GOP frustration mounts as Trump focuses on Jan. 6

Former President Donald Trump gestures at a rally
Former President Donald Trump gestures at a rally
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Republicans are growing increasingly frustrated by former President Trump's renewed focus on the Jan. 6, 2021, riot on Capitol Hill, worried that it could throw a wrench into their midterm plans as they seek to retake Congress.

Barely over a month ago, Trump was talking up his administration's success with the coronavirus vaccines. But in recent weeks he tacked back to focusing on the 2020 election and the insurrection, claiming former Vice President Mike Pence could have "overturned" the election and floating pardons for the rioters.

That red-meat rhetoric is expected to play well with Trump's hardcore base, but Republicans say it's not effective for winning over the swing voters the party needs this November at a time when President Biden's low approval ratings are blowing wind in the GOP's sails.

"It doesn't make sense to me in the current political climate. While almost every Republican on the ballot wants to be talking about the present and the future, inflation, the economy, schools and parents, he seems focused on talking about the past," said GOP strategist David Kochel. "It just really gets in the way of what's working right now for Republicans."

Republicans for more than a year have grimaced over Trump's rhetoric surrounding the Capitol riot, which unsuccessfully sought to overturn President Biden's 2020 victory. But Trump has doubled down in recent weeks on his bombast.

Trump recently said that Pence could have unilaterally "overturned" the Electoral College results when Congress met to certify them last year, suggested imprisoned rioters are being treated "so unfairly" and called for protests against prosecutors investigating his efforts to overturn the election.

Recent reports added fuel to the fire, saying Trump was involved in proposals to seize election machines and submit fake electors to Congress.

Some Republicans have pushed back, mainly by defending Pence, but Trump in turn has swatted back hard, including calling longtime ally Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) a "Republican in name only."

Even those supportive of Trump have expressed frustration with the former president's bluster.

"I always think that President Trump should be talking about the unprecedented accomplishments from a policy perspective that he and his administration had over the four years he was in office," said one former Trump administration official. "I don't believe that it's helpful to spend time relitigating the 2020 election."

Trump earned rare plaudits from GOP critics, the media and even some Democrats about a month ago when he focused on touting the coronavirus vaccines. He drew national headlines from a contentious interview with conservative provocateur Candace Owens, in which he maintained that "the vaccines work" and the people who "get very sick and go to the hospital" are unvaccinated.

That message, Republicans say, could be potent given that the shots were developed during Trump's tenure.

"I think it's a good thing when he does talk about it," said the former administration official. "He also talks about it in a way that I think resonates with the American people, that this was a modern health care miracle."

However, that rhetoric largely fell away as he ramped up talk of last year's riot. Observers chalk the pivot up to a president who has historically struggled to stay on message. They also say he's sensitive to the escalated activity from the special House panel investigating the insurrection and criticism from his base, which includes high-profile anti-vaccine voices.

"The president has always been one to speak what's on his mind at the time or what's going on in any given news cycle. He's never been one to necessarily develop the script, stick to the script, stay on the script," said one former Trump campaign official.

Now, that erratic rhetoric comes as Republicans are buoyant about the prospect of flipping both chambers of Congress this year and resistant to anything that could knock candidates off message on issues like inflation, mask and vaccine mandates, and foreign policy.

"Anytime that President Trump lingers out there, he has a voice that when he says something, everybody's going to be forced to respond to it because the media is going to run to GOP politicians and get their reactions," said one Trump ally. "They've got to figure out how to pivot and maneuver through that."

But Trump is still the leader of the party, and while Republicans remain the heavy favorites to win at least the House this year, having the biggest voice in the GOP shine a spotlight away from the Biden administration's struggles has fueled worries about how many seats Republicans will win.

"Trump is a problem for the midterms," one GOP strategist said, adding that "he could be the difference between 40 and 20" seats gained in the House.

Beyond 2022, operatives say focusing on the insurrection could also harm Trump if he runs for president again in 2024.

Trump won more votes in 2020 than he did in 2016, but growing deficits with Biden in the suburbs ultimately sunk his bid.

Biden improved on Hillary Clinton's 2016 performance in suburban counties by about 5 percent - an expansion that was attributed in part to voters there rebuffing Trump's character and crucial to winning states like Arizona, Georgia and Michigan.

Expanding beyond his die-hard base will therefore be essential should he run again, yet speaking about the insurrection may not be the way to win over suburban defectors, Republicans warn.

"He needs to expand again," said the former administration official, noting Trump already expanded his vote total from 2016 to 2020. "Is Jan. 6 or the 2020 election the message to do that? I don't think that it is."