There were two. Two House Republicans, past or present, who bothered to show up for the brief, pro forma session of Congress on Thursday held to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the attack on the Capitol.
One was Republican Rep. Liz Cheney. The other was her father, the former Vice President Dick Cheney.
A year earlier, House Democrats and Republicans alike had been trapped in the chamber as a mob tried to smash its way toward them, threatening them and calling for the presidential election results to be overturned. But since they can no longer (publicly, at least) agree on the same narrative of what happened last Jan. 6, what would they even be joining together to commemorate?
To be fair, it’s not as if all of the House Democrats were present. The House is officially out of session this week, and COVID is raging in the capital city. Still, about 40 or 50 House Democrats were on the floor during the informal session, which consisted of a prayer, Pledge of Allegiance, moment of silence, and speech by Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
“The main reason I wanted to be here today was to show my gratitude to the Capitol Police and to the staff,” New Jersey Rep. Andy Kim told me. “Beyond that, I’ll be honest with you, I don’t really know how to feel right now. I don’t really know what this one year means to me just yet.”
The scene was surreal for the mingling of Democratic members with a figure many had considered the single worst Republican on earth prior to Donald Trump, alongside his daughter. A receiving line of House Democrats, many of them with long public records of spewing invective against the George W. Bush administration, waited for their opportunity to hug and greet the Cheneys. Former Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Appropriations Committee Chair Rosa DeLauro, Progressive Caucus chair Pramila Jayapal, and Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, among others, took their turns. Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer—who served with Dick Cheney in the ’80s, when he was a representative—caught up with the former veep. I cannot imagine how these members would have reacted, in the mid-2000s, if you’d have told them that one day they’d be celebrating Dick Cheney as one of the “good Republicans,” standing in opposition to former President Donald Trump’s abuse of office.
“It’s great coming back, they’re doing a hell of a job,” Dick Cheney told reporters when asked about his reception in the chamber. “I’m here to support it.” Of the absent Republican leaders, and their general handling of Jan. 6, he was less enthusiastic.
“Well, it’s not a leadership that resembles any of the folks I knew when I was here for 10 years,” he added.
The Senate’s commemorative events—mostly, floor speeches throughout the day—also included no Republican participants, though many, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, had a real excuse: They were attending the funeral of the recently deceased former Georgia Sen. Johnny Isakson.
The afternoon’s programming from Democratic leaders in both chambers felt less formal, and more like the Jan. 6 Ideas Festival. There was a panel discussion featuring historians—and MSNBC regulars—Jon Meacham and Doris Kearns Goodwin, held to “establish and preserve the narrative of January 6th.” There was a message from Lin-Manuel Miranda and a video performance from, in Pelosi’s words, “the Hamilton singers.” (“I thought it was really important to have the arts lead in this discussion,” Pelosi said after the video played.)
Dick and Liz Cheney may have been the only Republicans participating in the Democrats’ itinerary for the day. But they weren’t the only House Republicans on the Capitol grounds. As Democratic members gave individual testimonials, two of the more publicity-hungry House Republicans, Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz and Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, held a press conference to push a counternarrative.
The testimonials and press conference were only separated by a couple of floors in the Cannon House Office Building, but they may as well have existed in different dimensions. The room was cramped, and Gaetz would say that it was the largest room Pelosi would grant them, insinuating that any (probable!) COVID outbreak would be her fault. When a photographer asked Gaetz’s unmasked press secretary whether the members would be wearing masks, he replied “no,” without looking up from his phone.
“You don’t have to be here,” Gaetz’s press secretary added.
Another photographer suggested to Greene’s press secretary, meanwhile, that he might get grief for any photos taken of the day if he didn’t put his mask above his nose.
“I’ll just take it off,” the press secretary replied, adding, “Smells like freedom,” once he had negotiated the mask straps off of his glasses frames.
Gaetz and Greene also felt that more Republicans should have been at the Capitol for the anniversary, explaining that they were there “because we did not want the Republican voice to go unheard, and we did not want today’s historical narrative to be hijacked and captured by those who were the true insurrectionists.”
Backed by nothing more than rampant speculation about the identities of a few people captured on video at the riot—“the fence cutter,” “the scaffold commander”—Gaetz and Greene insinuated that the real violence that erupted that day was the result of an FBI operation, or, in their words, a “fedsurrection” that the current Justice Department is covering up.
Was Gaetz saying, a reporter asked, that the federal government caused the Jan. 6 riot?
“I do not believe that there would have been the same level of criminal acuity on Jan. 6 of last year,” Gaetz said, “but for the involvement of the federal government.” Both members called for House Republican leaders, if they take power in the midterms, to form their own Jan. 6 committee to look into their theory that Jan. 6 was a false-flag operation.
It was a grim reminder: A year after the riot, when Democratic and Republican members of Congress alike were terrified of being killed, the basic question of what happened has fully polarized according to partisan interests.
The members of Congress didn’t “establish and preserve the narrative of January 6th.” They established two. The first, from Democrats and their new allies in the Cheney family, was that the violent effort to overturn the result of the election was the direct result of Donald Trump’s words and actions. The minority report, presented by Gaetz and Greene, was that the Jan. 6 riot was a government operation orchestrated by a corrupted law enforcement establishment to convert protesters into rioters.
If Republican leaders wanted a different message altogether, they could’ve shown up to the Capitol and said something. But they chose not to deal with it at all.