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A year later, GOP accuses Democrats of 'exploiting' Capitol riot

Republicans are playing down Trump's culpability, and their own, while giving GOP voters comfort, political experts say.
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WASHINGTON — A year ago, while Republican lawmakers tried to overturn the 2020 presidential election by blocking the certification of the results, President Donald Trump incited a mob to storm the Capitol in an effort to obtain the same objective.

Now, with official Washington observing the anniversary, Republicans are accusing Democrats of politicizing the attack and blaming them for what the GOP describes as lax Capitol security.

"Unfortunately, over the past 12 months, House Democrats have been more interested in exploiting the events of January 6th for political purposes than in conducting basic oversight of the security vulnerabilities exposed that day," Rep. Rodney Davis of Illinois, the ranking Republican on the House Administration Committee, wrote in a letter Monday to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

Using similar language, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., told fellow Republicans over the weekend that Democrats are using the attack as "a partisan political weapon to further divide our country." And Reps. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., and Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., plan to hold a news conference Thursday, a note of counterprogramming against most of Washington's remembrances, to "expose the truth" about what Greene's office called the "protests."

The common thread, according to political experts: They are playing down Trump's culpability, and their own, while giving Republican voters comfort, at a time when most Americans — but a minority of GOP voters — say the former president bears significant blame for the violence.

"In the world of negative partisanship, if the GOP can paint this as a failure of Pelosi and Dems to protect the Capitol, they've successfully closed out the matter with their universe of voters," former Rep. David Jolly of Florida, who left the Republican Party after exiting Congress, said in a text message.

"It's a clumsy argument, and doesn't electrify their base like CRT [critical race theory], masks, or inflation, so you won't see the GOP spend money on this message," he added. "But you will see them use it in every response to charges of Trump's responsibility for 1/6."

The insurrection, of course, was inherently political. It was aimed at stopping Joe Biden from becoming president and keeping Trump in power. In the immediate aftermath, the top Republicans in the House and Senate condemned Trump for fueling the attack.

But under political threat from Trump, all but a few Republican lawmakers have since chosen to avoid criticizing the former president. Instead, they have settled on a message of condemning political violence and trying to draw a parallel between the attempted coup and the nationwide summer 2020 protests for racial justice that sometimes turned violent.

What most Republican lawmakers don't want to do is continue to emphasize the Trump lie that led to the attack, that he was robbed of a second term. They would rather talk about issues where they aren't on the wrong side of public opinion.

So while the former president's most ardent allies insist that he won, many in the GOP were relieved Wednesday when they heard that Trump had canceled his own planned Jan. 6 news conference. But with the nation's attention focused on the anniversary, it's hard to avoid talking about the attack altogether.

"This is their only political play," said Elise Jordan, a former national security official in George W. Bush's White House and an MSNBC contributor. "It’s sad, though, that so many men and women that were in a building that was under siege, and it was a very traumatic day, can’t be honest about what it was like."

A handful of Republicans, including Reps. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, have castigated Trump and fellow GOP lawmakers who don't want to hold him accountable.

"The Capitol wasn’t prepared for Jan 6th, and should have been," Kinzinger wrote on Twitter. "But blaming the security posture for the violence is like blaming a home invasion on the owner for not having a proper security system."

Still, that's what Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, appeared to do at a Senate Rules Committee hearing Wednesday.

"As we reflect on what happened a year ago, it is also worth asking, as we have, as this committee has, as Congress has, as I know you have, what could have been done differently? What could have prevented the breach of the Capitol, what could have prevented the riot getting as far as it did?" Cruz asked Capitol Police Chief Tom Manger.

Later, Cruz said that "anyone who commits an act of violence should be prosecuted ... and anyone who assaults a law enforcement officer should go to jail for a very long time."

Left unsaid: Cruz was the senator who objected to the certification of Arizona's electors in the House chamber while the mob outside the Capitol attacked police in an effort to disrupt the count.

Greene was not available for an interview Wednesday, and Gaetz's office did not respond to a request for comment.