GOP senators hold back on defending Trump as he faces new indictment
The revelation that former President Trump faces a possible grand jury indictment connected to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack and his efforts to hold on to power has landed like a bombshell on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers saw firsthand the violence unleashed that day.
Some GOP lawmakers rushed to Trump’s defense, but many Republicans in the Senate held back from defending the former president, who has been accused of stoking the Jan. 6 mob and who waited before calling on protesters to disperse.
The expected indictment separately poses a tough political problem for many Republicans critical of Trump, who remains wildly popular with the party’s base.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), who hasn’t spoken to Trump since December 2020, stayed quiet about the news of yet another indictment against his onetime ally, who is now leading the Republican presidential primary field by 30 points in national polls.
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) addresses reporters after the weekly policy luncheon on Wednesday, July 19, 2023. (Greg Nash)
His top deputies, Senate Republican Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), reacted with caution.
Asked whether it would be “legitimate” for special counsel Jack Smith to charge Trump for trying to overturn the results of the 2020 election, Thune said it would depend on the facts and evidence presented.
“That’s going to depend on whether or not laws were broken,” he said. “So clearly, I don’t know what they’re looking at. But I’m sure we’ll know in due time.”
Cornyn dodged the politically charged topic altogether, arguing the Justice Department has the authority to investigate whether Trump broke the laws in trying to stop the certification of the 2020 election.
“I think that’s entirely within the purview of the Department of Justice and has nothing to do with the United States Senate,” he said.
Asked if Smith is a “credible prosecutor,” he said, “I have no knowledge of anything approaching that.”
Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), who called the indictment of Trump last month for violating the Espionage Act “political” and “rotten,” was the only senior member of the Republican leadership to accuse the Justice Department of acting on political motives.
“It looks like the president is targeting his most popular opponent. Isn’t that interesting? Sounds political to me,” he said.
Asked if he saw any qualitative difference between the 37 felony counts federal prosecutors brought against Trump last month for refusing to turn over classified documents he kept improperly at Mar-a-Lago and new charges related to Jan. 6, Barrasso saw both indictments as political attacks.
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“The administration is siccing its dogs on the former president of the United States and their most formidable opponent,” he said.
Senate Republican Conference Vice Chairwoman Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) only said, “It’s a never-ending story, that’s my comment.”
The generally muted response from Senate Republican leaders posed a stark contrast with House Republican leaders, who rushed to Trump’s defense.
Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) suggested the Justice Department is bringing new charges against Trump because he is leading the Republican presidential field by double digits and pulled ahead of President Biden in a recent poll.
“Recently, President Trump went up in the polls and was actually surpassing President Biden for reelection. So what do they do now? Weaponize government to go after their No. 1 opponent,” McCarthy said Tuesday.
“This is not equal justice. They treat people differently and they go after their adversaries,” he said.
Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) speaks to reporters during a media availability in Statuary Hall of the Capitol on Wednesday, July 19, 2023.
McCarthy’s comments reveal how his views of Trump’s culpability for the attack on the Capitol have evolved since January 2021, when he told GOP colleagues that Trump “bears responsibility for his words and actions — no if, ands or buts.”
House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.) accused the Justice Department of waging a politically motivated prosecution to distract from a whistleblower’s claims that senior administration officials interfered with an Internal Revenue Service investigation of Hunter Biden.
“Now you see the Biden administration going after President Trump once again, and it begs that question, ‘Is there a double standard? Is justice being administered equally?’” Scalise asked at a press conference.
Other Trump allies in the House joined the attack against the administration.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) claimed Biden’s Justice Department did little to prosecute Black Lives Matter protesters who breached a federal courthouse in 2020 or to prosecute threats against conservative Supreme Court justices.
“But if you’re President Trump and do nothing wrong? PROSECUTE. Americans are tired of the double standard!” he tweeted.
Another Trump ally, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), attacked Smith on Twitter as a “lousy attorney” and pointed to the Supreme Court overturning his conviction of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R).
“He only targets Republicans because he’s a weak little bitch for the Democrats,” she tweeted.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) asks a question during a hearing on Wednesday, June 21, 2023 to discuss the report from Special Counsel John Durham about the “Crossfire Hurricane” probe into allegations of contacts between Russia and former President Trump’s 2016 campaign.
Senate Republicans, many of whom have made clear they don’t want to see Trump as the party’s nominee for president in 2024, however, broke with their House GOP colleagues over the claim that the Justice Department is operating a “two-tier” system and holding Trump to a special standard.
“I think you’ve got to go where the facts lead you and determine whether or not laws are broken. But there shouldn’t be two systems of justice; everybody should be held accountable and there ought to be equal justice under the law,” Thune told reporters.
“Clearly in these circumstances, it’s a politically charged environment. I think it puts an even higher burden of proof on the Justice Department given the perceptions that people have about that but this has got to be driven by the law and the facts,” he said.
Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) addresses reporters after the weekly policy luncheon on Wednesday, July 19, 2023.
McConnell excoriated Trump on the Senate floor at the end of his 2021 impeachment trial for inciting the mob that stormed the Capitol hallways and ransacked the Senate parliamentarian’s office.
“There is no question that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of that day,” he declared, referring to the violence and chaos that resulted in injuries to more than 100 Capitol police officers.
One officer, Brian Sicknick, died of natural causes while defending the Capitol.
Thune said just because the Senate Republicans’ top leader called Trump “practically and morally” responsible, that did not necessarily warrant criminal charges.
“Practically and morally is something very different than legally, and I think that’s what the Justice Department has to look at. They’ve got to look at the law, the facts as they’ve interviewed people, and then make a determination about whether laws were broken,” he said.
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who voted twice to convict Trump on impeachment charges — including on the charge of inciting the Jan. 6 riot — warned his House GOP colleagues about relentlessly attacking the Justice Department.
He voiced concern about “the diminution of institutions in which we rely as a society.”
“A democracy works when we have confidence in the justice system, in the legal system, in our prosecutors and so forth. If we constantly attack and diminish them, that weakens the democracy,” he said.
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