Genuine surprises in Congress are rare. Most of what the public sees has already been prearranged, choreographed, and counterchoreographed. A bill is not brought to a vote if its outcome is unknown. Partisan trash-talking does not break out unless it is rehearsed. Strategy isn’t developed on the fly.
Those occasional moments that do veer from “the script,” then, can cause politicians, in raw states of emotion or confusion, to let their guard down and tell you how they really feel. John McCain was not supposed to come to the Senate floor to kill Republicans’ Obamacare repeal bill in 2017. That was never written down anywhere. When he did, Republicans, including Mitch McConnell, did not hide their fury or pretend that they knew what would happen next. They were stunned.
The script was shredded on Jan. 6, 2021. As a rule, members of Congress expect that they can be as incendiary, shameless, and cowardly as they want without facing any life-threatening consequences. They didn’t expect that playing footsie with, or outright embracing, the president’s efforts to overturn an election could lead to physical violence; they were just trying to stay on the good side of a lame-duck president who still controlled the Republican base. “What is the downside for humoring him for this little bit of time?” a senior Republican official infamously told the Washington Post shortly after the election. The downside proved to be lockdowns in undisclosed locations, gas masks, bullets, hundreds of injuries, and a roving mob trying to locate and kidnap the vice president. The downside was an insurrection in their workplace, the seat of government.
During the riot, and in the hours and days that followed, we got some rare honesty from Republicans who never in their lives would’ve said a cross word against Donald Trump. Many of those who condoned, or egged on, Trump’s stolen election narrative surrendered their guard to the rawness of the moment.
“This election was not unusually close. Just in recent history, 1976, 2000, and 2004 were all closer,” McConnell said as rioters began to descend on Capitol Hill. “This Electoral College margin is almost identical to 2016. If this election were overturned by mere allegations from the losing side, our democracy would enter a death spiral. We’d never see the whole nation accept an election again.” After the riot, a visibly furious McConnell insisted on the floor that this “failed insurrection” from “thugs” would not deter the Senate from its work.
The following week, top House Republican Kevin McCarthy allowed himself, for perhaps the first and last time, to tell some truths about Donald Trump. In a floor speech, McCarthy said Trump “bears responsibility for Wednesday’s attack on Congress by mob rioters. He should have immediately denounced the mob when he saw what was unfolding.” Trump, he said, needed to “accept his share of responsibility, quell the brewing unrest and ensure President-Elect Joe Biden is able to successfully begin his term.”
South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who, like McCarthy, had egged on Trump’s efforts to fight the election results, gave an emphatic speech after the riot on the need to certify the election results. “Count me out, enough is enough,” he said on the floor. “It is over.”
Joe Biden “won,” Graham said. “He’s the legitimate President of the United States. I cannot convince people, certain groups, by my words, but I will tell you by my actions that maybe, I above all others in this body, need to say this: Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are lawfully elected and will become the President and the Vice President of the United States on January the 20th.”
Georgia Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who rallied to Trump’s stolen election narrative and promised to object to certification only a couple of days before the rally only to lose her runoff anyway, changed her mind following the riot. “The events that have transpired today have forced me to reconsider,” she said on the Senate floor, “and I cannot now, in good conscience, object.” Oklahoma Sen. James Lankford backed away from his pledge to object, too, and the following week apologized to Black constituents for having questioned the election results.
There was even a fleeting moment on Jan. 6 when I, locked down in a room marked “PRESS” with other reporters and trying to keep quiet so the marauders wouldn’t decide to bust down the door, allowed myself to wonder if this was actually the moment when Republicans might finally, en masse, move to cut off ties with Trump.
But, not long after the lowest political moment of my lifetime, they all got back on script.
Trump’s approval among Republicans never fell through the floor, and he was able to retain his stranglehold of the party. With the exception of a few dissenting Republicans in Congress, Jan. 6—the culmination of an active, multimonth effort to overturn a presidential election—receded as a breaking point for the party.
McConnell gave a forceful speech in February renouncing Trump’s actions on Jan. 6, and he lives with the president’s rage for that to this day. But McConnell gave that speech after voting to acquit Trump, taking a safe procedural exit ramp that it was improper to convict an ex-president. McConnell would later lead the effort to kill legislation establishing an independent, bipartisan Jan. 6 commission.
McCarthy, characteristically, got back on script more shamelessly. He went to Mar-a-Lago in late January to apologize and kiss the ring. He now rejects his own remark about how Trump “bears responsibility,” saying that he made it without “the information that we have today,” which is something about how it was all Nancy Pelosi’s fault. McCarthy, whatever he said in the moment, remains, in the words of Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger—one of the two remaining honest Republicans about Jan. 6—“an employee of Donald Trump.” If he quit working for Trump, he’d never become speaker.
The Republicans who were brave enough to vote to impeach or convict Trump are all under assault. Kinzinger will not be running again because he was drawn out of a district, but would’ve struggled in a primary anyway. Ohio Rep. Anthony Gonzalez was living through threats to his family and chose to retire. Trump wants little more than to unseat Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney. South Carolina Rep. Tom Rice may only survive because there are so many primary challengers trying to take him out. Trump has endorsed challengers to Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, and others. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp is in serious trouble in a primary, meanwhile, against the Trump-recruited ex-Sen. David Perdue, because he refused to overturn Georgia’s presidential results.
Lindsey Graham is back to playing golf with Trump and warning fellow Republicans that if they, say, help pass a debt ceiling increase, Trump will be mean to them. After a brief—very brief—moment of truth, the order has been reestablished.
Perhaps it’s unsurprising that people like McCarthy and Graham went running back to Trump so easily. Perhaps it was objectionably naïve for a reporter who covers these people to ever think otherwise. But that doesn’t mean we should view it as just how things go. It is not great, for anyone, that Republicans glided so effortlessly back to life under Trump’s thumb. He did just about the worst thing a president could do: attempted to overturn an election that he lost to stay in power. And he is, a year later, the clear-cut front-runner for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination. If he becomes president again, who can credibly warn him that there would be consequences for any of his actions? What Republicans, hoping to get reelected, would choose to condemn him over any action, after seeing the hell through which he put those who called him out over Jan. 6? Republicans are back on script, and I don’t see a plausible happy ending.