Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell made clear this week that the deadly events on January 6, 2021, were a “violent insurrection” meant to stop the peaceful transfer of power – a comment prompting backlash from a number of House and Senate Republicans.
“It was mostly a peaceful protest,” Rep. Michael Cloud, a Texas Republican, said Wednesday in response to McConnell.
“The word ‘insurrection’ is politically charged propaganda,” said Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican.
McConnell isn’t moved.
“This is pretty simple,” McConnell told CNN on Wednesday. “We are in the middle of a national crime wave. The Republican Party is a pro-police, tough-on-crime party. And I am a pro-police, tough-on-crime Republican across the board.”
McConnell’s comments are a sign that GOP leaders are wary that continuing to downplay the events of January 6 could undermine the Republican effort to take back Congress – especially as they try to position themselves as the party best suited to handle crime waves in the United States. Moreover, the GOP leader has drawn a firm line against efforts to whitewash the attack – which he has pointedly blamed on former President Donald Trump – even though he voted to acquit Trump in his impeachment trial following the US Capitol attack and opposed a bipartisan commission to investigate January 6.
McConnell, who first used the term “insurrection” on January 6, 2021, has tried to shift the focus and instead unite his party squarely against President Joe Biden’s agenda. But the back-and-forth this week over how to treat the insurrection illustrates the continued complication of moving past it, as Trump continues to push the lie that the election was stolen while withholding critical endorsements until Republicans side with him.
The divide broke back open last Friday when the Republican National Convention used the words “legitimate political discourse” in a resolution censuring GOP Reps. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois for their roles on the House select committee investigating the insurrection, prompting McConnell to push back against the move.
Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, McConnell rebuked the party committee for “picking and choosing Republicans who ought to be supported” as he also condemned the attack as a “violent insurrection.”
Many Republicans weren’t having it.
“Mitch McConnell should be ashamed of himself,” said freshman Rep. Troy Nehls, a Texas Republican who was supposed to serve on the January 6 select committee before House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy pulled his picks in protest over Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s handling of the matter.
Rep. Andy Biggs of Arizona, the former head of the hardline House Freedom Caucus, echoed a similar sentiment about McConnell: “He was wrong. It was a riot.”
Sen. Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican who led the charge to challenge the 2020 election results in Congress, also called McConnell’s assessment “incorrect.”
“It was a political demonstration, that, by the way, is totally lawful,” Hawley said. “But when you cross over into violence by attacking cops, breaking laws, that’s not First Amendment speech.”
Since last week, RNC officials have sought to clean up the controversy, arguing that the committee condemns the violence from the attack and said it censured Kinzinger and Cheney for joining a probe they say is squarely designed to hurt Republicans.
Sen. John Cornyn, the Texas Republican and member of McConnell’s leadership team, said that the Kentucky Republican was telling the truth – even if some disagree.
“That’s the responsibility that goes along with being the leader,” Cornyn said.
But there’s a division within the Texas delegation on that issue.
Cruz, who had been referring to the events of January 6 as a “violent terrorist attack” until getting blowback from the right, rejected the GOP leader’s comments on Wednesday, saying: “I think it is a mistake for Republicans to repeat the political propaganda and the corporate media.”
Even though a pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol in an effort to prevent Congress from certifying the 2020 election results, a number of Republicans won’t say it was an “insurrection,” which is defined as a violent attempt to take control of a government.
“I don’t know that I would go that far. But it was something that we’re not proud of,” said Sen. Tommy Tuberville of Alabama. “It was violent. I just wouldn’t call it an insurrection.”
Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, a Trump ally who will face a competitive reelection race this fall, also acknowledged there was violence on January 6 and said he condemned it. But Johnson added: “What I will say is, there were not thousands of armed insurrectionists.”
There were, in fact, rioters who showed up to the Capitol with weapons and military style gear – while the Justice Department has said that more than 75 people have been charged with entering a restricted area with a dangerous or deadly weapon.
Meanwhile, Rep. Bob Good of Virginia, a member of the Freedom Caucus, said the “small portion” of people who broke the law on January 6 deserved to be prosecuted and punished, but “it was not an attempt to overthrow the government. It was not.”
Even the Republicans who defended McConnell’s right to speak out have steered clear of using the “I” word when referring to the Capitol attack.
Florida Sen. Rick Scott, who chairs the Senate GOP campaign committee, would not say if he agreed with McConnell’s use of the term “violent insurrection.”
“What I’ve always said is it violated the law, and people ought to be prosecuted,” he said Wednesday when asked if he backed the leader’s characterization.
“It could have probably had some less ugliness to it, but it was a demonstration,” added Rep. Roger Williams, a Texas Republican. “I don’t want to stand in [McConnell’s] shoes, he’s a good man. But it’s all how people see it. I was here, and I didn’t see it that way.”
Despite the intra-party divisions over January 6, McConnell – who hasn’t spoken to Trump since the attack – has managed to maintain a good standing inside his conference, even amid a near weekly barrage of criticism from Trump. The former President blasted out yet another statement Wednesday tearing into the GOP leader for breaking with the RNC.
“Mitch McConnell does not speak for the Republican Party, and does not represent the views of the vast majority of its voters,” Trump said in the statement.
McConnell’s rebuke of the RNC was a stark split from House Minority Leader McCarthy, who has sought to keep his conference closely aligned with Trump.
“The RNC put out their resolution, I think they have a right to do their resolution and what they wanted,” McCarthy said Wednesday.
Asked if he agrees with McConnell that January 6 was a violent insurrection, McCarthy told CNN: “Yeah. I agree. Anyone who broke into this building, I mean, no one would disagree with that.”
Yet plenty of Republicans, particularly inside the House GOP, have said they do not concur with McConnell’s language.
“I’m not going to defend anybody that committed violence or destruction of property. But that’s not an insurrection,” said Rep. Thomas Massie, a Republican from McConnell’s home state of Kentucky.
When asked what he considers to be an insurrection, Massie responded: “I don’t know what it is, but this wasn’t anywhere close.”
CNN’s Morgan Rimmer and Annie Grayer contributed to this report.