After a mob stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 in a deadly attempt to overturn an election President Donald Trump falsely claimed was stolen, Republican lawmakers leveled some of their sharpest criticisms of Trump since the “Access Hollywood” recording surfaced of his past comments bragging of groping women.
But like the GOP condemnation following the “Access Hollywood” scandal, outrage in the wake of the Capitol riot simmered as impeachment proceedings wore on. GOP critics who issued their strongest condemnations of Trump in the days and hours after Jan. 6 softened their stances while others doubled down their criticism of the former president.
Despite many disavowals of Trump’s post-election behavior, just 10 Republican House members voted to impeach him and seven Republican senators voted to convict.
Many of those Republican lawmakers who backed off their criticisms of Trump questioned the constitutionality of impeaching and convicting a former president or argued Trump’s actions did not meet the legal standard for incitement. They also accused Democrats of being opportunistic in their condemnations.
Here’s a look at the statements top Republicans have made about Trump’s culpability in the riots since Jan. 6.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell
Among those voting to acquit was Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who had left open the possibility he might vote to convict for weeks before Saturday’s vote. Despite his “not guilty” vote, McConnell directly blamed Trump – after the attack and again after his vote – for inflaming the angry crowd that stormed the Capitol to try to overturn the election Trump had falsely told them was stolen from them.
Jan. 19: “The mob was fed lies,” McConnell said on the Senate floor. “They were provoked by the president and other powerful people. And they tried to use fear and violence to stop a specific proceeding of the first branch of the federal government which they did not like.”
Feb. 13: “There’s no question, none, that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day. No question about it,” McConnell said after the Senate vote. “The people who stormed this building believed they were acting on the wishes and instructions of their president.”
Yet the minority leader also consistently argued a post-presidency impeachment trial of Trump is unconstitutional, despite himself stalling the trial until after Trump left office.
House Minority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy
Though House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., never supported Trump’s impeachment, he did initially push for a vote to censure him a week after the attack. But just over a week later, he denied Trump had incited the mob.
Jan. 13: “The president bears responsibility for Wednesday’s attack on Congress by mob rioters,” McCarthy said on the House floor during the Jan. 13 debate over the vote to impeach Trump again. “He should have immediately denounced the mob when he saw what was unfolding.”
Jan. 21: “I don’t believe he provoked it if you listen to what he said at the rally,” McCarthy told reporters, adding that Trump should remain an important figure in the GOP.
“Every former president still has a role within their party,” he said. “This president brought a lot of great success. He brought people to the party who hadn’t been involved before and he should continue to engage in that way.”
Jan. 24: “I thought the president had some responsibility when it came to the response. If you listen to what the president said at the rally, he said, ‘demonstrate peacefully,”‘ McCarthy told Greta Van Susteren. “And then I got a question later about whether did he incite them. I also think everybody across this country has some responsibility.”
A week later, he traveled to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida for what he described as “a very good and cordial” meeting with Trump.
Sen. Lindsey Graham
After Jan. 6 riot, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., declared “count me out” from the effort by Sens. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, to object to the electoral vote certification of battleground states that were won by Joe Biden. But days later, he was traveling on Air Force One with Trump. And he has since been one of the most vocal opponents of Trump’s impeachment.
Jan. 7: “It breaks my heart that my friend, a president of consequence, would allow yesterday to happen. And it will be a major part of his presidency. When it comes to accountability, the president needs to understand that his actions were the problem, not the solution.”
Jan. 8: “As President @realDonaldTrump stated last night, it is time to heal and move on,” Graham tweeted. “If Speaker Pelosi pushes impeachment in the last days of the Trump presidency it will do more harm than good. I’m hopeful President-elect Biden sees the damage that would be done from such action.”
Feb. 14: “The speech on Jan. 6 was not an incitement to violence. Every politician has used the word ‘fight,’ ‘fight hard,’ so I don’t think that he caused the riot,” Graham said on Fox News Sunday, though he conceded Trump’s “behavior after the election was over the top.”
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Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley
Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, viewed by some as a potential Republican presidential candidate in 2024, told a gathering of the Republican National Committee a day after the Capitol riot that Trump’s baseless claims of widespread voter fraud and his “actions since Election Day will be judged harshly by history.”
Jan. 12: Haley told Politico that Trump “went down a path he shouldn’t have, and we shouldn’t have followed him, and we shouldn’t have listened to him. And we can’t let that ever happen again.” She also predicted that because of his role in the Jan. 6 riot, Trump is “not going to run for federal office again.”
“I don’t think he’s going to be in the picture,” she said.
Jan. 25: “What happened on Jan. 6 was not great. Does he deserve to be impeached? Absolutely not. I don’t even think there’s a basis for impeachment,” Haley told Fox News host Laura Ingraham. “They beat him up before he got into office. They’re beating him up after he leaves office. At some point, I mean, give the man a break.”
‘We shouldn’t have followed him’:Nikki Haley sharply condemns Trump’s post-election behavior
Rep. Liz Cheney
Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., was one of 10 House Republicans who joined Democrats in impeaching Trump for the charge of inciting the Capitol riot. The third-ranking Republican in the House was censured by the Wyoming Republican Party, one of many Republicans punished by local party organizations for breaking with Trump.
Jan. 12: “The President of the United States summoned this mob, assembled the mob, and lit the flame of this attack. Everything that followed was his doing. None of this would have happened without the President,” Cheney said ahead of the House impeachment vote. “The President could have immediately and forcefully intervened to stop the violence. He did not. There has never been a greater betrayal by a President of the United States of his office and his oath to the Constitution.”
