Updated Jan 6, 2024 - Politics & Policy

How Republicans have changed their tune on Jan. 6

Photo of the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection. Rioters are outside the Capitol with American flags.

Trump supporters clash with police and security forces as people try to storm the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington, D.C. Photo: Brent Stirton/Getty Images

In the years since Jan. 6, 2021, the Republican party has been shifting its stance on the worst attack against the U.S. Capitol in two centuries.

Why it matters: Prominent Republicans have softened their criticism of the insurrection in an apparent loyalty test to former President Trump, the 2024 GOP front-runner who is under two indictments over the 2020 election.

  • Trump is on a collision course with the law as he vies for a second term, yet he's remained an indomitable force in the Republican party.
  • He survived a second impeachment for incitement of insurrection just before leaving office, and his legal team is appealing efforts to bar him from some states' 2024 primary ballots under the 14th Amendment's insurrection clause.
  • Richard Hasen, the director of UCLA's Safeguarding Democracy Project, attributes Republicans' shift on Jan. 6 to Trump's "political popularity and staying power."

Driving the news: A Washington Post-University of Maryland poll out this week found Republicans had grown more sympathetic to Capitol rioters and less likely to say Trump bears responsibility than three years ago.

  • 72% of Republicans responded it was "time to move on" from the attack, compared to 43% of U.S. adults overall and 14% of Democrats.
  • As of August, nearly 70% of Republicans believed Biden's 2020 election was not legitimate, per a CNN poll. Overall, 61% of Americans said Biden legitimately won the election.
  • "We live in an era where truth can be secondary to people's political allegiances," Hasen said.

By the numbers: Nearly 750 people have received sentences for criminal activity on Jan. 6, per the U.S. Attorney's Office.

  • More than 1,265 defendants have been charged.
  • Cases against right-wing militia groups the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers have attracted the most attention, with Proud Boys leader Henry "Enrique" Tarrio having received the longest sentence yet at 22 years.

The big picture: Trump has vowed to pardon the rioters if he becomes president, and GOP presidential candidates have vowed to pardon Trump over the attack.

Of note: The House Jan. 6 select committee's final report in 2022 said Trump engaged in a "multi-part conspiracy" and voted to refer the former president to the Justice Department.

  • 147 Republican lawmakers voted to overturn the 2020 election results in 2021 after the riot.
  • Republicans "have fallen in line either as incumbents who are concerned about their re-election or as candidates seeking office who are afraid of Trump suggesting somebody to run against them," said Michael Traugott, a political science professor emeritus at the University of Michigan.

Here's how Republicans have shifted their messaging — or kept it — since the Jan. 6 attack:

Current and former GOP presidential candidates

Nikki Haley: The former UN ambassador and 2024 presidential candidate blamed Trump for the insurrection in 2021 and said he would "find himself further and further isolated."

  • "I think Jan. 6 was a terrible day, and I think that the tone at the top matters," Haley said in December 2023, months after launching a bid.

Yes, but: She also said she thought Trump was "the right president at the right time" and that she would pardon him if she's elected president and he is convicted of a crime.

Ron DeSantis: The Florida Republican governor issued a statement after the attack that "violence or rioting of any kind is unacceptable and the perpetrators must face the full weight of the law."

  • The Florida-based fact-checking website PolitiFact reported in 2022 that besides another critical comment on Jan. 7, 2021, he made no further direct condemnations.

Since launching a bid, he has called the attack a "protest" that "ended up devolving."

  • He's said he'd consider pardoning rioters if elected and decried that his party will lose the election if it's about Jan. 6 and Trump.

Chris Christie: As the insurrection was happening, the former New Jersey governor said Trump should tell the protestors to leave the Capitol.

  • "The president caused this protest to occur. He's the only one who can make it stop," he said in an interview on Jan. 6.
  • Christie has explicitly centered his presidential campaign around the danger Trump poses to democracy, frequently calling out other Republicans for "enabling" the former president's behavior.

Mike Pence: While certifying the 2020 election results later on Jan. 6 after refusing Trump's calls to overturn the election, the then-vice president called it a "dark day."

