Just before 2 p.m. Wednesday, the campaign of Rep. Jen Kiggans (R-Va.) blasted out a fundraising appeal from Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), a member of House Republican leadership focused on electing more GOP women.
Stefanik has refashioned herself from a studious conservative with policy chops into a right-wing sound-bite machine, helping her raise money for endangered incumbents like Kiggans.
But a few minutes after 2 p.m., Kiggans found herself on the other side of Stefanik’s fire-breathing rhetoric. Did the first-term lawmaker agree with the No. 4 GOP leader’s characterization of those arrested for actions during the 2021 Capitol attack as political “hostages?”
“Not my not my choice of words, but to each his own,” Kiggans said, hustling away. “It’s not what I describe them as, no.”
Like so many other Republicans, Stefanik has fully embraced the rhetorical tones of former president Donald Trump, who recently adopted the “hostage” description for those arrested for the Jan. 6, 2021 riot.
“I don’t call them prisoners. I call them hostages. They’re hostages,” he said at a New Hampshire rally last month. He repeated that refrain again in Iowa on Saturday, the third anniversary of the Trump-inspired attempt to overturn the 2020 election.
So when Stefanik appeared Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” host Kristen Welker asked if she thought those “who stormed the Capitol should be held responsible” for those crimes.
“I have concerns about the treatment of January 6 hostages. I have concerns,” Stefanik said.
Republicans like Kiggans, whose coastal district favored President Biden by 2 points in 2020 and will help determine the House majority come November, recoil at those type of comments.
For months they have deflected any questions about Trump by saying they’re keeping their heads down and working hard in their districts and not paying much attention to the presidential race. (Indeed, Kiggans reiterated Wednesday her plans to not endorse in the GOP presidential primary.)
They have had to occasionally dodge comments from far-right, rank-and-file Republicans uttering similar falsehoods, usually an easier thing to do because these GOP antagonists have low profiles.
But now a member of party leadership has embraced Trump’s line of attack, opening up vulnerable Republicans to questions about where their political support is coming from. Just Tuesday, Stefanik’s political team boasted of raising more than $5 million last quarter — a sum driven by the type of small-dollar donors that most conservatives cannot reach.
And don’t look to other top leaders for clarity on the House GOP’s position on the actions of Jan. 6 rioters, who injured more than 140 police officers — some severely — in taking up Trump’s bogus claim that he actually won in 2020.
“You know, I think, anyone who committed criminal trespassing, anyone who violated the law should absolutely be prosecuted. Period. End of story,” House Majority Whip Tom Emmer (R-Minn.) said Wednesday.
But a second later, he kept going. Emmer took up the cause of blaming then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for not calling in the National Guard ahead of the joint session of Congress.
“I just think they are questions that haven’t been answered,” said Emmer, who spent 2019 through 2022 as the party’s campaign chief trying to help candidates navigate Trump’s political storms. (In reality, other congressional security officials rebuffed a request from Capitol Police two days ahead of time to put nearby Guard units on standby.)
As for House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.), he found time Tuesday to put out a statement in support of National Law Enforcement Day, while commemorating the swearing-in Monday of Louisiana’s new governor. And his social media feed late last week was on full blast about his trip to the southern border to highlight the growing migrant crisis there.
On Saturday, the anniversary of the Capitol attack, his only public comments came in a letter to Biden formally inviting him to deliver his State of the Union address in March. He did not commemorate the anniversary in any public manner.
In an interview taped late last week, airing Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” Johnson briefly faced questions about his role in leading an amicus brief in support of a Texas lawsuit in late 2020 trying to invalidate the presidential election results in four states for allegedly improperly handling voting rules during the pandemic.
In explaining his legal argument, Johnson never fully stated that Biden rightfully won in 2020 — just that he is, in fact, now the president.
“President Biden was certified as the winner of the election, he took the oath of office, he’s been the president for three years,” Johnson told host Margaret Brennan.
All of this non-leadership has left Republicans in tough swing districts on a political island. They hope that the issue matrix in the late 2022 midterm — in which abortion rights joined with upholding democracy in a way that helped Democrats — doesn’t return in late 2024.
It helped Democrats win an additional Senate seat and mitigated their losses in the House to such a narrow edge for Republicans that the chamber has been rendered to chaos, despite polling showing a large GOP advantage on economic issues.
But Trump, along with his acolytes in Congress, seem determined to continue forcing these 2020 issues front and center, despite the political risk.
“Some people call them prisoners. I call them hostages,” Trump said Saturday in Iowa. “Release the J6 hostages, Joe. Release them, Joe. You can do it real easy, Joe.”
Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), whose district favored Biden by 6 points in 2020, finds such statements an abomination. He has learned to carve out his own identity in winning four terms all during the Trump era.
“They’re criminal defendants, not hostages,” Fitzpatrick said Wednesday, declining to directly criticize Stefanik, Trump or others who embrace those claims.
“They have a case file number. They’re assigned to a prison. They have counsel on their own. If they can’t afford one, one is provided to them. This is the criminal justice system that I spent my whole life in,” the former FBI agent and federal prosecutor said. “I spent my whole life in the system, okay? We don’t have hostages in the United States of America, we have criminal defendants.”
Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.), a retired brigadier general in the Air Force, had a sharper critique: “I don’t defend people who hit cops, who vandalized our Capitol.”
“I think it’s a mistake,” Bacon, whose district favored Biden by 6 percentage points, said of Stefanik’s “hostage” comment. “I think they’re playing to a certain segment of our base. But the broad, broad electorate doesn’t like it.”
Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.), who hails from safe GOP terrain but is aligned with more traditional Republicans, said too many lawmakers in Washington will change their “glide scope on what your own personal ambitions are or could be.”
That served as an not-so-veiled assertion of Stefanik’s reported hope to rise into a Trump administration, perhaps even as vice-presidential nominee.
Womack noted some of his own constituents are now serving prison terms for their actions during the Capitol attack. He has no tolerance for people who think they are hostages or should be pardoned.
“They did what they did. It was foolish on their part. It was a gross violation of the law,” he said. “They’ve been through the criminal justice system. They’ve had due process. They’re not political prisoners — simply not political prisoners.”
In her closing message in the email on behalf of Kiggans, Stefanik asked for “any amount” of donations. “Your donation could make the difference between victory or defeat,” she wrote.
And GOP leaders’ words such as “hostages” from an insurrection make that effort more difficult for these lawmakers.