The backlash since then has been shocking and sudden, as party leaders and senior officials have affirmed their independence from the lame-duck president, whose reputation as a political winner has been tarnished by twin debacles on successive days.
A double defeat in Tuesday’s Senate runoffs in Georgia, which cost the GOP its last remaining hold on federal power, was blamed by party officials on Trump’s fixation on his own grievances. Those losses and his decision Wednesday to incite supporters to head to Capitol Hill, where they rioted, have let loose pent-up furies against Trump in his final two weeks in office.
“Yesterday was a bad day for Trumpism but an even worse day for democracy and the country,” said David Kochel, a longtime Republican consultant in Iowa. “We can’t continue to have an outrage industry that feeds all of this. The best way to put out this sort of dumpster fire is to deprive it of oxygen. And oxygen is attention. We can’t give it attention.”
The anxiousness extended to cocktail parties held Wednesday night at the winter meeting of the Republican National Committee in Florida.
“People are freaking fed up. Repeatedly, what I kept hearing over and over again was that the president is responsible for the loss in Georgia and the president is responsible for what happened yesterday,” said one Republican operative at the event, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations. “It may well mean that he will not have the same kingmaking power.”
Nonetheless, Trump was showered in adulation when he called in to a Thursday RNC breakfast, an audible signal of his continued pull over many activists.
Just 48 hours earlier, Republicans saw themselves as capable in 2022 of taking control of the House and extending their control of the Senate. Now, the Senate newly lost, they look ahead to the prospect of candidates having to either side with a president whose political approach has proved toxic in growing parts of the country, or risk the ire of his fans by distancing themselves.
The 2024 presidential campaign looms as well in a party that is increasingly divided, with potential candidates forced to pick sides and calibrate their fealty to Trump. The tensions were evident this week when two potential candidates, Sens. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), saw it as advantageous to tie themselves to Trump’s demand to overturn the election results — only to enrage many of their Republican colleagues and find themselves tarred by the chaos unleashed by the rioters.
In Washington, the growing split in the party was omnipresent Thursday.
Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and at least five more junior members of the Trump administration have resigned since the mob assault on the U.S. Capitol, which injured police, damaged property and resulted in four deaths, including one in police shooting and three medical emergencies. Vice President Pence and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have denounced Trump’s designs and refused his pleas to overturn the election. Multiple Republican senators who had planned to object to affirming President-elect Joe Biden’s victory reversed their decisions late Wednesday night.
A growing group of Republicans, including Trump’s former chief of staff, John Kelly, and Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), have meanwhile embraced the idea of removing the president under the 25th Amendment, which is intended to allow for a transition when the president is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) have called for Trump’s removal from office.
“The president needs to understand that his actions were the problem,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said at a news conference, just months after winning reelection by embracing Trump and his politics and weeks after golfing with him.
Graham called for the prosecution and imprisonment of every person who forced their way into the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, people whom Trump had sympathized with. Graham dismissed them as “domestic terrorists.”
At the Republican National Committee, communications director Michael Ahrens released a statement Wednesday on Twitter also calling the riot “domestic terrorism” and denouncing as “unfounded conspiracy theories” the false claims of election fraud peddled by Trump that motivated the attack.
Just how far the president’s influence has fallen will likely take months to sort out. Former president Richard Nixon was able to remake himself as a senior statesman in his party after his inglorious 1974 resignation under pressure. Trump remains the biggest draw in his party and was recently named the most admired person in the country in a Gallup poll, with 18 percent of the country choosing him, including 48 percent of Republicans.
Such numbers, including Trump’s own pride in the crowds he can command, sparked his decision to engineer a public spectacle in Washington that coincided with the congressional votes to accept the presidential election results. Immediately before his supporters attacked the Capitol, Trump had urged them to “show strength” and promised defeat for any lawmaker who opposed his wishes.
“We have to primary the hell out of the ones that don’t fight,” he said in a warning to his own party’s elected leaders.
On Thursday, less than 24 hours after the riot, he called into the RNC’s winter meeting in Florida, where he was greeted with cheers at an all-members breakfast when placed on speakerphone. He did not mention the rioting and only spoke for about a minute. He complained about the media.
“We love you!” some in the room yelled when the president spoke.
Michele Fiore, an RNC member from Nevada, stood up and encouraged the crowd during a session on Thursday to make sure that Trump remains engaged with the party and that his voters were not disenfranchised. The crowd applauded loudly after her comments.
