Michigan Republicans who spent months pushing false claims of voter fraud condemned violence that erupted Wednesday at the U.S. Capitol, but denied their actions influenced rioters who supported President Donald Trump.
“Are we not allowed to look into election concerns?” said Sen. Tom Barrett, R-Potterville, one of 11 Michigan senators who sent a letter to Congress on Tuesday asking lawmakers to investigate voter fraud claims.
“Does looking into concerns make us violent?”
Such equivocations ring hollow to racial justice activists like Angela Waters Austin, founder and co-leader of Black Lives Matter Michigan.
She said Michigan has had several “dress rehearsals” for Wednesday’s mayhem, and all were preceded by partisan vitriol from Republicans who this year stoked anger about wearing masks during a pandemic, sowed doubts about the election and condemned protests for racial justice.
Wednesday’s mob scene may have shocked the nation, but Walters Austin said it paralleled protests April 30 at the Michigan Capitol, when armed right-wing militia members easily entered the building and loomed over lawmakers.
“We saw police stand down in both places,” Waters Austin said.
Compare that, she said, to the heavy police presence her group routinely experiences when it hosts demonstrations against racism and police brutality.
“When Black people are there, police are the aggressors,” she said.
Waters Austin and other political leaders and activists cast Wednesday’s events as the inevitable culmination of years of worsening right-wing extremism, capped by an election season in which Trump and many of his supporters stoked violence, repeated demonstrably false claims of a rigged election, and failed to forcefully condemn earlier incidents of violence and intimidation.
But GOP lawmakers say their desire to investigate accusations of election fraud had nothing to do with the violence at the U.S. Capitol.
Ahead of Wednesday’s joint session, three Republicans from Michigan had announced they would object to the Electoral College vote count: Reps. Lisa McClain of Bruce Township, Jack Bergman of Watersmeet and Tim Walberg of Tipton.
Separately, a letter from Michigan Republican senators sent Tuesday originally asked Congress to delay certification of the 2020 presidential election due to unsubstantiated allegations of election fraud.
The letter was later revised to exclude the provision asking lawmakers to delay making election results official, and Barrett said his signature was added to the original document “without his consent.”
But he has no regrets after Wednesday’s chaos about signing the final version.
Rep. Curtis VanderWall, R- Ludington, said he was disappointed by assumptions that the letter may have fueled voters’ rage that led to the storming of the Capitol.
“That was never my intent,” he said.
Lawmakers should “look at everything” regarding the election, he said.
But State Rep. Laurie Pohutsky, D-Livonia, called Wednesday’s chaos “a direct consequence of the toxic rhetoric that we've been seeing in politics.”
Besides armed protests, Michigan also experienced an alleged kidnapping plot against Whitmer that ended in October arrests in the past 12 months. Pohutsky said she hopes Wednesday’s storm in Washington will be “a turning point."
“I am not applauding anyone who has just decided to show up [Wednesday] and start calling for an end to violence,” she said. “They're, frankly, late to the party.”
Wednesday’s violence drew widespread condemnation from all sides, including Republicans like VanderWall who said he was “appalled by the criminal behavior taking place in our nation's capital.”
But he and other Republicans were reluctant to address Trump’s role in the mob, which stormed the Capitol not long after the president encouraged a massive crowd of supporters to “show strength.”
“These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long,” Trump wrote in a Wednesday night tweet that Twitter later deleted.
When asked by Bridge if Trump’s social media and words provoked violence, VanderWall replied, “we’re not going to go down a rabbit hole of where we're at and who did what.”
McClain, Walberg and Bergman — the Michigan U.S. representatives who planned to object to the Electoral College — did not mention the president in statements that condemned the violence and did not return requests for comment.
Sen. Rick Outman, R-Six Lakes, said Trump did what he could to condemn the violence.
“We need to restore that faith [in elections],” he said. “The only way to do that in my mind is to shed light on everything, whether anything happened or not.”
U.S. Rep. Peter Meijer, R-Grand Rapids, slammed Trump on Twitter, saying “this is not leadership” and calling on the president to “acknowledge Biden as president-elect and end this madness.”
Tony Daunt, executive director of the conservative Michigan Freedom Fund, released a statement saying the “assault on our institutions of government — and on ordered liberty – is an outgrowth of the rhetoric, lies, and conspiracies spread by the President and other elected Republicans who’ve falsely and feverishly claimed November’s election was stolen.”
“Their actions over the last two months have today produced disastrous and violent consequences,” Daunt said.
Black Michigan leaders said they found it impossible to ignore the racial undertones of a mostly-white mob forcibly entering the U.S. Capitol.
If the people storming the Capitol had been Black, said KB Stallworth, chair of the Black Caucus Foundation of Michigan and a former state representative, they never would have made it inside.
“We’d be dead on the steps,” he said.
Wednesday’s breach, Stallworth said, fit a pattern of police responding forcibly to Black protests even when no laws are being broken, while hanging back when white crowds commit crimes.
Compare, for instance, the Michigan State Police reaction to April’s armed protests at the Michigan Capitol, he said, to “how quickly the MSP put metal detectors at every entrance” when Black people came to the state Capitol to protest Michigan’s 1999 takeover of Detroit Public Schools.
Last summer, the “Capitol was shut down” after a peaceful Black Lives Matter cookout in Lansing, Pohutsky said.
“There’s absolutely a racial component,” Pohutsky said.
Stallworth said he expects the incoming Biden administration — along with Democratic wins in the Georgia runoff election for two U.S. Senate seats — to present “an opportunity to exhale and recover” from a Trump presidency marked by civil unrest and political vitriol.
But, he said, that recovery is “not going to be easy with 70 million people that falsely believe they won.”
This article is made possible through Votebeat, a nonpartisan reporting project covering local election integrity and voting access. This article is available for reprint under the terms of Votebeat’s republishing policy.