The day Trump broke the GOP
Republicans started the day losing the Senate. They ended it with President Donald Trump’s supporters losing their minds.
Jan. 6, 2021 might have been remembered for an intraparty battle over whether to certify Joe Biden’s election win or who to blame for the Georgia defeats. But instead it will go down as the day that broke the Republican Party as we know it and began the GOP’s ultimate reckoning with Trumpism.
It literally took a riot of Trump supporters in the Capitol for many Republicans to finally confront the defeated president — a moment of bedlam that put those GOP lawmakers’ own lives at risk. After his supporters stormed into the Capitol, vandalized the building and fought with police officers, several typically strong allies turned on Trump.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), one of the most steadfast supporters of the president, said bluntly that “it’s past time for the president to accept the results of the election, quit misleading the American people, and repudiate mob violence.” Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said he didn’t want to hear anything more from Trump: “It was a tragic day and he was part of it.”
“I’ve been here a long time,” added Blunt, a former House majority leader. “This might be the day I have the most concern about what America projected to the rest of the world today.”
And House GOP Conference Chair Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), who has carefully crafted her criticism of Trump over the past year, did not mince words: “There is no question that the president formed the mob, the president incited the mob, the president addressed the mob. He lit the flame,” Cheney said on Fox News, speaking from a secure location after being evacuated.
Wednesday’s violent episode was the culmination of two months of Trump stoking the flames by making false allegations of widespread voter fraud and refusing to concede the election. While most Senate Republicans did not adopt Trump’s rhetoric, the majority of them waited until the Dec. 14 Electoral College vote to acknowledge Biden as the president-elect, following a string of Trump losses in court.
And even for weeks afterward, most Republicans declined to condemn Trump’s language or call for a peaceful transfer of power. On Wednesday, that finally changed, and even those who had recognized Biden took their criticism of Trump to a new level.
“We witnessed today the damage that can result when men in power and responsibility refuse to acknowledge the truth. We saw bloodshed because the demagogue chose to spread falsehoods and sow distrust of his own fellow Americans,” fumed Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), who had supported Trump.
Four years after Trump was elected, Republicans have now lost the White House, the House of Representatives and the Senate. Trump has signaled his plans to remain a force in the GOP, but now the party must decide whether to continue embracing the ousted president or finally move on. Over the course of his presidency, Trump portrayed every issue as a personal loyalty test and few Republicans challenged him that were still seeking to continue their political career.
“I don’t think there’s any question about that,” said Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.), when asked if it was time to move on from Trump. “Our identity for the past several years has been built around an individual and we got to get back to where it’s built around a set of of ideas and principles and policies. And I’m sure those conversations will be held, but it needs to happen pretty soon.”
But the plan to object to the certification of the Electoral College was too much for many in the GOP. Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), a former chief of staff to Sen. Ted Cruz, acknowledged that his move against Trump “may well sign my political death warrant. So be it.” The speech earned him applause from his Democratic colleagues.
Cotton singled out his colleagues, among them Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri and Cruz, who had been leading the charge in the Senate to object to the certification of Biden’s wins. He asked that “the senators and representatives who fanned the flames by encouraging the president and leading their supporters to believe that their objections could reverse the election results should withdraw those objections.”
In that statement, Cotton sounded a bit like Mitt Romney. The Utah senator may be a different generation of Republican and not a Trump supporter, but on this issue, he and Cotton were aligned.
The GOP Trump backers who sought to block Biden’s certification will “forever be seen as being complicit in an unprecedented attack against our democracy,” Romney said, after glaring at Hawley. “They will be remembered for their role in this shameful episode in American history.”
Romney and Cotton got their wish. Opponents of certifying Biden’s win melted away after the day of sheer chaos, panic and fear in the Capitol. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said that “obviously in light of events, there’s a little bit of a different attitude.”
“Today changed things drastically. Whatever point you made before, that should suffice,” said Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.), who had previously opposed certifying Biden’s victory. “Get this ugly day behind us.”
Ultimately, just six Republicans supported the challenge to Arizona’s certification. The number was projected to be twice as high before the riot. But nevertheless, Hawley plotted to still contest Pennsylvania’s results.
In perhaps the most stunning sign of how quickly the Republican Party’s stance had changed, Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.) withdrew her objections to certification just hours after losing her seat to Democrat Raphael Warnock. She earned a smattering of applause after she said she could not “in good conscience” object to the electors. Sens. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), Bill Hagerty (R-Tenn.), Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) and James Lankford (R-OKla.) also reversed course and said they’d do the same.
It was a day Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was already dreading, but it ended up so much worse than he could have ever imagined. He warned his caucus last month that challenging the election results on Jan. 6 would be a “terrible vote” and framed it as a vote of conscience. At the outset of Wednesday’s session, the Kentucky Republican was unequivocal and played a leading role in pushing back against Trump’s conspiracy theories.
“This will be the most important vote I’ll ever cast,” McConnell said, just before the rioters stormed the Senate floor. “I will not pretend such a vote would be a harmless protest gesture while relying on others to do the right thing.”
The entire GOP, however, has not broken free of Trump’s grip.
Across the Capitol, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) both voted for the challenge to Arizona’s electoral votes, along with a majority of House Republicans. And even before the Capitol descended into chaos, some GOP members were privately grumbling that McCarthy had been counselling some of the freshman Republicans to join some of the objections.
McCarthy said he had experienced “the saddest day I’ve ever had serving as a member of this institution,” but he placed no blame on Trump’s shoulders.
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) went further, suggesting without evidence that some of the rioters “were masquerading as Trump supporters and in fact were members of the violent terrorist group antifa.” He was met with groans and boos on the House floor.
Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) — who has long condemned Trump’s dangerous rhetoric — called on McCarthy and McConnell to “forcefully denounce” Trump’s actions. He also said in another tweet: “Leaders that led this should all resign so the adults and truth-tellers can #RestoreOurGOP.”
And the criticism wasn’t just coming from the usual corners of the GOP. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), who doesn’t usually make waves on Capitol Hill, said Trump has been “lying” to his supporters and “owns responsibility” for today’s “coup attempt.”
Freshman Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.), who just recaptured a GOP seat in a hard-won race, directly pleaded with Trump: “Mr. President, enough is enough. This is not a protest, this is anarchy. Get off Twitter and work to restore peace to the Capitol.”
Even Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a close Trump ally who even inquired about election procedures in Georgia on Trump’s behalf, has had it. In a fiery floor speech, the South Carolina senator concluded: “All I can say is count me out, enough is enough.”
“I, above all others in this body need to say this, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were lawfully elected and will become the president and the vice president of the United States on Jan. 20,” he said.