For the first time since Jan. 6, Trump comes to Capitol Hill

Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump speaks Sunday at a campaign rally in Las Vegas.
Associated Press

Sen. Lisa Murkowski got flashbacks upon returning to the Capitol on Tuesday facing an endless stream of questions about one topic.

“I have been asked questions by about 20 reporters since then, 19 of the 20 have asked me whether I’m going to lunch,” the GOP senator from Alaska said Wednesday.

“Lunch,” as it were, is Thursday’s gathering of Senate Republicans with their presumptive presidential nominee, Donald Trump, whom Murkowski voted to convict in an impeachment trial the month after the ex-president’s supporters attacked the Capitol in an attempt to overturn the 2020 election.

That happened on Jan. 6, 2021, the day pro-Trump rioters stormed the Capitol in an attempt to prevent the certification of Joe Biden’s victory. Thursday marks Trump’s first trip back after that fateful day less than four years ago in the midst of a campaign he hopes will return him to Washington and the White House.

Since then, Trump and many GOP lawmakers have tried to revise the history of that day and suggested that some of the rioters are political “hostages,” some of whom he plans to pardon. In Las Vegas last weekend, he claimed baselessly that “they were warriors but they were really, more than anything else, they’re victims of what happened.”

But with few exceptions, his incendiary rhetoric around a seminal moment in American political history has landed on the site of the attack with silence or even support from Republicans.

Like several anti-Trump Republicans, Murkowski has found other plans and will not attend the luncheon at the National Republican Senatorial Committee a couple blocks from the Capitol. But she’s already fed up with how much Trump has once again hijacked the events of this week, just like he did every week he was in the Oval Office.

“So it’s like, once again, it’s all about Trump all the time,” the 22-year incumbent said Wednesday.

Across the Capitol, Rep. Jake Auchincloss, a Massachusetts Democrat, paused 16 seconds reflecting on what it meant to have Trump back on Capitol Hill, the first meeting taking place Thursday morning with the House GOP in its campaign headquarters.

“It’s an astounding example of GOP amnesia,” Auchincloss finally said, pausing another dozen seconds before saying something else. “It was a turning point when the GOP didn’t turn on him.”

For Auchincloss, who led Marine infantry units in Afghanistan, Jan. 6 was his third full day in Congress, a seminal moment that has shaped his views of life in the Capitol ever since. He used the votes on certifying Biden’s victory as a measuring stick about which Republicans he would work with, at times refusing to consider crossing the aisle if the GOP lawmaker had voted to deny the results of a legitimate election.

Trump does not plan to be on official congressional grounds Thursday, but he will be a stone’s throw away for the first time since he was president. It will be the closest he has come to visiting since he tried to get the Secret Service and his aides to let him join his supporters in a trip there during the Capitol attack.

Roughly 250 Republicans will attend the two meetings with the ex-president, supporting his attempt to formally return to the Capitol for a Jan. 20, 2025, inauguration ceremony.

For those supportive Republicans, Trump’s visits are just part of the normal routine. Every four years the party out of power selects a nominee, and then he or she treks to Capitol Hill, hoping to forge unity for the election and plot a policy agenda.

“I think it’s important for us to get together and make sure that we have an agenda coming in, so when he gets elected — I believe that he will — we’re ready to go,” said Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, the No. 3 GOP leader who will serve as the official host of the meeting.

But nothing with Trump is ever normal. Just two weeks ago, a Manhattan jury convicted the former president on 34 felony counts for filing false business records over a hush money payment to cover up an alleged extramarital affair.

Some of the same Capitol Police and D.C. police who clashed with his violent supporters — about 140 officers were injured, while three died in the days after Jan. 6 — will be detailed to provide security for Trump and lawmakers around the meetings.

When his motorcade leaves the House GOP meeting, Trump will probably drive past the Supreme Court, which is slated to rule on his bid to exempt himself from two other pending federal criminal trials.

When he huddles with Senate Republicans, Trump will sit just eight-tenths of a mile from the E. Barrett Prettyman U.S. Courthouse, where he will go on trial for his involvement in attempting to overturn the 2020 election, depending on the Supreme Court decision.

After House Democrats voted to impeach him, a week after the Capitol insurrection, many believed they had dispatched with Trump in the political sense. After they led a yearlong investigation into those events, the Justice Department got moving and eventually indicted the ex-president.

But those indictments only rallied conservative voters around Trump, turning his bid for this year’s GOP nomination into a cakewalk, and Trump’s legal strategy managed to delay the federal trials until probably past Election Day.

These Democrats view Thursday’s visit as the final genuflection by congressional Republicans, a group that stands ready to allow Trump to win the White House and shutdown the criminal cases against him.

“Justice still hasn’t completely been served. I mean, until everybody is held accountable, it’s still going to feel incomplete and it’s still going to feel unsettled,” said California Rep. Pete Aguilar, the No. 3 Democratic leader who served on the select committee that investigated Trump’s actions.

Trump has always found greater support among House Republicans, so his morning huddle is likely to be akin to a pep rally. Their ranks have turned over so quickly in this political era that a large majority took office after his shocking presidential victory eight years ago.

House Speaker Mike Johnson, a Louisiana Republican who first won in 2016, wrote a legal brief in December 2020 that a majority of the House GOP signed onto, trying to invalidate Biden’s win. Johnson was one of a couple dozen Republicans who sycophantishly headed to New York during the trial to show public support for Trump.

Even House Republicans in swing districts came out with strong statements of support after the Manhattan conviction.

Senate Republicans, most of whom hold traditional conservative views, have always had a more distant relationship with the former reality-TV star. But Trump is unlikely to face a hostile audience.

Of the four remaining Senate Republicans who voted to convict Trump in the 2021 impeachment trial, only Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Louisiana Republican, is expected to attend the meeting Thursday. And, perhaps thinking ahead to his 2026 election, Cassidy has fallen in line.

“The polls say he’s going to be our next president, so you got to work with him,” Cassidy told reporters.

Trump’s last official visit to Senate Republicans appears to have been in May 2020, at the height of pandemic response. The news conference afterward led Trump into discussions about his weight, his support of a dangerous and unproven drug for fighting the coronavirus, his desire to fire certain State Department officials and broadsides against U.S. intelligence programs.

“He’s always going to do the unexpected,” Cassidy said, waxing philosophical about the future of his party under Trump. “You can fill yourself up with anxiety about tomorrow, but will it change a thing? No, not at all.”

Sens. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, and Mitt Romney, a Utah Republican who joined Murkowski and Cassidy in voting to convict Trump, have also found other plans for lunch.

Sen. Todd Young, an Indiana Republican whose GOP political role models come from the Ronald Reagan and John McCain wing, has declared that he will not support Trump in November. He refused to say where he will have lunch Thursday.

“No Trump questions today,” Young told reporters.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, has not been in Trump’s presence for almost four years. The two have not spoken since McConnell called him in mid-December 2020 to say he would recognize Biden’s victory, and ever since Trump has regularly ridiculed the longest-serving Senate leader.

Asked about Thursday’s meeting, McConnell gave a vintage comment that expressed support for Trump without ever saying his name. “He’s earned the nomination by the voters all across the country,” he said.

For Murkowski, the entire experience is a bit of political PTSD, seeing the Trump circus come back to town and consume Capitol Hill.

“All of a sudden everything else stops,” she said, “because they all want to know: Are you going to lunch, what do you think he’s going to say, what are your expectations?”

She let out a deep breath. “Oh my God,” she said.

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