In a two-minute video to RNC members filmed on the colonnade and shown on Thursday night, Trump bragged about the popularity of the party, his 74 million votes, women who won seats in the House and the expedited coronavirus vaccine, according to an attendee. He did not mention the events at the Capitol.
“Our popularity as a party is doing very well,” Trump said. “We have setbacks every once in a while . . . but I think we’re in great shape.”
“We’ll be seeing you very soon,” Trump said.
Other speakers with 2024 ambitions at the RNC meeting included South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, who spoke at Thursday lunch, and Nikki Haley, the former U.N. ambassador under Trump, who spoke Thursday, officials said.
The crowd had a lackluster response when Haley criticized Trump, a person in the room said. “He was badly wrong with his words yesterday,” Haley said. “And it wasn’t just his words. His actions since Election Day will be judged harshly by history.”
The current RNC chair, Ronna McDaniel, whom Trump has endorsed for another term and congratulated in his video message, is expected to win reelection this weekend and has deep support among the members. One Republican involved in the party, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid retribution, said that it was “a shame” McDaniel did not have a challenger because the party lost both of the Georgia Senate races.
“People were shocked that she thought she deserved reelection,” this person said.
But no challenger materialized against her, particularly after Trump supported her publicly.
The weekend agenda, according to a person familiar with it, includes formal headshots for the members, a dinner in the Ritz-Carlton ballroom and a welcome reception on the oceanfront lawn. On Thursday afternoon, senior staff took questions about strengthening state parties. The cost of a cocktail at the hotel, which overlooks dolphins jumping in the ocean, run as high as $24 for an aged old fashioned.
Members overwhelmingly did not want to publicly criticize Trump at events Wednesday night after the rioting, people present at the hotel said. There were no official discussions of even criticizing his actions, the people said, though members did release a statement condemning the violence.
“These violent scenes we have witnessed do not represent acts of patriotism, but an attack on our country and its founding principles,” read the statement, released just hours after law enforcement found and deactivated a pipe bomb outside party headquarters.
Much of the party’s future path will depend on Trump’s ability to reclaim his communication channels in the coming months. Trump’s preferred bullhorn, the social media platforms he had once called “my voice,” have been taken from him, with both Twitter and Facebook announcing suspensions of his accounts.
He had no public events Thursday, privately giving the Medal of Freedom to professional golfers.
Another indication of tensions within the party was the move by some to go out of their way to praise Pence, who drew furious criticism from Trump for refusing to overturn the election results. Tony Fabrizio, the president’s campaign pollster, tweeted support for Marc Short, a top Pence aide, after reports that Trump had banned Short from the White House.
“In this debacle of the last week or so, there’s one person who stands out above all others. That is Vice President Pence,” Graham said. “The things he was asked to do in the name of loyalty were over the top, unconstitutional, illegal and would have been wrong for the country.”
The moderate wing of Trump’s party, which has long regarded Trump with varying levels of muted disdain, was no longer holding back.
“There’s no question that America would be better off if the president would resign or be removed from office,” Gov. Larry Hogan (R-Md.) said during a news conference in Annapolis, adding that Trump “has chosen to fan the flames of hate and mislead millions of voters through lies and conspiracy theories, rather than face the reality of his own defeat.”
Gov. Charlie Baker (R-Mass.) placed blame for the mob in the Capitol squarely on Trump, saying that he left the building “nearly defenseless” and made “disgraceful” comments amid the attack.
“He thanked the mob for their support,” Baker said during a news conference in Boston. “The whole thing makes me sick.”
Shawn Reilly, the mayor of Waukesha, Wis., announced that he was leaving the Republican Party, which he’s been a part of for nearly four decades, as a result of the incident.
“This will possibly be the cause of the end of my political career but I have to put this out because I am so upset,” he wrote on Facebook. “I am ashamed that I was a member of the Republican Party and I do not know how I can ever be a member again.”
He confirmed the Facebook post but declined to comment further.
“Everyone needs to accept that Biden won, and that includes President Trump,” said Steve Frias, an RNC committeeman from Rhode Island. “The continuation of our republic is more important than having a Republican hold on to the presidency.”
Frias said he hoped the party could find a way to keep hold of some of the people Trump attracted through his populist policies, while regaining those they lost with his more abrasive personality.
“There is going to be this very difficult balancing act,” he said. “The issues that he pushed resonated in bringing new people into the Republican Party, more blue-collar oriented. But his personality flaws pushed away people that had been in the Republican Party in the suburban communities. We have to make sure we make that balance work.”