By Melanie Zanona and Manu Raju, CNN
Nine months after the attack on the US Capitol, Republicans in Congress are defending Donald Trump’s role on January 6 in some of their strongest terms yet — and signaling he’d have widespread backing from the party if he ran for president again in 2024.
Republicans from across the conference — including some who are vulnerable in next year’s midterms or have long been seen as part of the establishment wing of the party — are expressing little to no reservations about the prospect of Trump topping the ticket again, even as he continues to spread the same election lies that led a mob to storm their place of work. Some GOP members are cheering on a Trump comeback, saying he remains a popular figure and powerful force in the party. And there’s widespread agreement among Republicans that Trump would be the automatic frontrunner — and freeze the primary field — if he chooses to jump in.
Even some Republicans in swing districts — like Rep. Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey — are embracing Trump’s potential return into the political fray.
“Yes, I would,” Van Drew, who switched parties and became a Republican in 2019 to defend Trump during his first impeachment proceedings, said when asked if he would back the ex-President if he ran again in 2024.
The southern New Jersey congressman, whose district narrowly backed Trump last year, bluntly said that he does not think Trump is responsible for the events of January 6, contending that the former President didn’t call for violence.
“I do not,” Van Drew said. “I think that people are responsible for their own actions.”
Asked if he believes that President Joe Biden won legitimately, Van Drew said: “I am not going to make that determination. But what I do think is that we need to make sure that our election system works right.”
Trump’s continued grip on the GOP is hardly surprising. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy trekked down to Mar-a-Lago just weeks after the insurrection seeking Trump’s approval, while Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming was booted from the Republican leadership team this spring for calling out Trump’s election lies.
But as time elapses since January 6 and Trump makes a return to campaign-style rallies, a large swath of the House GOP conference is publicly rallying around the defeated former President while downplaying the deadly Capitol riot — a huge boon for Trump as he weighs his political future. If the GOP had any lingering doubts about Trump being the face of their party, they have completely evaporated from public view.
“If he ran, I think he would be the nominee,” said Rep. Barry Loudermilk of Georgia, a member of the conservative Republican Study Committee. “He didn’t have anything to do with January 6. I think that’s a far-fetched idea. I don’t think he’s damaged himself within the party.”
Rep. Jason Smith, a Missouri Republican weighing a Senate bid, added: “We got to win the midterm elections in 2022, but to see where our country is right now, I miss him. Absolutely miss him and I would support him.”
The allure of retaking the House
There is a reason that Republicans either embrace Trump’s lie that the election was stolen, shrug their shoulders at his incendiary rhetoric, or whitewash his role fomenting the January 6 riot: Many believe his help will be essential to take back the House in 2022 and are eager to score his endorsement — or, in some cases, are scared to cross him.
That dynamic was on full display last weekend at a rally in Iowa, where Trump addressed voters in a key state that is home to the first-in-the-nation presidential caucus.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, the longest-serving GOP senator currently in office, and Reps. Ashley Hinson and Mariannette Miller-Meeks, two freshman swing district Republicans who were vocal proponents of certifying the 2020 election results, all appeared alongside Trump as he continued to falsely claim that Biden did not win the White House legitimately.
Grassley’s bear-hug of Trump was particularly striking. The 88-year-old, who once harshly rebuked Trump for his behavior leading up to January 6, gushed about the former President on stage and said it would be “smart” to accept Trump’s endorsement as he seeks another term in Congress. Grassley also spearheaded a recent GOP minority report pushing back on the findings of a Democratic Senate Judiciary Committee report that found Trump sought to pressure the Justice Department to overturn the elections.
When asked last week if he believes Trump bears any responsibility for January 6, Grassley noted that the committee’s probe didn’t dive into the events of that day, suggesting he’d wait to make a conclusion on that if there’s a further probe — carried out by Senate Judiciary Chairman Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat.
“We’ll just have to wait and see if he does more investigation,” Grassley said.
In another sign that Trump is increasingly back in the party fold, the former President will headline upcoming fundraisers for both the House and Senate GOP campaign arms — even as he continues to attack Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the highest-ranking Republican official. Trump was not invited to attend a House GOP retreat earlier this year, when Cheney was still a member of leadership, but she’s since been replaced by a more loyal Trump supporter in New York Rep. Elise Stefanik.
GOP leaders in the House have made clear they view Trump as central to their quest to win back their majority, arguing he can help boost their campaign coffers as well as voter turnout.
Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, who would be in line to be House majority leader if the GOP takes back power next year, told CNN on Tuesday that the former President is “drawing big crowds” when asked if he would back Trump in 2024.
“He wants to help us win the House back in 2022,” Scalise said, before rattling off a list of problems facing Biden — from high gas prices to illegal immigration. “The enthusiasm has never been higher for us to win back the House. And President Trump is really going to help us get there.”
According to a CNN poll last month, the majority of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, or 63%, believe Trump should be the leader of the Republican Party. But they are about evenly split over whether having the defeated former President back on the ticket in 2024 would be an advantage: 51% say that Republicans have a better chance of retaking the presidency if Trump is the nominee, with 49% saying the party would be better off with a different nominee.
Most Republicans in Congress have no qualms about another Trump presidential bid. Rep. Lee Zeldin of New York called the former President a “clear, strong favorite for the party’s nomination.” Rep. Roger Williams of Texas said Trump is still widely seen as “the spokesman of our party.” And Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana, the head of the conservative Republican Study Committee, believes Trump would “have a great shot of winning the general election too.”
“‘If President Trump runs in 2024, he has my full support,” Banks said. “The ‘Make America Great Again’ message means more today than it did in 2015 when Donald Trump came down the escalator, because people feel it, they see the decline of America on the Democrats’ watch.”
Tolerating Trump’s lies
But even as Trump has continued his parade of lies and conspiracies over the election results, GOP lawmakers continue to look the other way — or embrace his claims.
Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina called January 6 “an aberration that shouldn’t have occurred” but made clear that he didn’t think Trump was responsible at all. And he said that “there were irregularities that need to be looked into” when asked if he agrees with Trump continually saying the election was stolen.
“Yes,” Wilson said when asked if he thinks Trump should run again.
Scalise, when pressed repeatedly by Fox News’ Chris Wallace, refused to say on Sunday whether he agreed with Trump that the election was stolen.
Asked whether Trump played any role in the January 6 insurrection led by a mob of his supporters, Smith of Missouri pointed to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, even though the speaker is not in charge of Capitol security. “Nancy Pelosi should have never allowed the Capitol to be breached. No other Speaker has ever allowed the Capitol to be breached,” he said.
Former Vice President Mike Pence — who was the subject of “hang Mike Pence” chants that day for refusing to overturn the election results — recently blamed the media for focusing so much on the insurrection, dismissing it as “one day in January.”
And some Republicans — like Rep. Chip Roy of Texas and McConnell, who criticized Trump in the immediate aftermath of January 6 — are leery about taking aim at him now. Roy, who had railed against the effort to overturn the election in Congress, sidestepped questions on Tuesday when asked about Trump’s persistent claim that the election was stolen.
“I think the former President is rightly pointing out that this administration’s a complete disaster — a train wreck. But right now, we should just focus on what we need to do right now to stop the damage that they’re inflicting on the country every single day. That’s my job,” Roy said.
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CNN’s Morgan Rimmer contributed to this report.