Editor’s note: Daily Universe reporters examined how Utah’s congressional delegation responded not only to the Capitol breach on Jan. 6 but the shift in the Republican Party over the last four years in a series of stories.
Counting the Electoral College votes is one of the roles of Congress that usually passes by with little note, but on Jan. 6 this previously little-known tradition was stalled by rioters who broke into the Capitol.
How did this happen? And where do American politics go next? At the center of these questions is President Donald Trump, claims of fraud in the 2020 presidential election, and both the Republican and Democratic parties.
Trump started his presidential campaign in 2015 as an outsider, but after he won the Republican Party’s nomination and subsequently the 2016 election, many Republican politicians recognized his position as the party leader and backed him, like Utah Sen. Mike Lee. Others, like Sen. Mitt Romney, questioned his fitness for office throughout his presidency.
What caused the events of Jan. 6?
For many, the tumultuous recess during Wednesday’s counting came as no surprise. BYU political science professor Jeremy Pope gave partial blame for the day’s events to Trump and some of his supporters in Congress for their continued rhetoric of a stolen election.
“The big, and most important, thing is that Donald Trump has encouraged his closest acolytes to engage in something that obviously ranged between protesting and riotous violence,” Pope said.
He also specifically said the actions of Republican senators Josh Hawley from Missouri and Ted Cruz from Texas to support Trump’s claim in the Senate “gave the eventual rioters a focal point.”
While Trump and his supporters’ claims of election fraud directly led to the riots, a longer history of polarization and misinformation slowly built up to those events.
BYU political science professor Lisa Argyle said misinformation will continue to be a problem as long as certain outlets “provide facts people want to hear rather than the truth.”
“It will be very difficult to continue to have a functioning democracy if we cannot collectively agree on what is factually true or even what types of evidence are necessary and valid in establishing true facts,” Argyle said.
Pope said that while not all Republicans toe the party line, polarization and partisanship have partially led to the GOP’s acceptance of Trump and his politics. For some the choice between Trump and the Democrats is a move “toward what they see as the lesser of two evils.”
Typically, the president is seen as the head of their party, and Trump is no exception. “Republican politicians who disagreed with Trump faced enormous public opinion pressure to support him,” Argyle said. “From a purely practical standpoint, most Republicans needed the financial support of the party or would have faced strong primary challenges for opposing Trump.”
This party pressure can be seen in some members of Utah’s congressional delegation.
In October 2016, Sen. Mike Lee told The Daily Universe in an interview he thought Trump was “unelectable.” “I think he needs to step aside,” he said.
However, Lee’s public opinions of Trump seemed to change in November 2017 when he was added to a list of Trump’s potential Supreme Court nominees. For example, in an April 2019 CBS interview, he said he would support Trump in the 2020 race and believed he would win.
Rep. Chris Stewart from Utah’s 2nd Congressional District was also cautiously supportive of Trump early on and vocally opposed his impeachment. He was identified as Trump’s forerunner for director of the intelligence committee in February 2020. He has since been supportive of Trump’s claims of voter fraud and opposed certification of the Electoral College vote from Pennsylvania after the Capitol building was stormed on Wednesday.
Republican party post-Trump
Both the Democrats and Republicans will have to adjust once President-elect Joe Biden takes office on Jan. 20.
“Both parties are divided at the moment, but the Republican divisions are internally poisonous and have spilled out into the national agenda,” Pope said. “They have embarrassed the country and now have to figure out how to get their house in order.”
Where the Republican party goes after Trump’s presidency is over could be determined by which factions of the party rise to power in both the 2022 midterm elections and the 2024 presidential election, Argyle said.
“Some leaders, such as Sen. Mitt Romney, have signaled a strong desire to move in a new direction. Others, such as Sen. Josh Hawley, have signaled approval of the direction the party has taken under Trump’s presidency,” Argyle said.
BYU College Republicans club member Parker Stohlton said he hopes the events of Jan. 6 will cause the party to “cleanse itself internally” by “getting rid of Trump enablers from elected positions.”
“Over the past four years, the GOP has sold out to Trump time and time again. The previous four years (were) a buildup to Jan. 6,” Stohlton said. “Republicans need to have faith in our Constitution. Republicans need to trust that our system of democracy works.”
Turning Point USA BYU Chapter Vice President Savannah Thomas said she hopes young conservatives will be able to revive the party and “bring it back to its roots.”
“President Trump has inspired so many to stand up and fight for our country,” she said. “The Republican party is anew with fresh, young conservative faces who are actually dedicated to fighting the establishment in both parties and restoring American values to our government.”
Back on Dec. 20, 2020, Romney acknowledged in an interview on CNN’s “State of the Union” that the party has changed over the years, saying the party used to be more concerned about Russia and North Korea, balancing the national budget and being a leader internationally.
“We believed that character was essential in the leaders that we chose,” he said. “We’ve strayed from that. I don’t see us returning to that for a long time.”
While Romney said he thinks most potential 2024 GOP presidential candidates emulate Trump, he sees the party eventually returning to its roots. “We’ll get back at some point.”
In the hours and days after Jan. 6, politicians, journalists and average Americans have wondered what the more immediate consequences of the riots will be.
As of Jan. 11 at 9 a.m., 120 people had been arrested in connection with the Capitol breach, according to The Hill. That number will likely grow as the FBI and local law enforcement pursue others responsible for the day’s events.
Some — including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — have called for Vice President Mike Pence to invoke the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office. The amendment says when the Vice President along with other executive officers, like cabinet members, determine “the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office,” they can remove the president from office.
This section of the 25th Amendment has never been invoked since its ratification in 1967, according to BYU law professor Lisa Grow Sun. The president’s term also ends on Jan. 20, meaning removing Trump from office would only impact a handful of days before President-elect Joe Biden takes office.
“The Constitution doesn’t define what this ‘inability’ means, so it comes down to what the Vice President and majority of the cabinet think initially and then, ultimately, if Congress votes, what two thirds of both Houses think that means,” Sun said. She added that she thinks Trump’s “incitement of insurrection shows that he is unable to discharge the duties of his office.”
If Pence and Trump’s cabinet don’t invoke the 25th Amendment, some politicians are calling for other methods to remove Trump from office like impeachment or his resignation, according to the Associated Press. Late Sunday, Pelosi released impeachment documents based on calls among a majority of Democrats and some Republicans calling for Trump’s ouster.
Trump has since denounced the actions of rioters on Jan. 6 in a video and said his focus would turn to ensuring a “smooth, orderly and seamless transition of power.”
“After the insurrection at the Capitol, it is vitally important for both parties — Republicans and Democrats — to come together in forcefully denouncing these actions and penalizing those who facilitated it,” Argyle said. “If Republicans do not join in denouncing these events and actors, polarization between parties will increase and the factions in the Republican party who oppose democracy will continue to grow.”
Additional reporting by Whitney Bigelow, Emma Gadeski, Maddie Mehr and Cassidy Wixom