House Republicans flocked to former President Trump’s side following his indictment on charges stemming from his efforts to overturn the 2020 election, criticizing it as politically motivated and accusing the Department of Justice (DOJ) of malpractice.
But some of their responses were notably different from what they were saying privately and publicly around the time of the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot — which marked the culmination of Trump’s attempts to stop the certification of Joe Biden’s win and keep himself in power.
The contrast between the reactions underscores the evolution of how GOP lawmakers talk about Jan. 6, which has been fueled in large part by Trump and the firm grip he continues to have on the Republican Party.
The epitome of that shift has been Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who said Trump bore responsibility for the riot shortly after the rampage before careening back to the former president’s corner in the weeks that followed. He cemented that position Tuesday, when he accused the DOJ using the indictment of trying to “distract” from investigations into President Biden and his family.
“[J]ust yesterday a new poll showed President Trump is without a doubt Biden’s leading political opponent. Everyone in America could see what was going to come next: DOJ’s attempt to distract from the news and attack the frontrunner for the Republican nomination, President Trump,” McCarthy wrote on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.
McCarthy also referenced a series of points Republicans have been citing in their investigations into the Biden family’s business dealings — which the White House has denied — but did not comment on the charges at hand, a strategy that has become the Speaker’s norm when discussing allegations against Trump.
Days after the Capitol riot, however, McCarthy did not mince words.
“The President bears responsibility for Wednesday’s attack on Congress by mob rioters,” declared McCarthy, then the minority leader, on the House floor as lawmakers debated Trump’s impeachment. “He should have immediately denounced the mob when he saw what was unfolding.”
“These facts require immediate action by President Trump, accept his share of responsibility, quell the brewing unrest and ensure President-elect Biden is able to successfully begin his term,” he added.
Within a month of his floor speech, as it started becoming clear that the GOP would remain squarely behind Trump, McCarthy began softening his criticism of the former president, telling reporters he did not think Trump “provoked” the Capitol riot. Later that week, he said Trump “had some responsibility when it came to the response,” before adding “I also think everybody across this country has some responsibility.”
And days after, McCarthy visited Trump at his Mar-a-Lago residence for a meeting largely focused on the upcoming midterm elections. But the gathering — and a photo of the two men standing side-by-side that circulated after — was perceived by many as an effort to mend the relationship between the two top Republicans as the party was fracturing amid fallout from Jan. 6.
Since then, McCarthy has remained a close ally of Trump on Capitol Hill, defending him amid his various legal troubles and going as far as to endorse an effort to expunge his impeachments — including the one that followed the Jan. 6 riot.
The dynamics reflect the strong influence Trump continues to wield with Republicans on the national stage and within the House GOP conference. Trump threw his support behind McCarthy’s bid to be Speaker, which helped him secure the gavel, and the former president has far more congressional endorsements in his 2024 bid than any other GOP candidate.
Poll after poll has shown Trump remains the unequivocal front-runner in the 2024 GOP primary for president. A New York Times/Siena College survey released this week found Trump more than 30 points ahead of his closest opponent.
Even Republicans who have endorsed one of Trump’s 2024 opponents and were critical of the former president following the Capitol riot are slamming this week’s indictment as an example of the “weaponization” of the federal government.
In remarks on the House floor on Jan. 13, 2021, Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) — who has endorsed Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) for president over Trump — said Trump “deserves universal condemnation for what was clearly impeachable conduct, pressuring the vice president to violate his oath to the Constitution to count the electors.”
“His open and public pressure — courageously rejected by the vice president — purposefully seeded the false belief among the president’s supporters, including those assembled on Jan. 6, that there was a legal path for the president to stay in power. It was foreseeable and reckless to sow such a false belief that could lead to violence and rioting by loyal supporters whipped into a frenzy,” he continued, before going on to criticize the impeachment articles as “flawed.”
But this week, Roy criticized the very indictment that penalized Trump for the actions he condemned in 2021 as “flimsy.”
“If you profess to care about preserving the ‘Republic,’ you must firmly reject a flimsy political indictment of a former President & political challenger of a current President immersed in a bribery & corruption scandal,” Roy wrote on X.
Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), another DeSantis supporter, told The Dispatch days after the riot, “I think Trump is at fault here,” adding “people did mislead the folks that came here, and Trump was among them.”
“He insinuated that states wanted their electors thrown out, which was not true. I kept a spreadsheet of every document every state produced, and in no case did a majority of any legislature even put their name on the letter,” he added.
This week, however, Massie said it was shameful for Trump to be charged.
“As Gov. Ron DeSantis has repeatedly pointed out, the AG and DOJ work for the President as a fixture of the executive branch. They are not, nor have they ever been, an independent branch of govt. Biden has now shamefully criminally charged & indicted a political opponent twice,” he wrote on X.
There are also some Republicans who texted Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows amid the chaos of Jan. 6 asking to have the president quell the violence who spoke out about Trump’s indictment this week.
Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.), texted Meadows “POTUS needs to calm this shit down,” according to messages obtained by CNN, but on Tuesday he said Trump was “a victim of Biden’s weaponized government.” Similarly, Rep. Will Timmons (R-S.C.), who told Meadows, “The president needs to stop this ASAP” on Jan. 6, called the charges against Trump a “politically motivated indictment.”
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), an ardent Trump supporter, texted Meadows amid the riots, “Please tell the President to calm people,” and, “This isn’t the way to solve anything.”
This week, she railed against the indictment, re-upped her calls to defund special counsel Jack Smith’s office and expunge Trump’s impeachments, and vowed to vote for Trump in the 2024 election even if he is behind bars by the time Election Day rolls around.
“I will still vote for Trump even if he’s in jail,” Greene wrote on X. “This is a communist attack on America’s first amendment to vote for who THE PEOPLE want for President by an attempt to take Trump off the ballots through a politically weaponized DOJ. People know exactly what this is.”