United States Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell has rebuked Republican Party officials for censuring two Republican legislators who have criticised former president Donald Trump and pursued an investigation of the January 6, 2021 US Capitol riot.
Claiming January 6 was “legitimate political discourse”, the Republican National Committee (RNC) voted last week to censure Republicans Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger for joining Democrats in the House of Representatives to investigate Trump’s role in events.
“Let me give you my view of what happened January the 6th. And we all were here. We saw what happened,” McConnell said at a media availability at the US Capitol on Tuesday.
“It was a violent insurrection for the purpose of trying to prevent the peaceful transfer of power after a legitimately certified election, from one administration to the next. That’s what it was,” McConnell said.
McConnell’s comments, and those of other Republican senators and governors, reflect a growing rift within the Republican Party between its establishment wing and the grassroots activists and more radical rebels led by Trump.
Members of the RNC, meeting in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Friday adopted a resolution formally censuring Cheney and Kinzinger. Both had voted to impeach Trump for inciting the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the US Capitol. And both are now serving against House Republican leadership’s wishes on the House Committee probing January 6.
The RNC resolution accused Cheney and Kinzinger of “destructive” conduct and of “advancing a political agenda” favourable to Democrats.
Pushed by RNC chair Ronna McDaniel, a Trump ally, the resolution served notice of the former president’s continuing hold over party activists. Trump has sought political retribution against Republicans who voted to impeach him or refused to go along with his repeated false claims the 2020 election was stolen.
“The issue is whether or not the RNC should be sort of, singling out members of our party that have different views from the majority. That’s not the job of the RNC,” McConnell told reporters.
White House spokesperson Jen Psaki on Tuesday joined McConnell in condemning the RNC action.
“Storming the Capitol in an attempt to halt the peaceful transition of power is not legitimate political discourse. Neither is attacking and injuring over 140 police officers, smashing windows and defiling offices,” Psaki said.
With Democrat Biden slipping in public opinion polls, McConnell’s political goal this year has been to project an image of moderation for Republicans as they seek to regain control of Congress. Infighting over Trump’s claims the election, last year’s Capitol attack, and now the RNC’s censure of two Republicans does not help.
Other leading Republicans have also stepped forward to defend Cheney and Kinzinger against the RNC action.
John Thune, the Senate’s No 2 Republican, told the Reuters news agency earlier, “If we want to win the elections in November, there are better things for us to be focused on.”
“If we want to get majorities in the fall, then it’s better to turn our fire on Democrats and not on each other,” Thune said.
Senator John Cornyn, also a member of the Senate Republican leadership, said the RNC resolution “was not a unifying action”.
Cheney and Kinzinger are the only Republicans serving on a select US House committee investigating the January 6 riot. The formal probe is focusing on Trump’s campaign to overturn the outcome of the 2020 election won by Biden.
While Republicans have largely boycotted the inquiry, the committee is expected to launch public hearings in the coming months.
“We want to send a message that we’re disapproving of their conduct,” RNC member Harmeet Dhillon told media outlets in Salt Lake City. “This is not about being anti-Trump. There are many anti-Trump Republicans that are not included in this resolution. These two took a specific action to defy party leadership.”
The RNC resolution accused Kinzinger and Cheney of “participating in a Democrat-led persecution of ordinary citizens engaged in legitimate political discourse” and of “utilizing their past professed political affiliation to mask Democrat abuse of prosecutorial power for partisan purposes”.
The wording of the RNC resolution marks a reversal of its earlier statement. After thousands of rioters called for legislators to be lynched, and stormed the halls of Congress, disrupting the certification of 2020 election results, the RNC publicly condemned the violence in a statement on January 6, 2021, calling it “an attack on our country and its founding principles”.