Feb. 3: “Several members have asked me to apologize for the vote, they’ve asked my colleagues who also voted to impeach to apologize for the vote,” Cheney told her colleagues during an unsuccessful attempt to strip her of her leadership posts, according to Axios. “I cannot do that. It was a vote of conscience. It was a vote of principle – a principle on which I stand and still believe.”
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Sen. Kevin Cramer
Sen. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota was among the Republicans skeptical about Trump’s role in inciting the mob that attacked the Capitol, though he used that exact word after the attack.
Jan. 6: “The call to march, and to, you know, march down to the Capitol, it was inciting,” Cramer told USA TODAY. “It was pouring fuel on a spark, so no, he does bear some responsibility.”
But Cramer added “it’s not his fault that people made decisions to break into this building.”
Jan. 26: “As I have said repeatedly, President Trump’s comments on January 6 were rash and ill-advised, but I do not believe they meet the constitutional standard for impeachment,” Cramer said in a statement.
Feb. 13: “I do not believe the Constitution gives us the authority to hold an impeachment trial for a former president who is now a private citizen,” Cramer said in a statement after his vote to acquit. He also said the House impeachment managers had failed to link the riot to Trump’s “public statements and remarks,” and “ignored his explicit calls to protest ‘peacefully and patriotically.'”
Sen. Marco Rubio
In a statement after the attack, Rubio sharply denounced what had occurred, calling it “3rd world style anti-American anarchy” and a “national embarrassment,” in a statement that did not mention Trump.
Jan. 24: “I think the president bears responsibility for some of what happened. It was most certainly a foreseeable consequence of everything that was going on and I think that’s widely understood, and maybe even better understood with the perspective of time,” Rubio said on Fox News Sunday. But he said a Senate trial would be “stupid” and “counterproductive,” arguing it was time to “move forward.”
Feb. 13: “I voted to acquit former President Trump because I will not allow my anger over the criminal attack of January 6th nor the political intimidation from the left to lead me into supporting a dangerous constitutional precedent,” Rubio said in a statement. “The election is over. A new President is in the White House and a new Congress has been sworn in.”
Sen. Ted Cruz
Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, along with a cadre of other Republican senators, also announced he’d contest the results of the Electoral College on Jan. 6. After the riot, Cruz said Trump’s words had been “irresponsible,” but he continued to challenge the election results and subsequently became a fierce defender of Trump against his impeachment and conviction.
Jan. 7: “The president’s rhetoric was irresponsible,” Cruz said in an interview. “I think it was reckless and I don’t think it was remotely helpful.” But he said calls for Trump’s removal with less than two weeks remaining in his term were not “necessary.”
Feb.13: “The impeachment of Donald Trump on the charge of incitement was merely a rushed act of partisan retribution,” Cruz said in a statement after his vote to acquit Trump. “The House brought only one charge before the Senate: incitement. Donald Trump used heated language, but he did not urge anyone to commit acts of violence.”
Sen. Mitt Romney
Sen. Mitt Romney was one of the most critical and consistent voices within the Republican Party condemning Trump’s claims of election fraud before the Capitol riot. After the insurrection, the Utah senator became a leading conservative voice calling for impeachment.
Jan. 6: “What happened here today was an insurrection, incited by the President of the United States,” Romney said in a statement. “Those who choose to continue to support his dangerous gambit by objecting to the results of a legitimate, democratic election will forever be seen as being complicit in an unprecedented attack against our democracy.”
Jan. 24: “I believe that what is being alleged and what we saw, which is incitement to insurrection, is an impeachable offense. If not, what is?” Romney told CNN.
Feb. 13: “President Trump incited the insurrection against Congress by using the power of his office to summon his supporters to Washington on January 6th and urging them to march on the Capitol during the counting of electoral votes. He did this despite the obvious and well known threats of violence that day,” Romney said in a statement after his vote to convict.
‘We shouldn’t have followed him’:Nikki Haley sharply condemns Trump’s post-election behavior
Others remained silent
There may be a number of reasons Republicans stuck by Trump even after they tied him to riots.
Frank Luntz, a Republican adviser, told USA TODAY that Trump’s words and behavior since the election have made it “ethically” and “politically difficult” for most GOP politicians to defend him, but not to the extent that they are willing to join their opponents in attacking the former president. And he said impeachment only helped reinforce the partisan divide over the response to Trump’s actions.
“You’re not going to see many full-throated defenses of him,” Luntz said. “But it doesn’t mean that they’re going to back the Democratic critique of him either.”
Luntz also said many Republicans’ constitutional concerns were genuine. “There are a lot of Republicans who believe that what happened was wrong but don’t believe that convicting someone who’s not even in office is right.”
Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics said Trump’s legal team mounted a defense that played to that political divide.
“They basically turned this into an ultra partisan event, knowing that they just had to minimize the number of Republican defections,” Sabato said. “All they had to do was beat Democrats to a pulp and basically say to Republicans, who have all fought Democrats to win office and fight them every single day, ‘Do you want to side with your enemies? Or are you going to stick with your team?'”
Many Republican lawmakers also may have considered polls indicating strong opposition to such rebukes among GOP voters.
Luntz said that based on the focus groups he has spoken with, about two out of three Republicans would vote against an incumbent who voted to convict the former president.
“Trump loyalists are very clear that they will vote out Republicans who voted against Trump,” he said. “There is no mincing of words.”
Similarly, Sabato cited polls that showed a majority of Republican voters identified more with Trump than the party and said that left them “between a rock and a hard place,” as the defeated president has only grown more unpopular outside of the GOP as a result of his post-election behavior
“The long and short of it is, they can’t live with him, they can’t live without him,” Sabato said. “They can’t win individually if Trump goes after them. They’re stuck. They know Trump is poison now to a solid majority of Americans, and that certainly was shown in the election.”