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Elise Stefanik’s Ugly “Hostages” Barb Points to Serious GOP Mayhem Ahead

Not all House Republicans agree that the January 6 criminals are hostages. This is a division that is sure to deepen between now and Election Day.

Samuel Corum/Bloomberg/Getty Images
Representative Elise Stefanik

GOP Representative Elise Stefanik no doubt thought it was shrewd to describe the rioters who attacked the Capitol as “January 6 hostages.” This sort of talk hits a sweet trifecta for a GOP leader with seemingly limitless ambition. It reassures the right-wing media that the GOP leadership is fully behind Donald Trump. It fires up the MAGA base’s small-dollar donors. And it infuriates the libs, which excites the right-wing media and MAGA voters all over again.

But it turns out vulnerable House Republicans aren’t too thrilled about Stefanik’s barb. The Washington Post reports that many are distancing themselves from it, a sign that being associated with pro-insurrection sentiments is politically dangerous in swing districts across the country.

News flash, vulnerable Republicans: This will almost certainly get much worse. If you think some throwaway sound bite designed to pump up Sean Hannity creates political problems for you, what will it mean for you if Trump goes to trial this year or even earns a criminal conviction?

Here’s an overlooked possibility to contemplate: While commentators often assume the prosecutions of Trump are only driving the GOP to unite behind Trump, it’s perfectly plausible that when his legal travails grow more serious, it will ensure that GOP divisions grow deeper—perhaps much deeper.

Stefanik’s insurrectionist outburst suggests a misplaced confidence that none of this threatens the party. Last month, Trump said of the hundreds of people charged or convicted in relation to January 6, “I don’t call them prisoners. I call them hostages.” Then on Meet the Press last Sunday, Stefanik brashly echoed his language: “I have concerns about the treatment of January 6 hostages.”

The way vulnerable Republicans ran from this is telling. “They’re criminal defendants, not hostages,” said Representative Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania. “I don’t defend people who hit cops, who vandalized our Capitol,” added Nebraska’s Don Bacon, pointedly adding of the “hostage” language: “The broad, broad electorate doesn’t like it.”

Given that Fitzpatrick and Bacon represent two of the 17 districts held by Republicans that Trump lost in 2020, that’s an indication of how politically outside the mainstream it is to deny the gravity of January 6 and smear the justice system’s response to it as illegitimate.

The details of this year’s political and legal calendar suggest this dynamic could intensify. In coming days, an appeals court will likely rule against Trump’s demand that the criminal charges against him for conspiring to overthrow U.S. democracy be dismissed on grounds that his misconduct constituted official presidential duties. The Supreme Court could soon follow. While Trump’s strategy of delaying his trial might work, it’s more likely to fail.

Now recall that last year, Trump expressly called on House Republicans to shut down the government to defund his prosecutions. They didn’t, but at the very least, the actuality of Trump’s trial unfolding before the nation will cause him to ramp up his entreaties into 2024. And it may well be harder for Republicans to resist them during a presidential election year.

“It’s about to get real for House Republicans that Trump is going to criminal trial before the election,” legal scholar Matthew Seligman, who tracks the timeline of Trump’s trials for Just Security, told me. “That will put them under intense pressure to try to derail the prosecution.”

What then? House Democratic aides see a range of possibilities, such as votes on resolutions declaring the prosecution of Trump corrupt, or possibly more hearings designed to harass and sabotage the case against him. Those aides point out that Trump could be locking up the GOP nomination (making it harder for vulnerable Republicans to resist closing ranks behind him) even as his trial gets underway (making support for Trump look more corrupt to swing voters).

The sweet spot for many Republicans is to say that of course they condemn anything related to January 6 that was actually criminal, while also insisting that the legal system’s targeting of Trump is obviously politically motivated because, duh, a Democrat is president. That’s an easier posture to hold when Republicans can redirect the question of Trump’s guilt back on to the unpopular President Biden by insisting he’s surreptitiously pulling law enforcement’s strings.

But a trial—or a conviction—will dramatically shrink the space for that straddle, pushing vulnerable Republicans to say with clarity whether all this should be disqualifying in a president.

Democrats predict Republicans won’t be able to resist Trump’s pressure. “They’re going to continue to defend him,” Representative Suzan DelBene, the chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told me. “That will cost them at the ballot box.”

A recent Washington Post poll found that 57 percent of Americans say the Justice Department is holding Trump accountable under the law, as opposed to targeting him politically. Among independents that number is also 57 percent. Similar majorities believe Trump is probably or definitely guilty.

I believe we’re underestimating another factor here: Trump will soon be facing a jury of his peers. They can’t be smeared as stooges of the “deep state.” The spectacle of Trump facing the judgment of ordinary Americans—just like any American accused of crimes—is likely to mean something powerful to swing voters.

A trial could also intensify public attention on whether Trump would simply order his prosecution halted if elected, or, if he’s convicted, whether he’d try to pardon himself. Good luck defending his answer to those questions, vulnerable Republicans.

A certain strain in our punditry holds that many Americans question the legitimacy of the Trump prosecutions because they no longer trust our institutions or because of some other social malaise. It’s reasonable to lament the state of our institutions. But what if the prosaic reality is that many in the middle of the country are already prepared to accept a guilty verdict for Trump as correct and legitimate?

It’s heartening that vulnerable Republicans felt politically obliged to defend the legitimacy of our justice system simply because Stefanik unfurled a dumb MAGA talking point. Now imagine how whipsawed they’ll be if Trump goes on trial—followed by Trump and the MAGA-aligned media furiously demanding that the GOP unanimously declare the proceedings wholly and irredeemably corrupt. Whether or not a conviction is secured by Election Day, all this could worsen GOP divisions—and threaten GOP control of the House in ways few have anticipated.