  • "We condemn the violence," Pence said. He has distanced himself from Trump since leaving office.
  • Pence, who launched a short-lived bid for the presidency last year, has maintained a tough position on the attack. (The Jan. 6 panel found Trump expressed support for the rioters who called to hang the former VP.)
  • At the 2023 Gridiron Dinner he said, "History will hold Donald Trump accountable."

Current and former congressional leadership

Kevin McCarthy: The former California lawmaker and one-time House speaker called on Trump on Jan. 13, 2021, to "accept his share of responsibility" for the mob's violence.

  • He famously begged the president to call them off during a phone call as rioters stormed the Capitol.
  • "I've had it with this guy," he reportedly said during a phone call with GOP leaders, adding that he'd ask Trump to resign.
  • Weeks later, McCarthy visited the former president in Florida — a key rehabilitative step and recognition that Trump's staying power with the GOP base couldn't be ignored, as Axios' Zach Basu wrote.

McCarthy then led Republicans in boycotting the House Jan. 6 committee and as speaker agreed to release Capitol surveillance footage from Jan. 6, feeding far-right conspiracy theories.

Mitch McConnell: During the Senate impeachment trial weeks after Jan. 6 — after the chamber acquitted him in a 57-43 vote — the Senate Minority Leader said Trump was "practically and morally responsible" for the attack.

  • He has since rebuked the RNC for calling Jan. 6 "legitimate political discourse" and instead called it a "violent insurrection."
  • The Senate's failure to reach a two-thirds majority in convicting Trump in February 2021 was a turning point that cemented Trump's staying power, UCLA's Hasen said.
  • "McConnell made a political calculation and assumed that the criminal processes would take care of things," he said.

House Speaker Mike Johnson (La.) was a low-profile representative in 2021, but he was at the forefront of efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election results.

  • Johnson said last month that he wanted to blur faces in Capitol security footage of Jan. 6 to protect rioters from retaliation by the Department of Justice.
  • Raj Shah, a spokesperson for Johnson, said in an emailed statement on Saturday that faces "are to be blurred from public viewing room footage to prevent all forms of retaliation against private citizens from any non-governmental actors. The DOJ "already has access to raw footage from January 6, 2021," Shah added.

Majority Leader Steve Scalise (La.), who launched an unsuccessful bid for House speaker, recently endorsed Trump for president.

  • He voted to reject Biden's presidency and voted against impeaching Trump, but called Jan. 6 "domestic terrorism."

Pro-Trump legislators, House Freedom Caucus

Election deniers make up almost one-third of Congress, according to an analysis released Friday by States United Action.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.) in 2022 said "we would have won" if she had led the insurrection. She also said people would have been armed.

  • She later said these comments were sarcastic and continuously denied involvement in the Jan. 6 attack.
  • She had planned to attend a since-canceled event Saturday in Florida commemorating the third anniversary.

Rep. Matt Gaetz (Fla.) has repeatedly doubled down on his supportive stance of Jan. 6. "I'm proud of the work we did," he said one year after the attack.

  • Last year, he held a House hearing with Jan. 6 defendants and their family members, who shared testimony alleging abuse from law enforcement on that day.

Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio) has been a staunch Trump ally, and some Republicans have said that he was aware of and part of the conspiracy that led to the Jan. 6 insurrection on the Capitol.

Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas) called Jan. 6 a "terrorist attack" during a 2022 congressional hearing. He walked back these comments after facing backlash from conservatives.

  • A 2021 recorded conversation released in 2023 revealed that Cruz had been developing a plan to overturn the 2020 election results ahead of Jan. 6.

Rep. Elise Stefanik (N.Y.) condemned the violence on the day of the attack and a year later.

  • But she's an aggressive defender of Trump and filed a complaint last year against a judge who has ruled in cases relating to Jan. 6 and the former president.

Anti-Trump legislator

Sen. Mitt Romney (Utah) immediately condemned the insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021, and was the only Republican to support Trump's first impeachment.

  • "Those who choose to continue to support his [Trump's] 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," he said on Jan. 6, 2021.
  • Romney has continued to say that he no longer feels represented by Trump's GOP.

Go deeper: Jan. 6 final report alleges Trump engaged in "multi-part conspiracy"

Editor's note: This article has been updated with comment from Raj Shah, a spokesperson for Speaker Mike Johnson.

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