House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy recently counseled rank-and-file Republicans in private to largely ignore the investigation into the Capitol riot and stay focused on the issues that are top of mind to voters, like gas prices and inflation, GOP sources told CNN.
But over the past week, some of Donald’s Trump’s fiercest acolytes on Capitol Hill have been jockeying to prove their loyalty to the former President by waging a full-scale attack against the select committee, using news conferences, social media posts and conservative-friendly cable news appearances to blame Speaker Nancy Pelosi for the security failures on January 6, 2021, and accuse Democrats of a political witch hunt designed to damage Trump.
And in the coming days, sources involved in the GOP’s messaging effort say Trump’s allies plan to turn up the heat on one of the former President’s favorite top targets: GOP Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the vice chairwoman of the select committee who has been leading the panel’s public hearings on the Capitol Hill insurrection.
“Certainly, for some people, in some districts, there are political upsides” to defending Trump, said veteran Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a member of the GOP leadership team. “I’m sure that’s part of their calculation. But I’m not sure that’s why they’re doing it. I think they just feel strongly about the manner, in which, the committee was formed, and the manner in which it’s being operated.”
“When you’ve got passionate people – and you always do in politics – you’re gonna get some pushback,” Cole added.
While the majority of Republicans aren’t sweating the select committee’s findings and whether it will impact the midterm elections, there’s a clutch of Republicans who see other benefits to serving as Trump’s chief defender during a string of public hearings centered on his role in the Capitol attack.
That includes McCarthy, who is under pressure to show his MAGA bona fides after privately criticizing Trump’s role in January 6 immediately after the attack; Reps. Elise Stefanik of New York and Jim Banks of Indiana, who both have their eyes on higher GOP leadership positions next year; Rep. Rodney Davis of Illinois, who is facing a Trump-backed primary challenger after voting to support a bipartisan commission to investigate the Capitol attack; and Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, who is in line to chair the powerful House Judiciary Committee if Republicans win the majority. McCarthy and Jordan have both been subpoenaed by the select committee but have not complied.
These GOP lawmakers see a prime opportunity to please the former President and his staunchest supporters, which could earn them rewards inside a party where Trump remains popular. And they believe there’s little political downside to becoming the face of the GOP’s opposition to the January 6 probe, even as the select committee has teased potentially damning revelations about Trump and some of their Republican colleagues.
So far, their campaign to mollify Trump appears to be working. Trump – who pressed his Capitol Hill allies to defend him prior to the hearings – has been satisfied with the public response from GOP lawmakers, according to a Republican source familiar with this thinking.
When asked by CNN about the GOP response effort thus far, Stefanik responded: “I think we’re doing great.”
“We’re pointing out that this is an illegitimate committee. There’s no opportunity for Republican-appointed members to ask important cross examination questions,” she said. “But most importantly, I think the American people in terms of the issues they’re paying attention to, it’s still inflation, the border, crime, gas prices. And no amount of these primetime hearings is going to change that.”
There’s a precedent for landing in Trump’s good graces by publicly fighting for the former president in times of crisis. During Trump’s first impeachment, Stefanik – then a third-term member serving on the House Intelligence Committee – emerged as one of Trump’s loudest defenders, raising her national profile and earning her a prominent place on the then-President’s radar. Since then, Stefanik has become a successful fundraiser and was elevated to the position of House GOP conference chair, replacing Cheney as the No. 3 House Republican.
Now, as Trump faces a potentially damning slew of revelations surrounding his efforts to overturn the 2020 election, his Republican supporters are eagerly vying to act as his shield on Capitol Hill, blanketing the airwaves and blasting out tweets with their carefully coordinated counter attack. And most of the GOP’s counter programming effort has been launched in right-wing media outlets, where Trump is more likely to be watching.
The Republicans playing the biggest roles in the GOP’s response to the hearings are members of leadership and Republicans who were initially tapped by McCarthy to serve on the select committee. And some of them, including the GOP leader himself, have an added incentive to show their support for Trump.
McCarthy, who has been leading the party’s response effort to the January 6 hearings and wants to become speaker one day, was caught on tape privately bashing Trump in the immediate wake of January 6. At the time, he said Trump bore some responsibility for the attack and told other GOP leaders he was going to have a conversation with Trump about resigning.
But at a news conference last Thursday where the GOP presented its official pre-buttal to the select committee’s hearings and investigation, McCarthy stood firmly in Trump’s corner.
“I thought everybody in the country bears some responsibility, based upon what has been going on, the riots on the streets, the others,” McCarthy said, when asked by CNN if he still believes Trump was in any way to blame for January 6.
Also on stage at that same news conference was Stefanik, who at the behest of Trump is reprising her role as one of his public defenders. Stefanik – whom Trump feted at a fundraiser in New York last week – has been leading the party’s messaging efforts and dispersing talking points aimed at undermining the select committee.
It’s just the latest example of how Stefanik has transformed from a moderate Republican to a MAGA fighter as she looks to position herself inside the party. While Stefanik hasn’t made a decision about her future political ambitions, some Republicans think Stefanik may run for GOP whip, which is expected to be an open position if Republicans recapture the House majority. But Stefanik could also seek the gavel on the House Education and Labor Committee or remain as conference chairwoman. She is also being eyed by Trump as a potential running mate if he launches another presidential bid.
If Stefanik does run for GOP whip, she may have to compete with Banks, another Trump ally who has also been looking at the job and is playing a similarly prominent role in the party’s January 6 messaging efforts. Banks was supposed to be the ranking Republican member on the select committee but was rejected by Pelosi over his support of Trump’s election lies, which has been central to the panel’s investigation.
Republican lawmakers say an obvious rivalry has developed between Stefanik and Banks in recent months. But they have been able to set their differences aside during the select committee hearings, appearing on stage together at two separate GOP news conferences last week. Stefanik regularly invites lawmakers to weekly leadership news conferences, known as stakeouts, based upon who is best suited to help deliver that week’s party message. She also blasted out an internal messaging alert ahead of the first hearing with talking points that were compiled in part by the Republican Study Committee, which Banks chairs.
Still, some have suggested that Stefanik and Banks are using their counter attacks on the hearings as a way to lay claim to the MAGA mantel. As one senior GOP lawmaker put it: “They’re marking their territory.”
Another GOP source dismissed the idea anyone stands to see a major profile or fundraising boost from rallying around Trump, arguing Republican voters are less invested in the January 6 hearings than they were with Trump’s first impeachment, when his presidency seemed to be at risk.
But some aren’t looking to get a major boost. Davis – another one of McCarthy’s original picks for the panel – has been aiming to improve his standing with conservatives after voting for a bipartisan commission to investigate the attack on the Capitol.
Davis later voted against the creation of the select committee, and since then, he has used his top perch on the House Administration Committee to rail against the panel’s investigation. He and Banks are also conducting their own investigation into the security failures on January 6, with a report on their findings expected to be released soon. And he has promised to use his subpoena powers to continue pursuing that investigation if Republicans are in charge of the House next year.
Back home, Davis is facing a primary challenge from GOP Rep. Mary Miller, a member of the ultra conservative House Freedom Caucus who decided to challenge Davis after redistricting and has earned a Trump endorsement. She has used Davis’ vote for the commission against him, while Davis has pointed out that she wasn’t present for the vote on the select committee, which he voted against.
McCarthy has also rallied around Davis, his close ally, and said voters shouldn’t punish any of the Republicans who supported the commission.
“Members have a right to vote however they want,” McCarthy said at a news conference, as Davis stood behind him.