resolution by top Trump ally David Bossie, according to a copy reviewed by The Washington Post. Instead, Bossie’s version said the committee had a disregard for “minority rights” and “due process” and seemed “intent on advancing a political agenda to buoy the Democrat Party’s bleak electoral prospects.”

It is unclear how the words “legitimate political discourse” came to enter the document as it was edited in Salt Lake City by Bossie, McDaniel and others. Bossie did not respond to requests for comment.

Several RNC members said it was frustrating that, aside from a small number of resolution committee members on Thursday afternoon, no one else saw the text of the resolution until 1:38 a.m. Friday, when the document showed up in inboxes of the committee’s members. It was not read or presented aloud before it was voted on nine hours later.

In the packet, there were other resolutions, including one blaming China for the coronavirus, and another implicitly criticizing the party for creating an outreach program to target LGBTQ voters — a move McDaniel made last year.

The outreach program “created the impression among important elements of our coalition … that the RNC was undermining essential aspects of our platform, including our planks on marriage and religious liberty,” the resolution read, according to a copy reviewed by The Post.

All the resolutions were passed without any debate, public reading or presentation.

Bill Palatucci, a national committeeman from New Jersey, said he plans to push the committee to repeal the resolution censuring Cheney and Kinzinger. “At a minimum, they should remove the provision of ‘legitimate political discourse’ from the resolution,” Palatucci said. “But they should repeal the whole thing.”

“There weren’t enough eyes on the document,” Palatucci said.

Henry Barbour, a national committeeman from Mississippi, said there was “a lot of frustration with what happened” among members and other prominent Republicans. “With the strength of the environment, and the historical situation, the fundraising is good, we have the right nuts and bolts. … There are a lot of people who don’t understand why we had to do that. Resolutions shooting at other Republicans are never going to be helpful.”

McDaniel decided to get involved in editing the resolution after she learned Bossie was going to submit it, according to a person with knowledge of the matter, who like some others requested anonymity to describe internal deliberations. “It was not her idea. The horse was already out of the barn,” this person said. But she did support it privately and spoke favorably about it in front of members, people at the meeting said.

In phone calls over the weekend, McDaniel told others that she was pushed by Bossie to support the resolution and that she did not intend to support violence, which she wanted Republican lawmakers appearing on TV to make clear. People she spoke to described her as “on the ropes and trying to do damage control,” in the words of one person.

A person who spoke to McConnell said he was frustrated that the party was focused on “the only liability we have” when he believes Republicans are otherwise well-positioned to win in the November midterms. The person, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said McConnell wanted to be clear he supported McDaniel because he viewed her as a “force for good” in handling a messy situation that she did not initiate.

Asked whether he has confidence in McDaniel, McConnell said Tuesday: “I do.”

In her weekend calls, McDaniel told the story of Kathy Berden, a friend of hers from Michigan, who was subpoenaed by the Jan. 6 committee because she agreed to serve as a fake elector for Trump for the election, according to a person who spoke with the chairwoman this weekend.

In an interview with The Post before the resolution passed, McDaniel also told the story of Berden when asked why she was going after the Jan. 6 commission, but declined to name her.

McDaniel and some of her senior staff began trying to clean up what several allies and advisers viewed as a major blunder on Saturday morning. First, she sent out “talking points” to members who asked for them, according to a copy of her email obtained by The Post.

The talking points encouraged members to link Cheney and Kinzinger to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and to say that other investigations of the Capitol are ongoing, including by law enforcement.

“They are attacking ordinary citizens who engaged in legitimate political discourse completely unrelated to the violence at the Capitol,” according to the talking points. “Political speech is the most protected form of speech under the First Amendment. The January 6th Commission has unchecked power with no regard for due process or the rights of Republicans.”

In calls with some allies, McDaniel said that she was in an impossible spot, because if she had not supported the resolution, she probably would have drawn the ire of Trump and his allies, according to people who spoke with her. And, she said, her members overwhelmingly supported it.

She also told others privately that she had taken a political bullet for House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) by changing the resolution from an original draft that said McCarthy should expel Cheney and Kinzinger from the House GOP conference.

McCarthy has repeatedly declined to say whether he supports the censure resolution. On Tuesday, he told an ABC News reporter that “everybody knows there was” legitimate political discourse on Jan. 6. He later waved away the reporter when she sought to ask him follow-up questions in a Capitol hallway, telling her to instead make an appointment with his office.

In an exchange with a CNN reporter in another Capitol hallway, McCarthy claimed the RNC’s use of the phrase “legitimate political discourse” was a reference to the select committee’s move last month to subpoena individuals who cast bogus electoral votes for Trump in seven states won by Joe Biden in 2020. The text of the RNC resolution made no such distinction.

A person close to McDaniel said she had gotten overwhelmingly positive feedback from the members on the resolution and that “it actually strengthens her with them.” The person noted that McDaniel and the party had outraised other party committees, including its Democratic counterparts, even when Democrats control the White House, House and Senate.

“Listen, whatever you think about the RNC vote, it reflects the view of most Republican voters,” Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) told reporters at the Capitol on Tuesday. “So, I’m just telling you, in my state, it’s not helpful to have a bunch of D.C. Republicans commenting on what the RNC — and frankly, probably most Missouri Republicans — support. Super unhelpful, and super great way to get themselves inserted into that race, which I don’t want.”

Mike DeBonis and Amy B Wang contributed to this report.