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Trump loyalists push desperate counter narrative to combat damaging January 6 testimony

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Deep in denial, Republicans loyal to former US president Donald Trump mounted a desperate rearguard action on Monday to counter the devastating narrative of Congress’s latest January 6 hearing.

A House of Representatives panel investigating the insurrection used testimony from Trump’s own attorney general and campaign manager to assert that the former president knowingly propagated “the big lie” of a stolen election with deadly consequences.

But even as the hearing unfolded on live television, leading Republicans defiantly pushed a counter narrative that claims the committee is illegitimate, politically motivated and out of touch with Americans’ everyday lives.

“The whole thing’s an absurdity designed by desperate Democrats to try to help them this fall and to try to weaken Trump if he should run again in 2024,” Newt Gingrich, a former House speaker, told the Guardian. “So I don’t pay any attention to it.”

Gingrich described the hearings as “a Stalinist show trial” that have “nothing to do with fairness or finding the truth”.

On Monday the House committee made the case that Trump and his advisers knew that his claims of fraud in the 2020 election were false. It played video clips in which Trump’s former campaign manager, Bill Stepien, told investigators that lawyer Rudy Giuliani was urging Trump to declare victory on election night, despite Stepien’s warnings that it was “way too early” to make such a prediction.

Distancing himself from the wild conspiracy theories, Stepien said: “I didn’t mind being categorized – there were two groups of them, we called them kinda my team and Rudy’s team – I didn’t mind being categorized as Team Normal.”

But Republican leaders in the House tweeted a very different sets of messages during the hearing. One even sought to deflect attention to Democrats’ supposed fixation on “woke” cultural issues such as transgender rights.

Jim Jordan, the top Republican on the House judiciary committee, posted: “The same party that thinks men can get pregnant wants you to trust them when it comes to the economy and the January 6th Committee.”

Others cited House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s decision to exclude Jordan and colleague Jim Banks (both of whom backed Trump’s efforts to overturn the election) as evidence that the committee is one-sided and lacks credibility.

Elise Stefanik, chair of the House Republican conference, wrote on Twitter: “Lame Duck Speaker Pelosi’s select committee is illegitimate. Its purpose is to distract the American people from the FACT that House Dems have no agenda for Americans and no real solutions to the problems that we face on a daily basis.”

In more video testimony shown at the hearing, former attorney general William Barr dismissed Trump’s claims of voter fraud as “crazy stuff” and “complete nonsense”.

A Twitter account known as “Trump War Room”, run by his political action committee Save America, sought to challenge these assertions. It posted: “FLASHBACK: Barr admits mail-in ballots have been found to have ‘substantial fraud!’ ‘Elections that have been held with mail have found substantial fraud …’”

Republican Twitter accounts also deployed the tried and trusted tactic of “whataboutism” – claiming that Democrats have also frequently questioned the legitimacy of elections (though none has instigated an insurrection).

Trump War Room posted: “Remember when Hillary Clinton claimed President Trump’s election was illegitimate?”

RNC Research posted: “In 2017, Democrat Bennie Thompson – chair of Pelosi’s illegitimate committee – refused to attend President Trump’s inauguration because he questioned the legitimacy of the 2016 election.”

The hearing was again broadcast on major nonpartisan TV networks, making it hard for Republicans to ignore. Trump diehards are unlikely to be moved but the damning evidence could cut through and persuade some moderate and independent voters of his culpability.

Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal ran an opinion column over the weekend that concluded: “Trump betrayed his supporters by conning them on Jan. 6, and he is still doing it.” Murdoch’s New York Post encouraged readers to move on from Trump, telling them to “unsubscribe from Trump’s daily emails begging for money” and to “pick your favorite from a new crop of conservatives”.

But another glimpse into the Republican psyche was offered by Fox News which, having refused to broadcast Thursday’s first hearing during primetime, did provide live coverage of the second during daytime.

Its panel of experts gave the session a distinctly lukewarm reception.

Martha MacCallum, a Fox News host, pivoted to politics: You have former President Trump, who is obviously the focus of this, tying him to these events and we’ll see the effort to do that throughout the course of the next hearings, and then you have all these stories this morning about Democrats saying that they think that President Biden is the anchor that needs to be cut loose.

“So you’re looking at the two individuals who are the most likely clear next runners for the presidential election and there’s just a lot of questions all across the board.”

Then Jonathan Turley, a legal analyst, said he was unsure what case the committee is making and argued it would have greater weight if more Republicans were involved. He commented: “You can say this is laying a foundation for what they said they would be proving, which is an attempted coup. That’s a tall order.

“But so far, they seem to be trying to sort of create a persona non grata trial, to declare President Trump a horrible person, and they may not get much pushback by the end of the hearing. I thought the most telling moment came at the end when the chairman said, I’m going to introduce this video unless there is an objection, and that really put a pin on it. It’s like asking at a wedding, anyone who objects to this union speak up. Nobody is really there to do it.

Andy McCarthy, an author and lawyer, also challenged the process: “They’ve got a very good story to tell. The problem is they’ve set it up in a process that is not a fair process that’s aimed at getting to the truth and giving whatever contra arguments there are their day in court. And as a result, it’s more like messaging than it is like a real investigation. I could have been very impressive in court if there were no defense lawyers, you know.”

But America’s news agenda is likely to be dominated by clips of Barr and others. The former attorney general delivered some memorable lines, telling investigators at one point that Trump had “become detached from reality if he really believes this stuff.”