WASHINGTON — Top Senate Republicans broke with former President Donald Trump on Monday over his decision to feature video of Jan. 6 rioters at his weekend rally in Texas.
Some disagreed with his judgment in playing a video that exalts those who took part in the attack on the Capitol and were arrested, rejecting the narrative in pro-Trump circles that the rioters were “peaceful” protesters. Other Republicans said it is an unwise political strategy for Trump to focus on the attempted insurrection as he seeks a comeback bid in 2024.
“People who violated the law should be prosecuted. And they have been,” Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, who previously held the No. 2 spot in Senate Republican leadership, told NBC News.
“I just frankly don’t understand this, you know, retrospective look,” he said. “When it comes to running for president or any other office, people don’t want you to relitigate all your grievances in the past. They want to know what your vision for the future is. And so I don’t think it’s a formula for success.”
Chuck: Trump rally glorifying Jan. 6 ‘crossed another line’March 26, 202302:15
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a Trump ally and golfing partner, broke with the ex-president’s view.
“January 6 was one of the worst days in American history. Everybody’s entitled to due process,” he said, adding that “if you’re trying to suggest that those who were involved in January the 6th are some kind of hero? No.”
“There will be no effort on my part to whitewash January 6,” he added.
Senate Minority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., referred to his past comments condemning the Jan. 6 violence and questioned Trump's decision to keep focusing on that day.
“It’s living in the past,” Thune said. “And I think most— more people want to hear about the things you’re going to do to make the future better and brighter for them.”
At a campaign rally Saturday in Waco, Texas, Trump began by playing the song "Justice For All," which, according to an announcer, was recorded by "Donald J. Trump and the J6 choir." The song played as Trump put his hand over his heart, as an accompanying video featured actors portraying Jan. 6 defendants in jail cells and actual footage of the rioters violently breaching the Capitol on Jan. 6 as Trump recites the Pledge of Allegiance. The video was posted by the Right Side Broadcasting Network.
Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa, another member of GOP leadership, said she didn’t have a reaction to Trump, but added: “I’ve already said that Jan. 6 was a horrible thing.”
Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., pushed back on those who have downplayed Jan. 6. “I still maintain that anybody that breached the walls, came through windows and doors — some of them may have been caught up in the moment, most of them probably deserve to be accountable to the courts and the criminal justice system,” he told reporters Monday.
“There’s been a narrative out there that there were people walking these hallways that were peaceful tourists,” Tillis said. “They were illegally present. I would ask anybody who thought that that was an appropriate action — if that happened in their place of business, how would they feel about it?”
Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., offered a partial defense of Trump, saying he doesn’t “want to see any violence,” but claiming there is a “multi-tiered system of justice here” in which Jan. 6 defendants are being treated more harshly.
Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., said Trump’s move could help fire up primary voters.
“I didn’t see it, but you know, when you do those rallies or you get into a campaign, you use all things at your disposal. I can’t say it’s good or bad, but I’m sure he’s trying to get people fired up,” he said. “Everybody looks for an edge. Bottom line, it’s about winning.”
“It’s politics,” he said.
On the other side of the Capitol, several House Republicans said Trump’s use of the Jan. 6 riot footage was inappropriate.
“I don’t approve. I don’t approve,” said moderate Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., a leader of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus.
Another moderate, Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., said Trump’s actions demonstrated “a lack of judgment and the way to lose in 2024.”
Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, said he didn’t see what happened at the Waco rally but explained why he’s ready to move on from Trump. “I’ve endorsed Governor DeSantis; he’s good friend. I’ve known him for 10 years and we’ll see how the campaign plays out,” Roy said. “I like his record, he won by a million and a half people … strong economic growth, attracting a lot of people who moved to Florida, and I think the country needs that.”
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said he didn’t see the rally and declined to comment on Trump’s move to highlight the Jan. 6 rioters.
Democrats denounced Trump’s move in starker terms than their GOP counterparts and predicted he would pay a political price for it in the general election.
“He is now pretty squarely in favor of insurrection against the United States,” said Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii. “And I think that’s probably a winning position in the [Republican] primary. But I have a hard time believing that the suburbs and the cities and even center-right Republicans across the country are going to want to go through that again.”
“He’s now in favor of insurrection,” Schatz said. “I don’t think we should put an insurrectionist in charge of the country.”
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said Trump’s remarks were a slap in the face to police officers who defended the Capitol.
“Well, I don’t know how much more disrespectful the former president can be when it comes to the men and women in law enforcement who were attacked, and some lost their lives because of this situation,” Durbin said on Monday. “So he tends to hit new depths in his political pursuit.”