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With midterms in sight, few Republicans are defending Trump like they did in 2019: NPR


Then-Republican Conference Speaker Rep. Liz Cheney, flanked by House Minority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy, right, and Republican Whip Rep. Steve Scalise, criticizes the impeachment by the then-President Donald Trump’s Democrats in December 2019. Now she’s trying to convince the public that Trump is to blame for the Jan. 6 insurrection.

Samuel Corum/Getty Images


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With midterms in sight, few Republicans are defending Trump like they did in 2019: NPR

Then-Republican Conference Speaker Rep. Liz Cheney, flanked by House Minority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy, right, and Republican Whip Rep. Steve Scalise, criticizes the impeachment by the then-President Donald Trump’s Democrats in December 2019. Now she’s trying to convince the public that Trump is to blame for the Jan. 6 insurrection.

Samuel Corum/Getty Images

Amid former President Trump’s first impeachment, White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said he called her into his office at the front of Air Force One. He had watched one of the hearings and didn’t like what he saw.

“He yelled at me, full of swear words, told me how useless I was,” she said. His sin: “there weren’t enough people on TV to defend him”.

Despite the former president’s apparent displeasure, in 2019 and early 2020 there was a wide-ranging and highly coordinated effort to defend him in the court of public opinion. That is not the case now, as the House Select Committee on Jan. 6 wraps up its series of prime-time summer hearings on Thursday night.

Republican leaders boycotted the hearings, so unlike Trump’s televised impeachment trials, viewers did not see a vigorous defense of his actions from the podium. And there isn’t much of Trump’s broader external defense either.

A coordinated strategy during impeachment

During the first impeachment, over Trump’s suspension of military assistance to Ukraine and efforts to force the country’s leader to open an investigation into Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden, the Republican National Committee, congressional Republicans, outside groups, the Trump campaign and a big team in the White House all had a coordinated strategy.

“The president had a dedicated White House staff of press relations and communications officers and attorneys to put in place rapid responses,” said Steven Groves, who as deputy press secretary , worked on Trump’s impeachment defense.

Outside groups aired dozens of TV ads targeting members of Congress for impeachment and Trump’s defense, calling it a ‘radical left’s obsession with impeachment’, a ‘witch hunt’ and a ‘travesty’ “. There were cable hits from pro-Trump surrogates and regular press conferences on Capitol Hill.

At a press conference in late September 2019, none other than Wyoming Congresswoman Liz Cheney came to Trump’s defense.

“Since President Trump was elected, House Democrats have gone from impeachment theory to impeachment theory,” she said as a member of the House Republican leadership. “But what we see repeatedly is a complete lack of focus on concerns about evidence and facts.”

Now, excommunicated from the leadership for her criticism of Trump and Jan. 6, Cheney serves as deputy chair of the House Select Committee, arguing that Trump is a threat to democracy. But other congressional Republicans, still in his corner, simply aren’t standing up for Trump the way they did during the first impeachment.

Declining public defense

A decision by Kevin McCarthy, the House Republican leader, not to appoint anyone to the committee means the Jan. 6 hearings are a one-sided presentation of evidence, more like a grand jury proceeding than a trial. They are nothing like a traditional congressional hearing with the whiplash of representatives from both parties scoring partisan points and asking leading questions. But the kinds of press conferences led by Trump allies in Congress that were the norm during the impeachment have all but disappeared with the flood of cable appearances.

“There hasn’t been as much daily attention from members of Congress going on Fox as there has been in the past,” said Matt Gertz, senior fellow at the progressive group Media Matters for America. Part of the reason for this, he said, is that they are not part of the committee, so they have no information to add about the inner workings of the committee and they have no clips of explosive auditory exchanges to discuss.

“Fox News and other right-wing outlets spend less time engaging point-by-point than they did, say, during the first impeachment of Donald Trump,” said Gertz, whose work is closely monitor the conservative media ecosystem.

And there’s no defense during commercial breaks either. An analysis by tracking firm AdImpact found more than 120 different anti-impeachment ads in 2019 and 2020. Some came from candidates, including Trump, but most came from outside groups. This time around, there have been fewer than 20 ads mentioning the Jan. 6 investigation, and those are mostly ads for primary candidates running against anti-Trump Republicans.

Groves says one of the main reasons for the low-octane public defense is simply that Trump is no longer president. The infrastructure that surrounded the president does not exist for the post-presidency.

“It’s just not there anymore,” Groves said. “He can’t even go on Twitter and react quickly on his own.”

Trump was kicked off Twitter the day of the Capitol riot.

defend the indefensible

Other than a small team of employees working for Trump in his post-presidential office, who did not respond to a request for comment, there is no one whose job it is to defend him publicly. Doug Heye, former communications director for the Republican National Committee, said there was no reason for the RNC to fight for him, especially as the mid-terms approached.

“The RNC and Republicans on Capitol Hill know they are ready for a great election year and what is the biggest thing that could stand in the way of that? Donald Trump, who is no longer their manager,” Heye said. . “So it’s not their job to defend it and sometimes you just don’t want to defend the indefensible.”

A big argument from Trump allies is that these hearings are one-sided and boring. Filling inboxes and airwaves with quick response messages could undermine that argument.

“We really prepared for this epic battle and we also prepared for this to be a dud,” said Matt Schlapp, who leads pro-Trump group CPAC. He created a “J6Facts” Twitter account, which now has about 2,000 followers, and hired additional consultants, Schlapp said.

“It was a bit dramatic at first, but over time it became a dud,” he said.

Of course, he has a reason for saying that. When invited to appear on Fox News and its competitors, Schlapp extensively discusses inflation, immigration and crime, topics that get far more airtime than ratings, and than Republicans see it as a winning message for midterms.

Schlapp says the stakes seem lower with these hearings than with impeachment because “they can’t do anything to the president. They can’t stop him from showing up.”

If the hearings are successful, without a coordinated defense of Trump’s reputation, it could hurt his chances if he runs for president again.


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