McConnell rebukes RNC for breaking tradition as GOP divided over censure resolution
McConnell took issue with the RNC "singling out members of our party."
Republican lawmakers are divided on what could become a defining issue for the GOP after the Republican National Committee passed a censure resolution last week including language critics said suggested the Jan. 6 attack was "legitimate political discourse."
Adding to the division was the top Republican in Congress rebuking the RNC on Tuesday.
The resolution, censuring GOP Reps. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois -- members of the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack -- said the incumbent lawmakers were "participating in a Democrat-led persecution of ordinary citizens engaged in legitimate political discourse." The phrase has since come under fire, including Cheney juxtaposing it on social media with images of violence at the Capitol.
Asked about the RNC move at a weekly leadership press conference on Capitol Hill, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, while not referring to the "legitimate political discourse" language the RNC used directly, did pointedly characterize Jan. 6 as a "violent insurrection."
"Well, let me give him my view of what happened January the 6th. We all were here. We saw what happened. It was a violent insurrection for the purpose of trying to prevent a peaceful transfer of power after a legitimately certified election from one administration to the next. That's what it was," McConnell said.
He also said the RNC was out of line to single out sitting members.
"With regard to this suggestion that the RNC should be in the business of picking and choosing Republicans who ought to be supported, traditionally, the view of the national party committee is that we support all members of our party, regardless of their positions, and some issues," he added.
Asked if had confidence in RNC Chairperson Ronna McDaniel, McConnell said, "I do -- but the issue is whether or not the RNC should be sort of singling out members of our party who may have different views from the majority. That's not the job of the RNC."
In an interview with Spectrum News in December, McConnell signaled his personal interest in the House committee's work, despite blocking the formation of an independent, bipartisan commission to investigate the attack last year, and said, "I think that what they're seeking to find out is something the public needs to know."
ABC News Congressional Correspondent Rachel Scott asked House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who has struggled to maintain GOP infighting on his quest to become House speaker, whether he thought there was was "legitimate political discourse" on Jan. 6 after he dodged reporters questions on the topic last week.
"Everybody knows there was -- anyone who broke inside," McCarthy replied Tuesday.
McCarthy's office called later to clarify that he meant that "anybody who broke inside was not" engaged in legitimate political discourse.
Asked also if he was supportive of the censure of Cheney and Kinzinger, McCarthy said, "I think I've already answered that question -- there's a reason why Adam is not running for reelection," in an apparent reference to an earlier interview with OAN.
The No. 3 House Republican Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y. -- who replaced Cheney as a member of leadership after an internal revolt last year -- told reporters Tuesday, "The RNC has every right to take any action and the position that I have is you're ultimately held accountable to voters."
Asked also if she believes the violence on Jan. 6 was "legitimate political discourse," Stefanik condemned the violence but proceeded to equate the violence of Jan. 6 to the "violence of 2020" -- seemingly a reference to the national protests that took place following George Floyd's murder.
But while House Republicans and close allies of Trump have defended the resolution, several members of Senate Republican leadership sought to distance themselves from it, with a number refuting the "legitimate political discourse" description.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas -- a key ally of McConnell -- told reporters Monday that the language in the resolution wasn't appropriate.
"I just I think being accurate is really important, particularly when you are talking about something that sensitive, and I just think it was not an accurate description," Cornyn said.
Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., also on the Hill Monday for an evening leadership meeting with McConnell, reacted as if the RNC's action is wholly apart from him and the Senate GOP.
"I mean it's what they want to say. I'm clear what I believe has been," said Scott, who has condemned rioters on Jan. 6 as "disgraceful and un-American."
But Florida's other senator, Sen. Marco Rubio, fell in line with messaging of the RNC and former President Donald Trump, condemning the Jan. 6 committee, instead, on CBS' "Face the Nation" Sunday as "a partisan scam."
Other senators have wiggled around taking a clear stance.
