The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Republicans voice fear of Jan. 6 repeat after Trump’s ‘PROTEST’ call

Both House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene urged people not to protest, despite calling Trump’s potential arrest a miscarriage of justice. And the reason why is abundantly clear.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) at the Capitol on March 10. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has cast potential criminal charges against Donald Trump in Manhattan as a grave miscarriage of justice. He has accused the district attorney there of “abusing his office” and of an effort to “subvert our democracy.” And he has said the GOP-led House will investigate.

But if Trump is actually arrested, McCarthy says people shouldn’t protest this same supposed miscarriage of justice.

“I don’t think people should protest this, no,” McCarthy said late Sunday at a news conference.

McCarthy’s comments came after Trump claimed over the weekend that he would be arrested Tuesday, and explicitly urged his supporters to “PROTEST, TAKE OUR NATION BACK!” McCarthy gamely tried to suggest that Trump wasn’t talking about literally protesting in person and was merely urging people to “educate” one another about what’s going on.

On March 19 House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said he didn’t believe supporters should protest the possible indictment of former president Donald Trump. (Video: C-Span)

In the enormous procession of Republicans trying to smooth over and revise Trump’s comments, this is certainly one of the more remarkable episodes. Better than anything, it reinforces just how much Republicans fear a repeat of Jan. 6 as Trump and party members continue to mobilize the former president’s supporters around the idea that he is being persecuted.

The GOP has downplayed the idea that Trump incited the Capitol insurrection and even cast the votes to acquit him of that at his impeachment trial. It has also fed into his claims of persecution by launching investigations into the “weaponization” of the government. But urging its base against a supposed mere “protest”? That shows yet again that they recognize how Trump can serve as a catalyst for unrest.

Trump’s rhetoric has in many ways echoed the lead-up to Jan. 6: offering mixed signals while clearly playing with fire.

In mid-December 2020, Trump called for protesters to descend on Washington on Jan. 6, saying, “Be there, will be wild!” During his speech that preceded the riot, he called on those supporters “to peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard.”

But he also directed them to march to the Capitol, and he had a demonstrated history of suggestively alluding to the idea that his supporters might one day get violent, as they ultimately did. Others around him also goaded the crowd with more suggestive language. Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani, for example, urged “trial by combat” in his Jan. 6 remarks.

Similarly, Trump’s call today is facially just about protest. But as recently as last month, he promoted a social media post warning that if Trump were disqualified from office, those behind it would “have to figure out how to fight 80,000,000.” The user added: “People my age and old will physically fight for him this time. … They got my 6 and we Are Locked and LOADED.”

After the search of Trump’s residence at Mar-a-Lago in August, Trump promoted a warning from Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) of “riots in the streets” if Trump were prosecuted. And Trump also said that “terrible things are going to happen” if the “temperature” in the country wasn’t brought down.

Trump pitched this as his personal effort to lower the temperature, but even Fox News hosts Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham expressed skepticism that that was his true intention.

Those segments were telling. “Maybe he doesn’t mean it,” Carlson acknowledged of Trump’s professing to want to lower the temperature, while Ingraham pressed Trump lawyer Christina Bobb on Trump’s meaning about “terrible things.” We’ve learned in recent months that Trump alienated both hosts with his actions surrounding Jan. 6 — which they acknowledged privately.

And indeed, Republicans have to recognize the dangers posed by another ugly scene. It’s one thing to convince enough people that Trump wasn’t at fault once; it’s quite another for it to happen again after Trump employed a similar tone and continued to toy with the idea of his supporters getting animated and even violent.

And McCarthy isn’t the only one who appears to recognize that danger and is trying to head it off.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), ahead of Jan. 6, labeled that day “our 1776 moment” and added at another point, “You can’t allow it to just transfer power ‘peacefully’ like Joe Biden wants … and allow him to become our president because he did not win this election.”

But on Sunday, she too suggested that this potential protest was perhaps a bad idea. She said she would instead be going to Trump’s rally on Saturday in Texas (as if one couldn’t attend two events four days apart).

“I’m planning to go [to Texas]; I can’t wait to go down there,” she said Sunday. “I’m not going to New York. I’m going to go to Waco, Texas, and I’m going to join up with a bunch of people that support President Trump.”

She said in a tweet Saturday: “We don’t need to protest about the Communists Democrat’s planning to arrest President Trump and the political weaponization of our government and election interference.”

Greene, of course, layered this with a conspiratorial suggestion that any unrest wouldn’t be Trump supporters’ fault, pointing to baseless theories about provocateurs on Jan. 6.

But the fact that even she indicated that it wasn’t the best idea to heed Trump’s “PROTEST” call suggests that this is a concerted effort to head off the potential for problems. Now we’ll find out whether Trump will cooperate.

To the extent that he does or doesn’t echo McCarthy’s contention that he wasn’t literally calling for a protest, that will say a lot.