WASHINGTON — Evidence of how contentious last year’s Jan. 6 riot remains in the public imagination could be found in a cramped room on the fifth floor of the Cannon House Office Building on Thursday afternoon.
For nearly an hour, reporters, photographers and conspicuously unmasked Republican aides all listened as Reps. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., and Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., two of former President Donald Trump’s closest supporters in the House, peddled unfounded conspiracy theories about the alleged involvement of federal law enforcement agencies in the violent attempt by pro-Trump rioters to stop the certification of Joe Biden’s victory.
The “fedsurrection,” as Gaetz has taken to calling it, implicated the FBI and those at the Justice Department supposedly set on covering it up. “They don’t answer the questions that can get to the truth,” Gaetz charged of the DOJ, which, in an unrelated matter, is investigating him in a sex trafficking scheme. Testimony from arrested rioters and evidence released by the House select committee investigating the riot have failed to convince many Republicans that Trump and his supporters were responsible for the attack or that it was even especially grave; 36 percent of Republicans say that the attack on the Capitol, which left five people dead, was “mostly peaceful,” despite ample evidence to the contrary.
A few Republicans have spoken up on behalf of reality, only to be knocked down for doing so. The day before the anniversary, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, whose objections to ratifying Biden’s win amplified what would have been that day’s routine proceedings, called last year’s riot a “terrorist attack.” That earned him a swift rebuke from Trumpists like Tucker Carlson, who has been sowing doubt about Jan. 6 on his nightly Fox News show.
“The establishment will never love you, Ted,” Gaetz said Thursday, picking up where Carlson had left off the night before.
It was a jarring contrast, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi holding a moment of silence to commemorate the violent attack, while most Republicans simply remained silent. Some had gone to Georgia, for the funeral of former GOP Sen. Johnny Isakson. Others simply stayed away from Capitol Hill.
Gaetz and Greene were, in fact, the only GOP members bold enough to push their counternarrative on more or less the same ground where members of Congress and congressional staffers fled from an angry mob one year ago. They did so with the knowledge that millions continue to believe that the election was stolen from Trump. There are growing concerns, too, that violence is increasingly seen as a tool of political redress.
An avid defender of Trump on all matters, Gaetz showed video clips that, in his view, show FBI agents goading the rioters to storm the Capitol. The videos had been “aggregated” by a news outlet called Revolver News, Gaetz said. He did not say that Revolver was the work of Darren Beattie, a former Trump speechwriter who was dismissed from the administration for far-right views. Nor did he mention that there is no hard evidence that a man named Ray Epps, who is seen on the tapes urging Trump supporters to enter the Capitol, is or ever was an FBI-directed agent provocateur.
“Imagine if we actually had the powers of the Jan. 6 committee,” Gaetz mused. He later told Yahoo News that if Republicans win back the House next November, they will look into “potential federal involvement” in last year’s riot. Having sat through two impeachments of Trump, they are eager for revenge.
The cycles of recrimination, punctuated by violence, are not the stuff of healthy democracies, sober-minded leaders from both parties have said. There are historical precedents, and they are dark, as historians Jon Meacham and Doris Kearns Goodwin pointed out in a talk on Thursday afternoon with the librarian of Congress.
Jan. 6 could be “a step on the way to the abyss,” warned Meacham, if the present-day divisions persist, while Goodwin invoked American intervention in World War II as the possibility of what the nation can do when those divisions are closed though an act of collective will.
“We did that, we can do that again,” she said.
Republicans have charged that Democrats are overhyping the seriousness of Jan. 6 with such historical parallels, with some criticizing Vice President Kamala Harris for comparing that day’s riot with the attacks of Pearl Harbor and Sept. 11.
During the event she held with Gaetz, Greene wondered why there had not been a more aggressive Department of Justice response to the looting and violence that accompanied some of the racial justice protests during the summer of 2020. (Local law enforcement agencies tended to handle alleged malefactors in those cases.)
Her most unambiguous concession to reality was in noting that she had already introduced articles of impeachment against Biden four separate times. It was her way of answering a reporter’s question about whether Biden was the president of the United States, a question that makes clear just how tenuous the very notion of a shared reality has become.
“I think it’s clear that I think he is the president,” Greene said, as non-presidents aren’t generally subject to efforts at presidential impeachment. Greene is also the author of a bill to fire Dr. Anthony Fauci, the president’s top medical adviser, who she believes helped the Chinese government produce the coronavirus as a bioweapon. Such conspiracy theories proliferate on social media and talk radio, reaching millions.
“Unfortunately, Republicans don’t seem to want to go into the truth,” said Greene, who was recently banned from Twitter for spreading misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines.
Like the vaccines, Jan. 6 has become thoroughly politicized. Just as the we-are-all-in-this-together spirit of the pandemic’s first stages now seems like the stuff of fantasy, the Republican condemnations that followed the assault a year ago quickly turned into amnesia or revision.
Back then, House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy said that Trump “bears responsibility” for inciting his supporters to riot and overturn the democratic process. A trip to Mar-a-Lago to visit the former president changed his mind; other Republicans have taken to calling the attack a “normal tourist visit.”
Among the few exceptions is Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., who partook in commemoration of the day’s events on Thursday. She was accompanied by her father, former Vice President Dick Cheney, who said he was “deeply disappointed” in the Republican Party to which he has devoted his entire life.
That disappointment is plainly shared by Democrats, some of whom held out hope that the attack would lead to a suture of the wounds that the Trump presidency had created. There is no evidence, however, of any such reconciliation. If anything, the political winds may well be behind Gaetz and Greene.
Still, reality has a way. In the afternoon, House Democrats offered their own testimonies of the attack. They were testimonies of what was supposed to be a more or less ordinary day for the men and women sent by Americans to represent them in Washington. Instead, many of those representatives cowered in hopes that the mob sweeping through the Capitol would not reach them.
Rep. Sara Jacobs, D-Calif., was on her fourth day in office. Disoriented and afraid, she remembers cowering with colleagues in the House gallery, “fashioning weapons out of stanchions, and pens and my high heels, ready to take on the rioters who were banging on the doors behind us.” She thanked Rep. Jason Crow, D-Colo., for the “glass of whiskey” he offered her after the violence of that day was through and the day’s intended proceedings resumed.
Republicans have mocked the feelings of trauma that Jacobs and others have described, but the afternoon’s testimonials made clear how real that trauma remains.
As she spoke, Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, D-Del., held up a scarf printed with an enlarged image of the voter registration card that her great-great-great-grandfather, who had been a slave, signed to vote in 1867.
The scarf had been with her on Jan. 6 too. “It is my proof of what we have overcome,” she said. “And it is my inspiration for what is yet to be done.”