House Republicans don’t want to talk about Jan. 6. They also can’t stop talking about it.
At times, GOP lawmakers insist they’re uninterested in relitigating an attack that is political poison for the party outside of deep-red areas. But at other times, some Republicans have stoked narratives that falsely pin blame for the attack on police, Democrats or far-left agitators — or downplay the violence at the Capitol. The latter approach has seen a noticeable uptick of late.
And it’s not just far-right conservatives who fall in that group — some House GOP leaders and key committee chiefs have shown they’re willing to flirt with the fringe without an outright embrace. Speaker Kevin McCarthy has shared security video of that day with far-right media figures who have minimized or fed inaccurate portrayals of the attack.
Yet they’re also batting down some of those same false conspiracy theories and preparing to focus on at least one area of bipartisan concern: Capitol security vulnerabilities, many of which remain unresolved since the attack. Rep. Barry Loudermilk (R-Ga.), who faced scrutiny from the Jan. 6 select committee for a Capitol complex tour he gave on Jan. 5, 2021, is warning allies against automatically accepting certain claims.
“You wouldn’t believe how many experts there are out there on Jan. 6, who know exactly what happened because they read it on the internet,” said Loudermilk, who is leading the GOP’s look back at the attack and at the Democratic-led Jan. 6 panel.
Loudermilk’s comments underscore House Republicans’ reality. While most admit privately, if not publicly, that Jan. 6 was the work of a violent mob, they have a political calculus to consider: A not-insignificant faction of their party is hellbent on rewriting the history of the day.
Hanging over it all is former President Donald Trump’s vociferous defense of the rioters and continued false claims that he won the 2020 election. Federal and Georgia prosecutors are investigating his efforts to subvert the election and could bring charges later this year.
Trump is uninterested in making the balance any easier on Republicans: His pledge to pardon a large number of Jan. 6 defendants is a feature of his commentary on the campaign trail, where he remains the frontrunner for the party’s 2024 nomination.
Still, House Republicans aren’t fully playing to Trump. For now, they’re giving Jan. 6 a side hug more than a bear hug.
McCarthy encapsulates the half-hearted embrace. He angered some allies on the right this year by defending a Capitol Police officer’s decision to shoot a Jan. 6 rioter who was attempting to breach a room adjacent to the House chamber. But he’s also provided exclusive access to thousands of hours of security footage to former Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who’s used the film to demean and distort police officers’ actions.
“Speaker McCarthy promised that House Republicans would investigate the security failures of that day and provide transparency to the American people. Former Speaker Pelosi and her Select Committee set one bad precedent after another — including releasing select clips for partisan purposes,” a McCarthy spokesperson said in a statement that did not address conference dynamics around Jan. 6.
“For two years, we heard no concerns when footage was used by Democrats, the media, and Pelosi’s daughter for her HBO documentary,” the McCarthy spokesperson added, declining to be identified by name and referring to Nancy Pelosi’s daughter filming her mother and other party leaders on Jan. 6.
Some of McCarthy’s most trusted committee chairs have taken a similar approach to the California Republican, eschewing the most extreme efforts demanded by the far-right flank but still winking at some of their concerns.
For example, no committees have pursued baseless claims that Ray Epps, who rioted on Jan. 6, was acting as an undercover government agent. And GOP leaders have sidestepped a far-right fervor to subpoena and probe Jan. 6 select panel members, to scrutinize distorted allegations about Pelosi’s handling of Capitol security or to dig into judges’ treatment of the 1,000-plus criminal cases stemming from the attack.
Notably, no committee chairs or party leaders participated in the biggest platform House Republicans have given Jan. 6 defendants so far: Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), joined by a handful of others from the conference’s right flank, hosted an event last week with former Trump acting assistant attorney general Jeffrey Clark, people charged in relation to Jan. 6, defendants’ family members and allies.
The event featured a veritable kitchen sink of conspiracy theories as well as rehashed false claims, including that the 2020 election was “stolen” and that the Jan. 6 committee “doctored” video.
But Jan. 6 defendants, their advocates and some GOP lawmakers have called for Republicans to push further.
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) said that probing the Justice Department’s handling of Jan. 6 prosecutions should be one of the “top priorities” for a Judiciary sub-panel tasked with investigating GOP claims of bias against conservatives within the federal government.
She introduced impeachment articles against the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia who has taken the lead on prosecuting members of the mob. Meanwhile, Gaetz introduced a resolution to censure Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), who led the now-closed riot select committee. Both efforts have a single-digit number of cosponsors at the moment.
Judiciary Chair Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) did recently release a wider report that accused the FBI of artificially conflating the number of Jan. 6-related investigations. The report and a subsequent hearing also included testimony from whistleblowers who lost their security clearances due to improper actions related to Jan. 6.
One of the whistleblowers, Steve Friend, and several Freedom Caucus members were invited to speak at a retreat hosted by the conservative Center for Renewing America, where Friend is a senior fellow, shortly before the hearing, according to research by the progressive group Accountable.US that was provided exclusively to POLITICO and confirmed via House disclosure forms.
Jordan also fired off new Jan. 6-related letters, one asking for more information on the FBI’s investigation into pipe bombs found near the Capitol the day of the attack and another expanding a probe into record-sharing with federal investigators.
But those efforts make up a small slice of his collective, sweeping investigations.
The Oversight Committee organized a tour of the D.C. jail to investigate two-year-old claims of “disparate treatment” of the approximately two dozen Jan. 6-related detainees — nearly all of whom were incarcerated or detained for violence against police. But Chair James Comer (R-Ky.) didn’t attend the tour, which was led by panel member Greene.
Democrats who attended said that GOP lawmakers and the detained rioters treated each other as allies and friends.
Some members of the Oversight panel recently raised Jan. 6 during a hearing with testimony from Graves and D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser — but the session was billed as about broader crime and governance issues.
There’s a reason behind the conference’s actions to sidestep those issues: A broad swath of House Republicans see spotlighting Jan. 6-related investigations as a terrible political strategy.
Loudermilk has largely conducted the GOP’s most focused dive into Jan. 6 so far. He received a copy of the Capitol Police’s radio transmissions from the day and met privately with former law enforcement officials to discuss security failures. Loudermilk’s sub-panel, according to the McCarthy spokesperson, will also soon be rolling out “additional access” to view Capitol security footage.
Still, Loudermilk set off alarm bells among Democrats when he pushed the D.C. police to disclose how many undercover officers were in the crowd during the attack. The letter dovetails with, but did not specifically mention, claims by some Jan. 6 defendants that plainclothes agents or the government itself might have fomented the riot.
But Loudermilk says he won’t lend his subcommittee’s imprimatur to some of the most egregious false claims.
“We want to just follow the facts, not hyperbole or some kind of conspiracy theory, so our interest is just: What is the truth?” he said.
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