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What will Republicans defend if not themselves, the Constitution and Capitol?

Analysis: Only Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger seem to see that they can serve both the country and the Republican Party.

WASHINGTON — Aquilino Gonell, a sergeant with the U.S. Capitol Police force, testified Tuesday that he put his duty to the Constitution ahead of the interests of his wife and son when he fought rioters at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

"This is how I'm going to die," he recalled thinking as his body was crushed in a violent scrum, "defending this entrance."

Of course, Gonell and other law enforcement officers were defending symbols of the republic that day — the Capitol, the Constitution and the sanctity of the ballot. But they were also safeguarding the physical security of the members of Congress, direct participants in republican governance, as well as then-Vice President Mike Pence.

It has been heartbreaking for Gonell and many of his colleagues on the Capitol and D.C. Metro police forces to watch Republican leaders in Congress pretend they weren't under threat.

"It was devastating and demoralizing for people, whatever the party is, to call this attack and continue to minimize it like nothing happened. It was an attempted coup that was happening in the Capitol that day," Gonell said in emotional testimony given under questioning by Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., who also fought back tears.

"We were fighting for our lives — to give you guys a chance to go home to your family, to escape. And now the same people we helped, the same people who — we gave them borrowed time to get to safety — now they're attacking us. They're attacking our characters," he continued. "It's a disgrace."

For months, Republican lawmakers have attacked the police officers who defended their lives so they can defend a former president who put them at risk, and they continue to do so.

Those Republicans were not in the room. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and his fellow GOP leaders decided not to appoint members to the select committee investigating the riot. They will neither defend nor condemn the Capitol riot in the historical annals of the Congressional Record.

They have chosen official silence — refusing to defend the indefensible while signaling tacit and docile support for former President Donald Trump and the rioters who stormed the Capitol in his name.

Former Rep. David Jolly, who left the GOP in 2018, said the Republican leadership is trying to divert public attention away from the hearings.

"The committee is set up to get to the truth about Jan. 6," Jolly said. "Republican opposition to its work is clearly an effort to obstruct that truth from reaching voters."

Still, by threatening to punish fellow Republicans Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Kinzinger, McCarthy has made clear to Americans that in his House Republican Conference, it is better to back a riot than to buck Trump.

Choosing not to send Republican allies to sit on the committee — McCarthy opted to abstain after Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., rejected two of his picks because they have spread lies about the riot — may be an act of political cowardice. But it is certainly a political miscalculation.

Now, the faces of the Republican Party's position on the committee are those of Cheney and Kinzinger. It is obvious that they are the Republicans most willing to deal in reality, and that they are in the extreme minority in a party still deeply riven by Trump.

Kinzinger said he accepted Pelosi's invitation to sit on the committee "not in spite of my membership in the Republican Party but because of it." His meaning was clear: He aims to heal both his party and his country by airing every detail of the riot.

Fellow Republicans may be able to question their fealty to the party or to Trump. But it will be difficult to assail their loyalty to the country. Cheney, the daughter of a former vice president, has served in the State Department and Congress. When it comes to matters of national defense, it is hard to find a harder line than hers. Kinzinger is a lieutenant colonel in the Air National Guard.

Both used portions of their time during Tuesday's hearing to note that they remain opposed to Democrats on just about everything but the importance of finding out more about the planning and execution of the riot.

“We may have our deep differences on other policy issues," Kinzinger said. "But we are all Americans today.”

Notably, that group only included only one other Republican House member: Cheney.

Several House Republicans, including Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., who is under FBI investigation, spent part of Tuesday outside the Justice Department protesting the treatment of Jan. 6 rioters in jail.

GOP leaders are so twisted around a political axle that McCarthy referred to Cheney and Kinzinger as "Pelosi Republicans" after a visit to the White House this week. Such phrasing has long been used to laud those who show deep-seated independence from partisanship — think "Reagan Democrat."

With his actions and his words, McCarthy is creating more political space for Pelosi Republicans — or at least Biden Republicans and former Republicans — who put the sanctity of the republic ahead of Trump or the promise of winning power in the next election.

If Republicans won't defend the Capitol, the Constitution or even themselves, it's hard to see how they can claim to stand for anyone — or anything — else. That's what Tuesday's hearing was really about — for the Democrats, for the police who testified and for the two Republicans who said serving their party and the country aren't mutually exclusive goals.

McCarthy, facing a similar choice, has decided to follow Trump rather than the truth.