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The GOP backlash on Tucker Carlson

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on March 7 criticized Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s depiction of the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol attack. (Video: The Washington Post)
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When some in the conservative movement baselessly pitched Jan. 6, 2021, as being fomented by antifa, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) rebuked them. “There is absolutely no evidence of that,” he said. “Conservatives should be the first to say so.”

When some in his party quickly defended President Donald Trump’s actions or stayed silent, McCarthy took to the House floor and said Trump bore “responsibility” for it. He even floated a historic censure resolution against him.

And long after some in his conference and the conservative movement grew to cast doubt on whether Jan. 6 was actually a violent “insurrection,” McCarthy assured that it was. “No one would disagree with that,” he said in February 2022.

Despite all that, in recent weeks the House speaker decided to exclusively turn over Jan. 6 security footage to a cable-news host who has offered far different views of Jan. 6, even relative to McCarthy’s own evolution on the subject. Fox News’s Tucker Carlson has waged a campaign against the “insurrection” label — even getting Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) to grovel while backing off his claim that it was a “terrorist” attack — and he devoted an entire documentary to the still-baseless idea that Jan. 6 was a false flag orchestrated by the federal government.

McCarthy’s decision has now led to an altogether predictable — and indeed, predicted — package of oversimplifications and efforts to downplay Jan. 6 on Carlson’s show Monday night.

And now some of the Republicans who were as concerned about that day’s events as McCarthy appeared to be are hitting back.

To wit (via NBC News and CNN):

  • Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) called Carlson’s presentation of Jan. 6 as “mostly peaceful chaos” both “bull----” and “inexcusable.”
  • Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) summarized Carlson’s version as “some rowdy peaceful protest of Boy Scouts” and said to put what happened “in the same category as … permitted peaceful protest is just a lie.”
  • Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said he was concerned about the House Jan. 6 committee’s work, but added, “I’m not interested in whitewashing Jan. 6.”
  • Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) called it “dangerous and disgusting” and compared it to Alex Jones’s portrayal of the Sandy Hook massacre.
  • Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) said, “I thought it was an insurrection at that time. I still think it was an insurrection today.”
  • Senate Republicans’ No. 2 John Thune (S.D.) said, “I think it was an attack on the Capitol. … There were a lot of people in the Capitol at the time that were scared for their lives.”
  • Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) fully endorsed a statement from the U.S. Capitol Police that accused Carlson of “cherry-picking” footage and drawing “offensive and misleading conclusions.”

The comments from GOP senators are striking given how influential Carlson is in the conservative movement. They’re also striking because several of them reflect how McCarthy himself has also spoken about the insurrection.

Jan. 6 put GOP leaders in an uncomfortable spot. On the one hand, denouncing your allies and even potentially a president of your own party is something you avoid like the plague. On the other, their members clearly feared for their safety and were aghast at an attack on a building they themselves work in.

But as time has passed and memories of that day have faded, it’s been clear which side of the argument is ascendant in the GOP. The base has increasingly moved away from believing it was not just an insurrection but also a “riot.” A poll in the summer of 2022 showed more viewed it as a “legitimate protest” than a riot — a reversal from the year before.

Indeed, just five months after McCarthy’s comments assuring “no one would disagree” that it was an insurrection, the poll showed a majority of Republicans did in fact disagree.

On top of that, Carlson has often served as a McCarthy antagonist, casting doubt on whether he is a true conservative in line with the base’s values. Just like McCarthy’s political calculation in bringing Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) into the fold in recent months is readily apparent, so too is trying to get on Carlson’s good side. Given the concessions McCarthy made to the House Freedom Caucus to become speaker, his speakership could be short-lived without making sure his right flank is minded at all times, and Carlson exercises perhaps unrivaled sway over it.

As with Greene, though, catering to those with such conspiratorial impulses comes at a cost. And at least for now, that cost appears to have been too much for certain GOP members to stomach.

They’ve reserved their criticisms mostly for Carlson. But given how predictable Monday’s presentation was, there’s little question about who paved the way for the “whitewashing” they now deride. McCarthy has said he will share the footage more broadly soon, but the first word matters greatly. And the fact that he felt compelled to give it to Carlson, despite McCarthy’s own past comments about Jan. 6, says plenty about who’s in the driver’s seat in the GOP.

The Jan. 6 insurrection

The report: The Jan. 6 committee released its final report, marking the culmination of an 18-month investigation into the violent insurrection. Read The Post’s analysis about the committee’s new findings and conclusions.

The final hearing: The House committee investigating the attack on the U.S. Capitol held its final public meeting where members referred four criminal charges against former president Donald Trump and others to the Justice Department. Here’s what the criminal referrals mean.

The riot: On Jan. 6, 2021, a pro-Trump mob stormed the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to stop the certification of the 2020 election results. Five people died on that day or in the immediate aftermath, and 140 police officers were assaulted.

Inside the siege: During the rampage, rioters came perilously close to penetrating the inner sanctums of the building while lawmakers were still there, including former vice president Mike Pence. The Washington Post examined text messages, photos and videos to create a video timeline of what happened on Jan. 6. Here’s what we know about what Trump did on Jan. 6.