On Jan. 6, two months after President Donald Trump lost the 2020 election, his supporters attempted a coup to keep him in power. The attack shook congressional Republicans, and many spoke out against it. That resistance has since collapsed. In the past month, statements by the party’s most powerful lawmakers—culminating in their attempt last week to eviscerate the House investigation of the Jan. 6 attack—show that the entire Republican leadership has decided to accept Trump’s lies about the election and to shield the coup plotters from accountability.
Trump remains a grave threat. In polls, he holds a prohibitive lead over his rivals for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, and he’s running almost even with President Joe Biden in a hypothetical rematch. He continues to claim that the election was stolen and that Biden’s presidency is illegitimate, but he has added a new twist. The “real insurrection,” says Trump, was the election itself—and therefore, the attempt to overturn it on Jan. 6 was righteous. Trump claims that the people arrested in the assault on the Capitol are political prisoners, and he rejects the House inquiry into the assault as an “illegitimate investigation.”
Congressional Republicans have formed a phalanx to protect Trump and bury the truth about Jan. 6. In May, House Republicans ousted Rep. Liz Cheney from their leadership for contradicting Trump’s lies about the election. Last week, they tried to block the House from holding former Trump adviser Steve Bannon—who has defied a subpoena from the select committee in charge of the investigation—in contempt of Congress. Democrats managed to pass the contempt resolution, but Republicans voted overwhelmingly against it, 202 to 9. Essentially, they voted not to enforce the law.
In their statements about Trump and Bannon, GOP leaders abandoned democratic norms and the rule of law. On Oct. 21, as Republicans worked to sabotage the resolution against Bannon, a reporter asked House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, “Are you OK with people defying congressional subpoenas?” In response, McCarthy dismissed the subpoena as “invalid,” arguing that among Republicans, the committee was “not viewed as a committee” but as a cabal of Trump haters. McCarthy didn’t like the committee’s composition, so he deemed it illegitimate.
Rep. Steve Scalise, the second-ranking House Republican, went further. In an Oct. 10 interview, he was asked three times whether, as Trump alleged, “the 2020 election was stolen.” Each time, Scalise repeated Trump’s complaints that the election was conducted improperly. Last week, when Scalise was asked about the importance of enforcing subpoenas, he again parroted the former president, arguing that Republicans should sabotage the Bannon subpoena because the investigation was a “witch hunt.”
Rep. Elise Stefanik, the third-ranking House Republican, got her job by promising not to contradict Trump’s lies about 2020. Since then, she has promoted his propaganda about election “integrity” and his fake audits of the election results. In August, she joined Bannon on his “War Room” podcast—the same program on which, a day before the Jan. 6 attack, he had told listeners that “all hell is going to break loose tomorrow.” Last week, as she voted to protect Bannon, Stefanik spoke of her excitement that Trump was launching a social media platform. Meanwhile, Rep. Gary Palmer, the fourth member of the GOP’s House leadership team, shrugged off questions about whether it was wise to gut Congress’s subpoena power. He scoffed that the Jan. 6 committee was “nothing more than a distraction because they’re [Democrats] getting killed in the polls.”
On the House floor, Rep. Jim Banks, who chairs the 159-member Republican Study Committee, led the GOP’s push to protect Bannon and shut down the investigation. He called it “a sham investigation conducted by a sham committee” and declared, “There is no committee conducting a legitimate investigation into Jan. 6.” Banks also criticized the Department of Justice inquiry into the insurrection, calling it “hyperactive.” The true victims, he argued, were the organizers of the Jan. 6 uprising—“American citizens” who “are under congressional investigation for the sole crime of planning a legal political protest.”
Senate Republicans have likewise surrendered to Trump. Last week, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell brushed off a question about the National Republican Senatorial Committee’s decision to feature Trump at a conference for party donors on Oct. 14. “We need to be talking about the future and not the past,” said McConnell. “It’s my hope that the ’22 election will be a referendum on the performance of the current administration, not a rehash of suggestions about what may have happened in 2020.” Trump’s lies about 2020, which McConnell had previously rejected, have now been recast as minor, unresolved questions about “what may have happened.”
The Senate’s second- and third-ranking Republicans, John Thune and John Barrasso, voted in May to block the creation of a bipartisan commission to investigate Jan. 6. Thune warned that by dredging up the past, a Jan. 6 investigation might distract attention from the GOP’s preferred topic: its criticisms of current Democratic policies. Barrasso, like Scalise, refused to dispute Trump’s lies that the election was stolen. He complained about voting “irregularities” and accused Democrats of “trying to make it even easier to cheat in elections.”
Sen. Chuck Grassley, the chamber’s senior Republican, stands to become Senate president pro tempore—third in the line of succession to the presidency—if the GOP recaptures the majority next year. On Oct. 9, at a rally in Iowa, he fawned over Trump after the former president denounced American democracy. “The election was rigged,” Trump told the crowd before introducing Grassley. “The elections are totally corrupt in our country. They have been for a long time.” Trump repeated his lie that he had outpolled Biden, and he summoned Grassley to the podium, calling him “one of our best supporters on election fraud.” Grassley strode to the stage, shook Trump’s hand, and thanked him profusely.
On Sunday, Sen. Roy Blunt, the chairman of the Republican Policy Committee, completed the GOP’s capitulation. When NBC’s Andrea Mitchell asked him whether Trump was right that the election itself was an insurrection, Blunt shrugged that “the election was what it was.” When Mitchell asked whether Trump’s denials of Biden’s legitimacy should disqualify the former president from running again, Blunt said no, arguing that Trump was just voicing “opinions that other people may not agree with.” And when Mitchell asked about the House GOP’s attempt to protect Bannon, Blunt dismissed it as a minor story “driven by the media.”
Together, these statements from 10 of the most powerful Republicans in Congress—five in the Senate, five in the House—show that authoritarian corruption has permeated the party’s power structure. No Republican in leadership is willing to challenge the former president’s lies about the election. Every Republican in leadership is determined to bury the investigation of his coup attempt. The story of the Trump presidency and its aftermath is no longer the story of one failed tyrant. It’s the story of a party that has become a platform for autocrats—and is ready for its next master.