Top Republicans in Congress are embarking on a new campaign of revisionism seven months after the attack on the Capitol, absolving Donald Trump of responsibility and blaming the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, for the 6 January insurrection perpetrated by a mob of Trump supporters.
Some House and Senate Republican leaders stated in the charged moments immediately following the attack that Trump was squarely to blame, and amid blood and shattered glass at the US Capitol, some even considered his removal.
“The president bears responsibility,” the House Republican leader, Kevin McCarthy, said of Trump at the time, demanding that he “accept his share of responsibility”.
But after nearly 200 House Republicans voted to clear Trump in his unprecedented second impeachment and Senate Republicans scuttled a 9/11-style commission to investigate the events of 6 January, the Republican party made a call to shift all blame away from Trump.
The move to protect Trump from the fallout of the Capitol attack, at any cost, reflects the party leaders loyalty to a defeated former president, as well as the political self-interest of Republicans desperate to distance themselves from an insurrection they helped stoke with lies of a stolen election.
The Republicans’ journey into a universe of alternate facts became virtually complete last week after House Republican leadership, days after the harrowing testimony of police officers deployed to tackle the rioters shocked Congress once more, spun a new lie about the deadly attack.
No longer satisfied to simply pardon Trump for inciting his supporters to unlawfully stop the certification of Joe Biden’s election win, the No 3 House Republican, Elise Stefanik, blamed Pelosi – a target of the mob – for the violence on 6 January.
“The American people deserve to know the truth: that Nancy Pelosi bears responsibility, as speaker of the House, for the tragedy that occurred on January 6,” Stefanik said falsely from the steps of the Capitol.
Pelosi is not responsible for security – a duty that lies with US Capitol police – but the baseless claim promulgated by Stefanik amounted to the party leadership’s latest disinformation campaign they hope will give them political cover as the 2022 midterm elections near.
There remains a deep fear among Republicans that any scrutiny into 6 January could expose their role in amplifying Trump’s lies about fraud in the 2020 election – the root cause of the insurrection – which could be used as a cudgel by Democrats at the ballot box.
Some congressional Republicans privately acknowledge the fallacious logic of blaming Pelosi for the Capitol attack, but not the Republican minority leader, Mitch McConnell, her then opposite number in the Senate.
But in a sign of the ambition and self-preservation guiding Republican revisionism over the Capitol attack, they also suggest that they are willing for McCarthy to indulge Trump’s claims should it help Republicans capture the House. And with Bennie Thompson, the chairman of the House select committee investigating the Capitol attack, vowing to subpoena anyone who spoke with Trump on 6 January, they note a counter-narrative takes on the added effect of undercutting the politically bruising inquiry.
The revisionism over the Capitol attack heralds what some experts see as a dangerous new era in American politics: even with Trump out of the White House, Republicans advancing demonstrably false narratives to safeguard their political survival.
“The GOP is thinking enough time has passed to somehow rewrite the history of events,” said Fiona Hill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former top White House Russia expert who testified at Trump’s first impeachment inquiry.
“They’re hoping that it gets into the record, even if it’s pointed out that it doesn’t correlate with the facts, because once their version is out there in the media, then that’s sufficient for it to become the raw material for shaping how history recounts things later on,” Hill said.
In the days after the attack, McCarthy, joined Democrats in condemning Trump and urging Congress to establish a fact-finding commission, having already called the former president and demanded he call off his rioters.
McCarthy at one stage even fact-checked the former president. “Some say the riots were caused by Antifa. There is absolutely no evidence of that,” he said on the House floor. “Conservatives should be the first to say so.”
But that initial resolve was quickly replaced with a renewed fealty to Trump, who demanded that Pelosi “investigate herself”, as he again falsely suggested that it was Antifa, rather than his own supporters, who perpetrated the Capitol attack.
Republicans have seized on that messaging, but none more so than McCarthy, who has repeated Trump’s debunked claims and taken trips to Mar-a-Lago to ingratiate himself with Trump, whose support he considers essential for his ambitions to become Speaker in 2022.
Such endeavors to placate Trump took on heightened significance last week for McCarthy, after he pulled all five of his picks for the House select committee in a moment of frustration and inadvertently left Trump without defenders on the panel.
And as two US Capitol police and two DC Metropolitan police officers for hours testified to the select committee how Trump, described as a “hit man”, sent his supporters to attack the Capitol, an alarmed McCarthy moved to shift the pressure from Trump to Pelosi.
“If there is a responsibility for this Capitol, on this side, it rests with the Speaker,” McCarthy said.
Stefanik, who replaced Liz Cheney as Republican conference chair after her ouster in May for taking aim at Trump’s conduct and rhetoric once too often, went further, and proclaimed that the House speaker was in fact to blame for the insurrection.
The political calculus of the House Republican leadership extended for the first time last week to McConnell – once fiercely critical of Trump for his role in inciting the insurrection, but now content to avoid the topic he considers a political loser.
Hill told the Guardian that Republican revisionism mirrors the playbook adopted by the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, and an array of other autocratic leaders needing to sanitize their roles in politically embarrassing events.
“You can see this over and over again in pretty much every authoritarian setting,” Hill said. “It’s fundamentally not about politics. It’s nothing more than a massive con job, a scam, concocted to keep their own personal and collective power. There’s no end other than that.
It is a disinformation effort also co-opted by rank and file Republicans, who have increasingly tried to rewrite the reality of what transpired on 6 January, from claiming no rioter was armed (at least one was), to comparing the attack to a “normal tourist visit”.
Standing outside the justice department last week, a group of Trump’s most vociferous defenders on Capitol Hill denounced the indictments brought against nearly 600 Capitol rioters and accused prosecutors of holding them as political prisoners.
Urged on by Trump, the lawmakers falsely characterized Ashli Babbitt, an insurrectionist who was shot and killed as she tried to breach a secure area of the Capitol adjacent to the House chamber, as a patriotic martyr whose death was planned by Democrats.
The fiction pushed by Stefanik drew a rebuke from at least one Republican. “All Donald Trump needs to see is that you’re making a defense, no matter how nonsensical that defense is,” Congressman Adam Kinzinger said on ABC, but not before members of his own party called for his expulsion.