During the Black Lives Matter protests last summer, former Virginia House Speaker Kirk Cox recorded a video in front of the boarded-up state Capitol building, calling the sight a tragic failure of “Democratic leadership.”
“I should say maybe, a lack of leadership,” he said at the time, praising a massive armed demonstration by gun rights groups earlier in the year and going on to accuse Democrats of “hurting law enforcement” by pursuing criminal justice reforms.
After the U.S. Capitol building was attacked by supporters of President Donald Trump who battled with police Wednesday, Cox, a Republican now running for governor in what will be one of the first major elections of the post-Trump era, was less direct in placing blame at the top.
In a statement Wednesday, Cox called on Trump to tell his supporters to “leave the Capitol immediately.” He stopped short of faulting the president, who continues to falsely claim the election was stolen, for the mob that stormed the halls of Congress.
“Anyone who rightly spoke out against lawlessness and violence last summer cannot with integrity be silent now,” Cox said. “We all have a duty to speak up.”
After positioning themselves as the law-and-order party heading into an important gubernatorial election year, Virginia Republicans are now dealing with a political riot arising from their own party’s ranks, one that has Democrats again calling for Trump to be removed from office with just a few weeks left in his term.
Asked Thursday if Cox agrees with those on the left and right who feel Trump should be removed early, Cox campaign spokeswoman Kristen Bennett said Cox “believes the best thing for our country now would be for everyone to take a deep breath over the next two weeks and for President Trump to ensure a peaceful and orderly transfer of power to President-elect Biden.”
Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, Cox’s only current opponent for the GOP nomination, went to the rally in D.C. and has since published several social media posts defending attendees as justifiably angry, mostly peaceful “patriots,” as well as spreading baseless theories about the protest being hijacked by antifa. Unlike Cox, she has not acknowledged President-elect Joe Biden as the rightful winner.
Democrats have responded with universal outrage after the invasion of the Capitol, which occurred as lawmakers met to certify Biden’s victory. More than 50 police officers were hurt during the melee, officials said, and one Trump supporter was fatally shot by police as she tried to force her way into a secure area of the building.
“Bluntly, this was a Donald Trump-inspired disaster,” U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., told reporters Thursday.
Both Kaine and U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., have called for Trump’s cabinet to invoke the 25th Amendment, deeming Trump unfit for office and removing him from the presidency. Several Virginia Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives have said they’ll support efforts to impeach Trump a second time.
Gov. Ralph Northam, who deployed the Virginia National Guard and 200 state troopers to help restore order in D.C., said he would extend his order through Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20.
“In case it wasn’t already clear: the current President poses a danger to our country every minute he holds office,” Northam said on Twitter. “The sooner he is out, the better.”
Though Virginia Republicans have condemned the violence, few in positions of power have faulted Trump for instigating it.
After the Capitol was shut down, the state’s four Republican congressmen lent further credence to claims the election was stolen by voting unsuccessfully to reject some Electoral College votes cast for Biden from other states.
Kaine pointedly called that tactic “chickensh**t,” saying Virginia representatives can’t be held accountable by the non-Virginia voters whose votes they attempted to block.
“You cannot preach lies for months and then use the fact that people believe in lies as a reason to say ‘we need an investigation,’” Kaine said.
Some Republicans, most notably Chase, have excused the events in D.C. as an understandable response from Trump supporters upset over the election outcome.
“I support peaceful protest,” Chase said in a Facebook video posted Wednesday night. “But I’m telling you, when you back the people of Virginia and across the United States of America into a corner, you will end up with a revolution. And I believe that’s what you’re starting to see.”
Del. Dave LaRock, R-Loudoun, who sent a letter asking Vice President Mike Pence to reject Virginia’s 13 Electoral College votes for Biden, struck a similar tone, suggesting baselessly that an otherwise positive event had been tarnished by “paid provocateurs.”
“This event was, for the most part, an outstanding exercise of the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances,” LaRock said in a statement.
Chase too has spread the unfounded theory the chaos in D.C. was sparked by far-left activists affiliated with antifa, despite a litany of photos and videos showing people in pro-Trump gear and known far-right figures participating in the riot.
Chase also praised Ashli Babbit, the San Diego Trump supporter who was killed in the Capitol. In a Facebook post, Chase said Babbit was “brutally murdered” by police.
“These were not rioters and looters; these were Patriots who love their country and do not want to see our great republic turn into a socialist country,” Chase said.
In response to Republicans who chose not to continue contesting the election results after Wednesday’s violence, Chase said the GOP needs an “enema” and “a new brand of Firebrand Republicans.”
Bennett, Cox’s spokeswoman, said Chase’s comments about the events at the Capitol are “dangerous and only inflame the situation.”
Chase has already been kicked out of the Senate Republican Caucus over her often inflammatory comments and actions. She recently threatened to run for governor as an independent after accusing party leaders of trying to freeze her out, later saying she would reluctantly participate in a nominating convention this year despite fears it would be rigged against her.
The Democratic field of gubernatorial candidates, which includes former Prince William-area Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Del. Lee Carter, D-Manassas, has been largely unified in denouncing Trump as a danger to the country.
The turbulent start to 2021 could heighten the challenge for Republican moderates hoping to move past the Trump era and break the Virginia GOP’s 12-year losing streak in statewide races.
“Any Republican hoping to win a statewide election in Virginia has to walk a tightrope,” said Stephen Farnsworth, director of the University of Mary Washington’s Center for Leadership and Media Studies. “You have to figure out a way to present yourself as a political moderate without acting so moderate that the partisan core of voters who decide the nomination turn away from you.”
Whether the shocking images of the U.S. Capitol being overrun will still be on Virginia voters’ minds come November, Farnsworth said, remains to be seen.
“We’ve seen that voters have very short memories,” Farnsworth said. “So the outsized influence that Donald Trump played in Virginia Republican politics today may very well fade with time.”
Mercury reporter Ned Oliver contributed.