Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell announced little more than a week ago that the mob that attacked the U.S. Capitol had been “provoked” by Donald Trump. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said Trump “bears responsibility” for failing to respond more quickly to the bloody incursion.
McConnell (R-Ky.) voted Tuesday against a procedural motion to proceed with Trump’s impeachment in the Senate, while McCarthy (R-Calif.) planned to meet with Trump in Florida on Thursday to mend relations that were frayed by the Jan. 6 attack, according to an adviser to the former president.
The efforts from the top serve to accommodate Trump’s most fervent supporters as they continue to champion the falsehood of widespread electoral fraud that motivated the attack on Jan. 6 and to seek retribution against the few Republicans who have called for accountability from Trump and the party’s conspiracy-minded elements.
McCarthy has rewarded with committee assignments new pro-Trump firebrands such as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), a QAnon supporter who in the past appeared to espouse violence toward Democratic leaders. Other members of Congress, including Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), have promised to inflict punishment on GOP colleagues who voted for Trump’s impeachment.
For party leadership and top election strategists, video of protesters pummeling Capitol Police officers or chanting for the death of Vice President Mike Pence has proved less germane to current considerations than the potential to quickly return to power. They have been calling for more party comity, even with those holding extremist views.
“The issue is, will the Republicans let whatever their splits are prevent them from making inroads in 2022, or will Democrats succeed in making Donald Trump the issue?” said Ari Fleischer, a former White House press secretary and Republican consultant.
Operating from Florida, Trump’s advisers have been encouraging party leaders to move on from impeachment and refrain from further criticism of the former president, even as they plot retribution against Republicans who opposed Trump’s final effort to overturn the election. Trump campaign advisers have commissioned and circulated to GOP lawmakers polling that shows him as still formidable in their states and made clear that he would seek revenge for votes against him.
“We cannot take the House and the Senate back without his help. That’s just a fact,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who has called for prosecuting every person who illegally entered the U.S. Capitol but opposes impeachment.
Shaping the Republican strategies is the relatively strong position in which they think they now find themselves. Democrats govern from a far weaker position than they did at the start of the Obama administration, with the Senate evenly divided and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) holding only a 10-seat advantage heading into off-year elections that are usually damaging to the party holding the White House. Republicans expanded the number of governorships to 27 last year and control more than 60 percent of state legislative chambers, after recently winning the New Hampshire House and Senate.
That landscape sets the party up well, Republicans say, especially if they are able to make the gains they expect through redistricting in the coming year. Even if he has largely been repudiated by those outside his party, recent polling has shown overwhelming support for Trump among voters who lean Republican, with 79 percent approving of how he handled the presidency and 57 percent saying the Republican Party should follow his leadership after the attack on the Capitol.
“There are a lot of Republicans who hold their nose, but if you want to win, there are 6 million voters in 2016 who didn’t show up in 2018,” said a House Republican political strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to comment more frankly about Republican dependence on Trump’s most loyal fans. “They are a voting coalition that matters in this country. They have a voice, and they are going to make that voice heard.”
The numbers have taken away any appetite for picking fights with the more divisive, conspiratorial and militant elements of the party. Instead, sentiment has gone the other way. The state party of Oregon released a statement this week that compared Republicans who voted to impeach Trump a second time to the traitor Benedict Arnold and suggesting falsely that the Capitol attack had been a “false flag” effort by Trump opponents. The state party of Arizona last weekend voted to censure Gov. Doug Ducey (R) for standing by the accuracy of President Biden’s win in the state, a move that was dismissed as unimportant by Ducey’s aides.
In response, McCarthy has focused on finding a way to keep his conference together, giving committee assignments to members such as Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.), who tweeted “Today is 1776” before the Capitol riot, and Greene, who also urged protests at the Capitol. Greene, who continues to claim falsely that fraud led to the outcome of the presidential election, has been under attack this week because of past social media posts that agreed with calls for violence against Democrats.
A spokesman for McCarthy called the posts “deeply disturbing” and said the leader would have a conversation with Greene, but no punitive actions have been discussed publicly.
