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GOP divided over how to defend Trump ahead of first Jan. 6 hearing

One faction wants to ignore the proceedings. Another thinks some direct counterprogramming is necessary.
Photo illustration of former President Donald Trump, the scene at the Capitol on Jan. 6, an American flag patter and a rioter yelling.
Chelsea Stahl / NBC News; Getty Images

A split is emerging among Republicans about how best to counter the House Jan. 6 committee’s opening hearing Thursday, as the party waits to see just how explosive the panel’s findings prove to be.

One GOP faction believes the attack on the Capitol a year and a half ago is of so little interest to Americans by now that it’s hardly worth rebutting the committee’s presentation. More politically advantageous, that faction argues, is amplifying the message that President Joe Biden and his fellow Democrats are to blame for rising gas and grocery prices.

“I would not expect a full-fledged takedown of what’s going on at the committee hearings,” a Republican National Committee aide said, speaking on condition of anonymity to talk freely about strategic planning. “They will draw attention, but at the end of the day our job is to win elections. This doesn’t help us, and we don’t think it helps them [Democrats] either.”

But another wing of the party is preparing to blunt any revelations coming out of the hearings through press statements and news conferences with hand-picked outlets.

On Tuesday, House GOP Conference Chair Elise Stefanik of New York and two leaders of the far-right Freedom Caucus — Reps. Jim Jordan of Ohio and Scott Perry of Pennsylvania — scheduled a conference call with conservative media outlets on what they called “Democrats’ prime-time political witch hunt hearing” and “[House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi’s sham committee,” according to a copy of an email invitation that was sent to a limited number of reporters. NBC News and other outlets were not invited to join the call.

Stefanik spokeswoman Ali Black would not acknowledge the existence of the media call when an NBC reporter asked to be invited, pointing instead to an interview Stefanik gave to the right-wing website Breitbart News.

 “We will be setting the record straight,” Stefanik told Breitbart. 

The wildcard is former President Donald Trump, whose efforts to overturn the 2020 election may be a focal point of the hearings. Never one to be upstaged, Trump will surely be tempted to provide a running commentary on the hearings through news releases and postings on his new social media platform, Truth Social. (Trump lost his access to Twitter after Jan. 6 and so lacks the largest megaphone he historically used to undercut Democratic hearings.)

Fox News Channel, which attracts a huge conservative audience, won’t be covering the prime-time hearing live on Thursday, but as “news warrants,” the network said. Fox’s sister station, Fox Business Network, will carry the hearing live. If Fox sticks with that approach for allof the hearings, Trump could potentially phone into the conservative network and provide a dose of counterprogramming (A spokesman for Trump did not respond to a request for comment.)

“We’re preparing for all eventualities, including that it’s a big dud,” said Matt Schlapp, a Trump ally. “I’ve been in touch with the Trump team, and I think that they know what this is all about. They know it’s essentially a Democratic attempt to prevent Donald Trump from ever running for office again. They understand that.”

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By this point in his political career, Trump has ample experience parrying Democratic-led investigations into his dealings. During his second impeachment trial, one of Trump’s old campaign Twitter accounts sent out posts critical of Democrats. Trump put out his own tweets in 2019 during his first impeachment trial, before his account was suspended. 

Top Republicans are expected to hold another news conference Thursday — the same day of the first hearing — centered on economic issues like inflation. The leadership’s aim seems to be drawing a stark contrast between the parties: Republicans focused on top-of-mind concerns like high prices; Democrats dwelling on an issue that Americans now see as secondary, polling shows.

“Voters care about the dismal state of the economy, gas prices and crime,” said a senior House GOP leadership aide. “Republicans won’t be giving these hearings no one cares about any air and will stay focused on the issues voters are talking about.”

The committee plans to hold at least a half-dozen hearings spread throughout the month. Thursday’s session will include testimony that seems intended to rise above partisanship and give Republicans little to rebut.

A Capitol police officer injured in the attack will testify at the opening hearing, sources told NBC News. Caroline Edwards cracked her head and suffered a concussion when rioters pushed her to the ground.

“When will we be set free?” Edwards said in a court filing. “When will we be set free of the memories and scars of that day?”