Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.) was hours away from winning the speakership when a reporter asked him about the instrumental role he played in the effort to deny certifying the 2020 presidential election on Jan. 6.
Next question, he responded.
Whether the Republican Party can ever reconcile its divergent response to Jan. 6 is not the next question. It’s the question defining this turbulent political moment in Washington and beyond — roiling and coursing just below the surface. These days, all roads lead back to the original lie that Donald Trump won.
Consider that deposed House Speaker Kevin McCarthy ascended to the speakership thanks to his quick work to repair his relationship with Trump after calling his behavior on Jan. 6 “atrocious and totally wrong.” There was no such luck for Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), whose rise to the gavel encountered the opposition of, among others, Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.), who said he wouldn’t vote for an election denier.
Rep. Tom Emmer (R-Minn.) lasted approximately four hours as the party’s third nominee — his effort sunk, in large part, because Trump attacked him over his vote to certify the election results on Jan. 6. Johnson, by contrast, would prove an acceptable speaker in Trump’s estimation, having been the chief architect of an effort to overturn 2020 election results in four swing states.
Eventually, even Buck would make the strained distinction that Johnson’s actions were different, because Jordan took his challenge to the floor but Johnson kept his reservation for the courts.
At virtually the same time as all this was happening, ABC reported that Trump’s ex-chief of staff Mark Meadows — granted immunity by special counsel Jack Smith as he investigates the former president’s effort to overturn the election — had told federal investigators Trump had been “dishonest” with the public after polls closed on Nov. 3, 2020. Meadows himself had also told Trump allegations of widespread voter fraud were baseless, according to the report.
The week’s splitscreen cast into stark relief just how much the Republican Party remains riven over whether to believe the lie that Trump won, a perhaps unbridgeable divide. Only on rare occasions, though, does the divide come to light: in the heat of a speakers’ race, for example, or grand jury testimony with immunity in one’s back pocket, or in a presidential debate. Except for moments like those, the party and its members are mostly keen to keep the divisions hidden. Some things, after all, are just better left unsaid. Or easier.
But until the party reckons with them, it can’t truly move forward, said Fergus Cullen, the former chair of the New Hampshire Republican Party.
“Can we Republicans agree on three things, please? One: the 2020 election was not stolen,” Cullen said. “Two: What happened on January 6 was a bad thing. Three: We shouldn’t be nominating somebody facing 91 criminal indictments.”
But after three weeks mired in a speaker stalemate, and fewer than 90 days before the Iowa caucuses, and four months ahead of Trump’s trial in federal court on charges he allegedly tried to steal the 2020 election, this combustible mix of issues is about to become front and center.
“It just shows that there’s a lack of understanding or lack of willingness to confront what happened that day and why it was so dangerous,” said a former Republican congressional leadership staffer granted anonymity to assess the party frankly. “And I think that’s borne out the stranglehold that Donald Trump still has on the party.”
This person added: “One side is winning and one side losing and the side that is winning right now inside the party… are the people that were not willing to accept the results of the election and wanted to overturn it.”
The whitewashing of Jan. 6 is not limited to the House. In Virginia, Tim Griffin, a Republican elections attorney who played a pivotal role in trying to overturn 2020 results in multiple swing states, is poised to win a statehouse bid next month. This, despite opposition from within his own Virginia Republican Party.
On the presidential hustings, the non-Trump candidates flit from Iowa to New Hampshire, going through the motions on the trail: wanting to talk about anything but Jan. 6.
Back in August, on stage for the first debate Milwaukee, everyone except biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy sided with former Vice President Mike Pence’s actions to certify the election results on Jan. 6. And yet all but former governors Chris Christie of New Jersey and Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas also raised their hands signifying that they would support Trump as president in 2024 even if he was convicted of any of his four pending legal cases, including over Jan. 6.
No one personifies the one-sided civil war happening in the GOP over Jan. 6 more than Pence. Before he announced his presidential bid, a longtime Pence confidant said Pence faced a decision.
“He’s got to decide whether he wants to be a Jim-Baker-like statesman that can just always be principled and speak the truth for the rest of his life, with no calculation of political cost,” this person said. “Or do you want to get the nomination?”
This person added: “He’s not going to go Liz Cheney.”
At first, Pence seemed to opt for a Jim Baker-Cheney lane. But the former vice president, who has staked much of his presidential campaign on having done his “duty” on Jan. 6, now finds himself tripping over the logical consequences of that stance — and not fully embracing Cheney’s tack. Among those raising their hands that night back in Milwaukee was Pence, who just two months earlier had said in his announcement that “anyone who puts themselves over the Constitution should never be president of the United States.” And yet there he was on CNN days ago, saying Jordan would be an “outstanding” speaker, despite the fact that Jordan — someone who violated Pence’s red line on Jan. 6 — would then be in the line of presidential succession.
Pence twisted himself in knots again on Tuesday, posting to X that Johnson, the architect of the Texas amicus brief that sought to invalidate the 2020 results in Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, was a “proven conservative leader,” rooting for a person who threatened the peaceful transfer of power to now be second in line in presidential succession.
Pence urged every House GOP member “to vote to elect this good and decent man as the next Speaker of the House,” which they did on Wednesday.
Pence will have other moments in which he will have to choose which side of the divide he wants to occupy. But they likely won’t come as a presidential candidate. He is struggling to qualify for the next GOP debate in Miami. And has dwindling cash on hand.
When Super Tuesday comes on March 5, he very well may be out of the race.
But he still could be asked to comment on the events of Jan. 6. Not as a presidential candidate, but as the government’s star witness against Trump. That trial begins the day before.
For Republicans, Jan. 6, like the past, is not dead. It’s not even past.