Republican speakers at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) on Friday downplayed the deadly Jan. 6 storming of the United States Capitol by a pro-Trump mob that disrupted the peaceful transfer of power, sidestepping former President Donald Trump’s culpability in the violence.
On Friday, multiple speakers minimized the attack or cast blame outside their party. A marquee event in Republican politics, the CPAC conference is one of the first post-Trump gatherings of prominent conservative voices and will host the former President as a keynote speaker on Sunday.
The Capitol riot hung over the day’s speeches. Less than two months ago, a mob of extreme Trump supporters stormed the Capitol as Congress certified the Electoral College results, after months of Trump spreading conspiracy theories that the election had been stolen from him. He was then impeached and acquitted for his role in inciting the insurrection. As the GOP wrestles with how—or whether—to move on from Trump’s presidency, CPAC proves that some party leaders are still demonstrating total fealty to Trump, even if it means explaining away the insurrection.
Two of Friday’s speakers—Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas—both objected to certifying the results of the presidential election, and there have been calls for congressional investigations into their roles in spreading Trump’s election lies before the storming of the Capitol. In their CPAC speeches, neither acknowledged the seriousness of the security breach and related security concerns in their attempts to inherit the former President’s supporters.
If anything, Hawley wore his involvement in the insurrection as a badge of honor. “I was called a traitor, I was called a seditionist, the radical left said I should [resign], and if I wouldn’t resign, I should be expelled from the United States Senate,” Hawley, who was the first Republican Senator to announce he would object to the results, said. “I’m not going anywhere.” He received applause from the CPAC crowd. He did not mention the attack on the Capitol that followed his announcement that he would challenge the election results.
Nearly eight weeks after the attack, the Capitol remains under tight security, including an outer perimeter and heavy National Guard presence. But Cruz dismissed the security concerns stemming from the violence in January. “Let’s be clear, this is not about security at this point, this is about political theater,” he said. “Half the country, the ‘deplorables,’ are dangerous, and [Democrats are] going to turn the Capitol into a military outpost in Baghdad just to have the compliant media echo that message.”
In fact, acting Chief of U.S. Capitol Police Yogananda Pittman told lawmakers on Thursday that there are threats by extremists in militia groups to blow up the Capitol and kill lawmakers when Biden addresses Congress. Given the threats, Pittman said, the Capitol Police determined it was prudent to keep the security measures in place.
Senator Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee also called for the security to come down, in an extension of an argument about the right to petition the government and peaceably assemble. “Nancy Pelosi, let’s get the fencing and the wire down and away from the U.S. Capitol,” Blackburn said to cheers. Democrats have also expressed concern about keeping the Capitol inaccessible to the general public.
The party’s unwillingness to accept responsibility for Trump’s false statements about election fraud that members of the mob said inspired them to carry out the insurrection is not surprising. House Republicans overwhelmingly voted against impeaching Trump, and 43 senators voted to acquit Trump in the impeachment trial. (Though with ten House Republicans who voted to impeach him and seven Senate Republicans who voted to convict him, it was the most bipartisan impeachment vote and trial in U.S. history.) Even in a hearing on Tuesday about the attack, Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin baselessly suggested it was “provocateurs” that stirred up the Trump supporters on Jan. 6.
At CPAC, it wasn’t just senators who made mention of Jan. 6— other speakers also brought it to the stage. In a session on “Protecting Elections,” Deroy Murdock, a Fox News contributor, suggested that judges who rejected Trump campaign lawsuits in his baseless efforts to overturn the results of the presidential election were to blame. “Largely I think [they] bear a lot of responsibility for the chaos that ensued,” Murdock said to applause. The Trump campaign pursued dozens of lawsuits following the election, but nearly all of them were thrown out.
T.W. Shannon, a bank CEO and former Oklahoma Speaker of the House, falsely equated the riot to the racial justice protests that occurred over the summer, and echoed Trump’s spurious claim that the election was “rigged.” “The reason that people stormed the Capitol was because they felt hopeless because of a rigged election,” Shannon said.
Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas sidestepped the violence at the Capitol entirely, never once bringing it up—even as he called for arresting rioters on the streets and condemned people tearing down statues. But he was talking about racial justice protesters and the replacement of Confederate statues, not those who stormed the U.S. Capitol (including at least one person who carried a Confederate flag). Said Cotton: “We will never bend the knee to a politically correct mob ever.”
That’s not to say that there aren’t Republican lawmakers who haven’t sought to distance themselves from Trump. On Wednesday, after House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said he believed that Trump should speak at CPAC, a reporter directed the question to third-ranking House Republican Liz Cheney. Cheney, who voted to impeach Trump, said it was up to the conference. “I don’t believe he should be playing a role in the future of the party or the country,” she said.
Even Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell has said Trump was “practically and morally responsible” for the Capitol attack. But on Thursday, one day before the CPAC conference began, McConnell told Fox News he would “absolutely” support Trump again in 2024 if he’s the party’s nominee.