Jan. 6 hangs over the 2024 Republican race for president

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During last Thursday's primetime hearing of the Jan. 6 select committee, video outtakes of former President Trump showed him bristling against attempts by White House staffers to get him to condemn his supporters for rioting at the U.S. Capitol and acknowledge that the 2020 election was over.

His refusal to stick to the script prepared for him by his advisers is a central piece of evidence in the committee's case that Trump was the driving force behind the insurrection, and one off-the-cuff moment seemed to epitomize the dilemma for the Republican Party when it comes to how to move on from Jan. 6 and the Trump presidency itself.

“I’d like to begin by discussing the heinous attack yesterday,” Trump said, struggling to pronounce that last word. “Yesterday is a hard word for me.”

“Just take it out,” Ivanka Trump, his eldest daughter, replied.

While the word “yesterday” was ultimately cut from the final version of the then president’s Jan. 7 video statement, Trump did admonish “the demonstrators who infiltrated the Capitol” while admitting that “a new administration will be inaugurated on January 20.” But he never relinquished his evidence-free campaign to convince Americans that the only reason he lost was because of widespread voter fraud, nor his pressure campaign on election officials to summarily overturn the results.

A video of President Donald Trump
A video of Donald Trump is played at a House select committee hearing on July 21. (Al Drago/Pool/Getty Images)

On Tuesday, Mike Pence, Trump's former vice president and a likely 2024 GOP presidential candidate, delivered a speech in Washington to a conference of the Young America’s Foundation, the theme of which was looking forward rather than back. Given that Trump’s irate supporters had chanted “Hang Mike Pence!” over his refusal to go along with the former president’s plan to block the certification of the Electoral College results, a desire to move on from that dark chapter is understandable. Yet, as Pence's speech demonstrated, excising the uncomfortable bits of history can be, to paraphrase Ivanka Trump, tricker than simply taking them out of a statement.

“I don’t know that the president and I differ on issues, we may differ on focus,” Pence told his conservative audience. “I truly do believe that elections are about the future. And it’s absolutely essential at a time when so many Americans are hurting, so many families are struggling, that we don’t give way to the temptation to look back.”

Mike Pence
Former Vice President Mike Pence at the Young America's Foundation student conference on Tuesday. (Nathan Howard/Getty Images)

In another tell about his presidential aspirations that could pit him against his former running mate, Pence will release a memoir on Nov. 15 titled "So Help Me God," a sly reference to his oath of office that he says prevented him from blocking Joe Biden's election victory.

The question for Pence is whether Trump's supporters are also ready to move on from Jan. 6. Self-described "ultra MAGA" Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida gave one answer over the weekend when he addressed the Turning Point USA's annual conference over the weekend in Tampa.

“Let me just say what everybody here knows: Mike Pence will never be president,” Gaetz said to cheers. “Nice guy, not a leader.”

Trump returned to Washington later Tuesday for the first time since January 2021 to deliver his version of a forward-looking speech that recounted a string of violent crimes in American cities that have taken place since he left office.

Donald Trump
Trump at an America First Policy Institute summit on Tuesday. (Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)

“There’s so many stories, I could fill a whole speech with them,” he said at one point before making the case that countering violent crime would be the issue that would return control of Congress and the White House to Republicans.

While Trump made news by endorsing a return to police stop-and-frisk policies, advocating for the death penalty for drug dealers and suggesting that the U.S. solve its homelessness problem by building tent cities on the outskirts of American cities, he initially made limited references to the Jan. 6 “unselect committee” and what he claimed was his 2020 election victory. “That’s going to be a story for a long time,” Trump said.

As the speech wore on and Trump stuck largely to the teleprompter, it received tepid applause. It was only when Trump ad-libbed a line about forbidding transgender women from participating in women's sports that the audience perked up.

From that moment on, Trump seemed more comfortable venturing back to the topic of the “political hacks and thugs” who sit on the House select committee, and what he perceives to be the unfair treatment that his jailed supporters have received following the Jan. 6 riot. The fact that on Jan. 7, 2021, Trump told those who ransacked the Capitol that they did “not represent our country” and vowed that the ones who broke the law “will pay” was again left out.

In its place was a campaign platform that argued that the Jan. 6 committee members, not Trump or his supporters, were the ones who were up to no good.

“They really want to damage me so I can no longer go back to work for you,” Trump said. “And I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

“Four more years!” his crowd chanted in response.

While a potential Trump vs. Pence match-up in the 2024 Republican primary is an intriguing scenario given their schism, other GOP potential contenders will also have to deal with the legacy of Jan. 6.

Mike Pompeo
Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. (Karen Pulfer Focht/Reuters)

On Tuesday, ABC News reported that former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has been flirting with his own presidential bid, is in negotiations to speak with the Jan. 6 select committee and could testify in the coming days. In the hours following the riot at the Capitol, Pompeo and former Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin discussed invoking the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office prior to Biden's inauguration. First reported in a book by ABC News journalist Jonathan Karl, Pompeo’s 25th Amendment discussions were corroborated by White House staffer Cassidy Hutchinson in her select committee testimony.

Perhaps no prospective GOP 2024 candidate has benefited more from the Jan. 6 committee examination of Trump than Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. A Yahoo News/YouGov poll released in late June found that 4 in 10 Republican say that either Trump shouldn't run again in 2024 or they weren't sure. DeSantis has certainly been given a boost from the scrutiny being paid to Trump's efforts to subvert American democracy, but he faces a balancing act of his own.

On Jan. 7, the day Trump struggled to pronounce “yesterday,” DeSantis, like House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and soon-to-be Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, spoke out against the rioters.

“It was totally unacceptable and those folks need to be held accountable. And it doesn’t matter what banner you’re flying under, the violence is wrong,” he said. “The rioting and the disorder is wrong. We’re not going to tolerate it in Florida.”

Once the Jan. 6 hearings got underway, however, the idea of reliving the past to hold those involved accountable suddenly seemed less appealing.

“Why aren’t they doing hearings about more energy? Why aren’t they doing hearings about inflation?” DeSantis said of the committee on June 15. “Why are they constantly beating this dead horse?”

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaking at a recent event in Tampa, Fla. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

In his classic song “Yesterday,” released on the 1965 Beatles album “Help!,” Paul McCartney lamented the difficulty of severing the memory of a lost love.

“Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away,” he sings, “now it looks as if they’re here to stay.”

While it is still too early to say who will ultimately square off in the 2024 Republican presidential primary, it’s clear that one key factor will be how well each candidate succeeds in reckoning with the past.