WASHINGTON — For the past six years, backing up Donald Trump on his wildest claims became a veritable art form among ambitious Republicans, but through the run of the Jan. 6 House committee hearings, those same Republicans now eyeing the White House in 2024 have been remarkably quiet about the attack on the Capitol.
On the first anniversary of Jan. 6, 2021, top-tier 2024 contender Ron DeSantis blasted commemorations of the attack as a “smear on Trump supporters.” But in the middle of the hearings last month, instead of repeating Trump’s election lies or conspiracy theories about voter fraud, the Republican Florida governor dismissed talk of Jan. 6 outright, saying it was a “loser” as an issue with voters.
When former Trump White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson captivated Washington and the country with her testimony that Trump had attempted to wave through rioters carrying military-style weapons past Secret Service security screens and then march with them down Pennsylvania Avenue to join the insurrection, typically outspoken Republicans like Sen. Ted Cruz skipped weighing in all together.
Instead, Cruz launched into a Twitter battle with Elmo of "Sesame Street" over coronavirus vaccines for children, which generated plenty of coverage for the possible 2024 contender. A person familiar with Cruz’s thinking said the Texas senator hasn’t been watching the Jan. 6 hearings and, like other Republican senators, considers the House hearings a “clown show.”
And former Vice President Mike Pence, who was the subject of an entire committee hearing last month headlined by his own top aides, has avoided almost all talk of Jan. 6 — much less any defense of Trump.
The reasons are myriad — Republicans are tired of carrying water for Trump, he’s burned too many bridges, he doesn’t command the power he used to, GOP voters aren’t engaged by Trump’s election lies — but they all land at the same conclusion: This is Trump’s fight alone, according to interviews with more than a half dozen Republican strategists, campaign workers and veteran staffers keeping tabs on the pre-campaign for the party's nomination in 2024.
“They’re fatigued,” said one former Trump aide. “They feel like, ‘Hey, I don't agree with everything that happened in the election, I don't agree with X, Y, Z. But I don't want to have to relitigate your issues every day.'”
For more than a month now, the select committee investigating Trump’s effort to hold onto power, culminating in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, has dominated headlines. And Trump, without the White House or Twitter, has been relegated to sending “truths” from his beleaguered social media company to reporters to stem the deluge of stunning revelations.
A small coterie of House Republicans, led by Jim Jordan and Jim Banks, whom House Speaker Nancy Pelosi refused to seat on the committee, have pushed back on select items from the panel.
But the glaring absence of Trump supporters at the hearings has led to the former president lambasting House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy for abandoning the committee after fighting with Pelosi over it.
“Unfortunately, a bad decision was made. This committee — it was a bad decision not to have representation on this committee,” Trump told a right-wing radio host last month, shortly after the hearings started.
Most of the Republican Party apparatus has instead been hammering away at the issues they see resonating with their voters — inflation, the rise of China as a global threat, social issues like transgender women participating in female sports and other hot-button topics.
At the same time, Trump’s standing as the de facto frontrunner for the nomination in 2024 has continued to slip, while others like DeSantis are seeing their stock go up. A University of New Hampshire poll released last month showed the Florida governor overtaking Trump in that early-voting state. And a Yahoo/YouGov poll released at the end of June found DeSantis coming within 9 percentage points of ousting Trump as the party favorite for 2024.
And as his standing has dropped throughout the past few months, Trump has been telling Republican operatives who meet with him that he wants to launch a third bid for the White House this summer. One of his advisers noted that Trump had said he planned to announce on July 4, but Independence Day came and went without an announcement.
“It’s the most selfish, f***ed-up thing he can do. He’s got to change the channel, because it’s all bad for him,” one veteran Republican strategist said.
And it’s the years of those games that have caused Republicans to sour on supporting Trump.
“I’ve got two words for you: Mo Brooks,” said another Republican strategist. The Alabama congressman helped Trump attempt to overthrow the 2020 election and was subpoenaed by the House committee as a result, yet Trump still withdrew his endorsement of Brooks for the Senate because Brooks was trailing in the polls.
“He’s broken his word too many times to too many people,” the veteran strategist said. “If you defend him, you look like a lunatic. If you look like a lunatic, he cuts ties.”