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who announced last month he is not running for reelection to the Senate, told reporters Monday, "Everybody has the right to peacefully protest, but they don't have the right to be violent. Of course, there was protest that day that was not violent, but there was also a terrible violent and criminal part of it."
Pressed on whether the RNC resolution and specific language was appropriate, he said, "I haven't read what they said, but I don't think it's appropriate to call violent and criminal activity."
Senate GOP Whip John Thune, R-S.D., up for reelection this year and often a target of former President Donald Trump -- was pressed repeatedly on whether he supports the censure resolution, but demurred, saying the focus, instead, should "be forward, not backward."
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.V., echoed the sentiment but in a more critical tone, saying, "We've got a lot of issues that we should be focusing on besides censuring two members of Congress because they have a different opinion."
The RNC has come under intense questioning since Friday about the inclusion of the "legitimate political discourse" phrase in its censure resolution to Cheney and Kinzinger.
Asked Friday to elaborate on the description, the RNC official said the party is talking about "legitimate political discourse that had nothing to do with violence at the Capitol."
"Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger crossed a line," McDaniel said in a statement. "They chose to join Nancy Pelosi in a Democrat-led persecution of ordinary citizens who engaged in legitimate political discourse that had nothing to do with violence at the Capitol. That's why Republican National Committee members and myself overwhelmingly support this resolution."
McDaniel's statement notably attempted to clarify the resolution's "legitimate political discourse" language, adding the words, "that had nothing to do with violence at the Capitol," though that additional phrasing did not appear in the resolution that was passed Friday.
Senate and House Democrats have come out swinging against the RNC's decision.
"Ronna McDaniel should be ashamed of herself," said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries told reporters during a press conference Tuesday. "What makes it worse is that our Republican colleagues here in the Capitol refuse to denounce it because they are a part of the cult, as well."
Republican Rep. Mike McCaul of Texas, meanwhile, sought to pivot away from the issue on ABC "This Week" when pressed by co-anchor Martha Raddatz on Sunday, condemning the violence of Jan. 6 but unwilling to denounce the resolution.
"My understanding is [the statement] pertains to the legitimate protesters that I saw that day," McCaul said.
Republican Rep. Don Young of Alaska, who voted against both of Trump's impeachments, weighed in over the weekend to say that what transpired on Jan. 6 "was criminal, un-American, and cannot be considered legitimate protest."
A handful of the seven Senate Republicans who voted to impeach Trump for "incitement of insurrection" last year were also among the first to condemn the RNC language.
"What happened on January 6, 2021 was an effort to overturn a lawful election resulting in violence and destruction at the Capitol. We must not legitimize those actions which resulted in loss of life and we must learn from that horrible event so history does not repeat itself," Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, tweeted.
Hers followed Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, writing Friday morning that "shame" falls on the party, that his niece, McDaniel, currently presides over.
"Shame falls on a party that would censure persons of conscience, who seek truth in the face of vitriol. Honor attaches to Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger for seeking truth even when doing so comes at great personal cost," Romney tweeted.
And Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., also reacted with apparent shock, tweeting, "The RNC is censuring Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger because they are trying to find out what happened on January 6th - HUH?"
The move to censure Cheney and Kinzinger marks the first time the national RNC has had a formal censure for an incumbent member of Congress backed by its members.
The day before the RNC vote, Kinzinger tweeted has "no regrets about my decision to uphold my oath of office and defend the Constitution.
Kinzinger, who is not running for reelection but has said his political career is not over, said in a statement that GOP leadership had allowed "conspiracies and toxic tribalism" to cloud "their ability to see clear-eyed."
"I've been a member of the Republican Party long before Donald Trump entered the field," Kinzinger said in a statement Thursday night. "Rather than focus their efforts on how to help the American people, my fellow Republicans have chosen to censure two lifelong Members of their party for simply upholding their oaths of office."
Cheney also spoke to her identity as a "constitutional conservative" in a statement and said, "I do not recognize those in my party who have abandoned the Constitution to embrace Donald Trump."
ABC News' Ben Siegel contributed to this report.