Former President Trump and the 2022 midterm elections are looming large over the GOP effort to quash an investigation into the Jan. 6 attack.
Most Republicans, including GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), blocked the House-passed legislation on Friday. Just seven Republicans, one of whom was absent and missed the vote, supported advancing the House passed bill. Only 35 House Republicans backed it.
The majority of the GOP want to move on. They think any focus on the Jan. 6 attack by a mob of Trump supporters hurts the party ahead of the elections, when the House and Senate majorities will be in play.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who is up for reelection and voted to advance the commission, urged Republicans to think beyond the 2022 cycle even as she acknowledged the pressure from Trump against the commission hung over Friday’s vote.
“I believe there are those that believe they don't want to rock the boat. That believe they don't want to upset. But again it's important that there be a focus on the facts and on the truth and that may be unsettling but we need to understand that,” Murkowski said, asked about Trump’s influence.
In the hours ahead of Friday’s vote, Senate Republicans largely avoided coming to the Senate floor to discuss the Jan. 6 commission, even as Democrats offered blistering criticism that put Trump at the center of the Senate’s debate.
“The vote has made it official. Donald Trump’s big lie has now fully enveloped the Republican Party. Trump’s big lie is now the defining principle of what was once the party of Lincoln. House Republicans canned Congresswoman Cheney for the crime of telling the truth of Joe Biden as president,” Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said on Friday.
Senate Republicans have sought to avoid the Trump drama that has rocked the House Republican caucus in recent weeks with the ousting of Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) and the decision to replace her with Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), who rose to fame as one of Trump’s staunchest defenders.
Republicans have pointed to ongoing investigations by the Department of Justice and a joint Senate committee probe, which would be more narrowly focused on Capitol security, to make their case against the commission. Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who is helping oversee the Senate investigation, voted to advance the House bill on Friday.
But top Republicans have also been blunt about their concerns that the commission, by keeping Trump and the Jan. 6 attack in the headlines, would threaten to keep them off message heading into 2022.
“At the heart of this recommendation by the Democrats is that they would like to continue to debate things that occurred in the past. They'd like to continue to litigate the former president into the future,” McConnell told reporters.
“We think the American people, going forward and in the fall of '22, ought to focus on what this administration is doing to the country and what the clear choices that we have made to oppose most of these initiatives,” he added.
McConnell and the GOP want President Biden to be the center of their midterm messaging as they play defense in Biden-won states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and try to flip seats in New Hampshire and Arizona, two states Biden also won in 2020.
They worry Democrats would use the commission, and by extension the former president, as a cudgel against them heading into 2022.
“That it could just be used in a very political way, and I don’t think there’s any question that the Dems would do that,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), McConnell’s No. 2.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), an adviser to McConnell, also argued that Democrats wanted the commission as an issue to use against the GOP.
“They’re going to try to figure out what they can do to win the next election,” Cornyn said. “Just like 2020 was a referendum on the previous president, they want to make 2022 one.”
Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) pointed to a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed from James Carville, where he argued that Democrats should “keep the disastrous failures of the Trump presidency ... alive and well from now until Election Day 2022.”
“When you have that … being demanded by some of the principle strategists on the other side, why put that out in front and allow that to be part of it? We’re looking ahead,” Rounds said.
Republicans attempts to move on have been complicated by Trump himself, who remains an outsized presence within the party with a firm grip on the base.
He’s used his megaphone to lash out at GOP lawmakers like McConnell, and doubled down on his false claim that the election was stolen.
Senate Republicans are trying to force a truce with Trump — some by ignoring him, others by courting him. But even his allies on Capitol Hill are publicly urging him to focus on the future and not past grievances.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), one of Trump’s closest allies on Capitol Hill, argued that the midterm election should “be about the future, not about the past.”
“I just think the more you look backwards, the more you want to draw people back into past grievances. It hurts, politically,” Graham said, suggesting that Trump should “pivot” in order to stay relevant.
“He needs to come up with an alternative to what Biden's doing,” Graham said, adding that the “whole grievance, looking backward is not going to serve him well.”