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Republicans seek to avoid Trump talk as party grapples with January 6 anniversary

By Melanie Zanona and Manu Raju, CNN

Republicans on Capitol Hill are under pressure to reflect on the deadly events of January 6 but are also trying to avoid talking about former President Donald Trump’s culpability — underscoring how the attack remains an unwelcome distraction for a party eager to gain voters’ trust in this fall’s pivotal elections.

As Democrats prepare a slate of solemn events to commemorate the insurrection and continue their push for a full-scale investigation, top Republicans are plotting a decidedly different approach: They’re planning to stay mostly quiet about the one-year anniversary. And they’re eager to quickly shift the focus onto economic issues they believe will drive voter turnout in the November midterms.

GOP leaders won’t be in the Capitol on Thursday, with the House out of session and a number of Republican senators heading to Georgia to attend the funeral of the late Sen. Johnny Isakson. And House Republican leaders held a conference call Tuesday to strategize over their January 6 messaging, in which they encouraged members to denounce the violence but stay focused on the “security failures” of that day, trying to pin the blame for those lapses on Democratic leaders, according to multiple sources on the call.

“Obviously it’s the first anniversary, it can’t be ignored,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer, a North Dakota Republican. “I think it’s fine to commemorate it and remember it, and pledge to avoid it ever happening again.”

But Cramer — who said he disagrees with Trump’s lie that the 2020 election was stolen — expressed another feeling shared by many in the GOP that has stopped them from publicly blaming the former President. “The Republican Party is successful with Donald Trump. He’s good for us, for the most part. And I think the Republican Party is good for Donald Trump. I don’t think the two can function well apart from one another.”

As they head into election season with a clear chance at taking back both chambers of Congress, GOP leaders are banking on the expectation that voters will be more concerned about rising consumer prices than the riot at the Capitol at the hands of the Trump-inspired mob.

“Look at what people are focused on, it’s really focused on what impacts their family, inflation, their schools and public safety, stuff like that,” said Florida Sen. Rick Scott, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “I think that’s what the election is going to be about.”

Asked if he believes the election will turn on voters’ feelings about January 6, Scott said: “No,” before adding, “Look, what happened was bad. I was here. It’s despicable that people would break into a Capitol.”

The GOP’s low-key approach to the January 6 anniversary illustrates that Republicans are still wrestling with how to talk about the unprecedented effort to subvert democracy, in which a mob of pro-Trump supporters stormed the building under the false belief they could overturn the election. Even the Republicans who once excoriated Trump for inciting the violence have largely muted their criticism since then, as he remains the most powerful force inside the party.

Most Republicans would much rather focus on the next election than relitigate 2020 and open up old January 6-related wounds.

But Trump could make life painful for his party as he continues to spread his lies about the election. Despite canceling his Mar-a-Lago news conference slated for Thursday, he is still scheduled to rally with his supporters in Arizona next week, where he will very likely unleash a torrent of lies about the election he lost being stolen from him.

Asked about Trump making a statement on January 6, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia said, “I just don’t think it’s a good idea.”

“I don’t think that’s a terribly good idea but what am I gonna do about it?” asked Sen. Pat Toomey, a Pennsylvania Republican not seeking reelection who’s one of seven Republicans who voted to convict Trump.

Some said they were content to ignore him.

“All that is designed for you guys,” said Texas Sen. John Cornyn, a member of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s leadership team. “It’s not really directed at people like us. We got work to do. And we’re not going to relitigate those issues.”

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, meanwhile, sent a letter to Republicans this week denouncing the violence on January 6 as “lawless” and “wrong” but didn’t mention Trump, and instead took a swipe at the select committee’s investigation into the attack.

The select committee investigating the insurrection has already requested voluntary interviews with GOP Reps. Jim Jordan of Ohio and Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, and may also seek a similar sit-down with McCarthy. All three Republicans spoke to Trump either on or in the lead-up to January 6.

“Our Capitol should never be compromised and those who broke the law deserve to face legal repercussions and full accountability,” McCarthy said in the letter. “Unfortunately, one year later, the majority party seems no closer to answering the central question of how the Capitol was left so unprepared and what must be done to ensure it never happens again. Instead, they are using it as a partisan political weapon to further divide our country.”

Democrats are planning to mark the insurrection on Thursday with a moment of silence on the House floor, a moderated discussion with historians, member testimonials and a prayer vigil. President Joe Biden will also deliver remarks at the Capitol. By contrast, few Republicans are expected to even be in the building on Thursday, let alone attend those planned events.

While Republicans don’t think the insurrection will ultimately matter in the midterms, some GOP lawmakers expressed concern that Democrats will try to use the anniversary to damage Trump and the GOP’s political prospects in a critical election year.

“I think they will try to politicize the event. You know, they’ve been doing that all week. But out of respect for Capitol Police and others — people who were harmed and the loss of life that occurred here, as a result of that — I think we all need to respect and reflect on what happened here and, again, take steps to make sure it never happens again,” said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 2 Republican in the chamber. “I do think there will be attempts by the Democrats, obviously, to try to get some political advantage out of it.”

GOP launches competing probe

House GOP leaders similarly warned during a conference call Tuesday that Democrats were planning to engage in a bunch of theater surrounding the January 6 anniversary this week, according to sources on the call.

They said Republicans should instead try to play up the security failures that allowed the building to be so easily breached, which Republicans have tried to blame on House Speaker Pelosi, even though she does not oversee the day-to-day operations of the Capitol Police.

Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana, whom Pelosi rejected from serving on the select committee probing the attack, told lawmakers Tuesday he has conducted his own investigation — under McCarthy’s direction — into those security failures, and has interviewed Capitol Police officers.

Rep. Rodney Davis of Illinois, the top Republican on the House Administration Committee who sent a memo to congressional offices this week highlighting security gaps, also talked up the issue on the conference call and argued that the Capitol is no safer now than it was a year ago.

He also told lawmakers that Pelosi has refused to allow the Sergeant-at-Arms and other House officers to turn over requested documents related to security decisions on January 6 — a charge Democrats deny. Republicans first requested the documents in the immediate days following the attack last year.

“The Ranking Member’s letter is pure revisionist fiction. The Chief Administrative Officer and House Sergeant at Arms have already notified Ranking Member Davis they are complying with preservation requests and will fully cooperate with various law enforcement investigations and bonafide Congressional inquiries,” Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California, the chairwoman of the House Administration Committee, said in a statement. “Today’s letter is yet another attempt by the minority party to distract and deflect.”

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