“It’s Donald Trump’s party right now. We haven’t seen any figure leave office like this in the Republican Party since Ronald Reagan,” Trump pollster Jim McLaughlin said. “His agenda was right, and it was successful, and now he has all the right enemies — the establishment, the radical left and the media.”
For his part, McConnell has not said how he will vote at the end of the impeachment trial and has told others that he will not defend the president’s actions related to the U.S. Capitol attack, a task that is likely to fall to senators such as Graham. But McConnell did allow a lunch briefing Wednesday for senators with law professor Jonathan Turley, who has argued that impeaching Trump after his departure from office is unconstitutional.
Those arguments were compelling to many senators, Graham said. A person familiar with Senate dynamics said that fewer than five Republicans would vote to convict Trump.
“It’s just a cocktail of disaster for the presidency with impeachment as a tool of retribution,” Graham said.
Josh Holmes, a Republican strategist with close ties to the Senate GOP conference, said the objections to impeachment were multifaceted and distinct from the question of whether Trump played a role in the riot by protesters he had called to Washington and then urged to march on Congress.
“There are three pieces to it: The first is the constitutionality, which to the vast majority of Republicans is dubious at best, and the second piece is the timing of all this in that — what are we hoping to accomplish here? — and the third is that most people want to move on,” Holmes said. “Everyone wants to get to the next chapter much more than they want to re-litigate an extremely unfortunate era of the previous one.”
In a sign of how party leaders are hoping to navigate the coming months, Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel put out a statement Wednesday that condemned Democratic impeachment efforts but without offering any defense of Trump’s actions leading up to the violence at the Capitol.
“Not only is this impeachment trial a distraction from the important issues Americans want Congress focused on, it is unconstitutional, and I join the vast majority of Senate Republicans in opposing it,” McDaniel wrote. “As Democrats continue to sow division and obstruct, Republicans will keep fighting for the American people.”
McConnell and his allies are likely to focus less on whether Trump-backed parts of the party will rise in power in the coming elections than on whether Trump’s preferred candidates are viable in general election contests against Democrats. In the past, party leaders under McConnell’s direction have shown a willingness to intervene in primaries after a disastrous 2012 cycle when flawed Republican candidates identified with the tea party movement lost close Senate races in Missouri and Indiana.
But at the moment, the Republican concern over the coming Senate races remains muted. Party strategists are hopeful that candidates with broad appeal can win primaries in states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio, where there will be open elections because of the retirement of GOP incumbents. Speculation that the president’s daughter-in-law, Lara Trump, might run for the open North Carolina seat or that the president’s daughter Ivanka Trump might mount a primary challenge to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has yet to spark serious hand-wringing about Trump’s intentions.
“We’re going to move ahead into the ’22 cycle, and then the 2024 cycle, and he could, he can have a role if he chooses to do that. But so many other people will. We’ll have candidates that we’re not even talking about now that’ll be put before the American people,” said Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.).
The greatest concern has been focused in Georgia, where Trump has threatened to go after Gov. Brian Kemp (R) for not trying to overturn Biden’s win in the state, a move that could again split the party as it did this month when Democrats won two Senate runoffs there. Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D-Ga.) also will face reelection in 2022 and is seen as vulnerable by Republicans after a narrow win in a special election.
“As much as Trump wants to have a fight, the only thing Republicans care about is winning,” said another Republican strategist who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the party’s approach to the midterms.
A small and vocal minority of Republicans have continued to call for a reckoning over the extremist and anti-democratic currents that Trump has encouraged. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) said Tuesday in an address to the Economic Club of Chicago that Republicans must now make clear that Trump lost the election “fair and square.”
“Five people died with the attack on the Capitol. Five human beings died,” Romney said. “There is no question but that the president incited the insurrection that occurred.”
The Lincoln Project, a group of Republican and former Republican strategists that has pledged to stamp out Trumpism, also has continued to attack members of the party who support Trump, including McCarthy and McConnell.
“This is a submission, a surrender to Trump’s coalition but most importantly to the anti-Americanness of that coalition,” said Lincoln Project co-founder Steve Schmidt, a former aide to Vice President Richard B. Cheney and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). “They are foolish men who continue to believe they are riding the tiger as opposed to riding inside the tiger, which they have been doing for some time.”
Paul Kane contributed to this report.