In Wake of Deadly Capitol Riot, Iowa’s Congressional Republicans Stay True to Trumpism

Several Republican activists from Iowa traveled to Washington to attend Wednesday's chaotic protest that was premised on the lie, bolstered by the state's GOP Congress members, that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump through widespread fraud

Prominent Iowa GOP activist Gary Leffler in photos posted to Facebook, posing at top in USA shirt with freshman House members Mariannette Miller-Meeks, Randy Feenstra, and Ashley Hinson; and at bottom, right, on the steps of the US Capitol during last Wednesday's deadly riot.

In the time since Wednesday’s deadly assault on the United States Capitol by a mob of Trump supporters clinging to the delusion that the election was stolen, the Republicans in Iowa’s congressional delegation have denied any responsibility in spite of their weeks-long refusals to acknowledge that Joe Biden fairly won.

Before marching to the Capitol on the day Congress planned to hold a vote confirming Biden’s victory, pro-Trump protesters gathered outside the White House, where the president stressed they could not “take back our country with weakness.” Among the protesters were neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and armed insurrectionists. There were also several Iowans, including Gary Leffler, a prominent activist known for riding a Trump tractor at rallies who was pictured greeting the state’s freshman House members two days earlier; Brandon Miller, an Iowa City music promoter with ties to the Proud Boys; Des Moines auto shop owners Bryan Kratzer and Bob Perkins; and Doug Jensen, a Des Moines resident who was arrested by the FBI and faces five federal charges.

Five people died amid the ensuing chaos, among them a police officer who was reportedly struck in the head with a fire extinguisher and killed as the mob stormed the building. There have been bipartisan calls for Trump’s removal from office in the wake of the violence; it’s even possible he could face criminal charges for incitement after he leaves office later this month. But none of those calls came from Iowa’s congressional Republicans, who have said that remedies such as impeachment or invoking the 25th Amendment would be improperly divisive, as if what happened occurred in a vacuum.

Speaking to Quad-City Times reporter Tom Barton on Thursday, newcomer Representative Mariannette Miller-Meeks argued that neither Trump nor other Republicans should bear any responsibility. She backed this up with the false claims that “there was fraud” in the 2020 election and, “Just as over the summer when we saw social unrest and violence and destruction of public and private property, and encampments in various cities, the Democrats did not demand that this action stop.”

In reality, as Barton noted, Biden himself demanded as much in response to unrest tied to an occupation in Portland around the height of the Black Lives Matter protests. Contrary to another brazen lie by Miller-Meeks that “no one asked that they be held responsible for that,” politicians and commentators on the right constantly blamed Democrats for incidents of violence and property destruction during the BLM protests. They claimed the party was working hand-in-hand with its supposed affiliate Antifa, a decentralized anti-fascist movement whose adherents’ disdain for Democrats and Republicans alike would be obvious to anyone who actually took the time to understand their views.

The comparisons of BLM protesters and the self-styled band of patriots who mobbed the Capitol conveniently reduce what transpired Wednesday to deflective partisan politics. But they’re absurd on their face. The former belonged to a nationwide movement pushing for reforms in hopes of dismantling systemic racism in policing and justice for innocent Black Americans killed at the hands of law enforcement. Miller-Meeks suggested the latter were some of the tens of millions of Americans “who feel that their voices have not been heard” as a result of “irregularities that were not addressed.” But those irregularities are a fiction; systemic racism demonstrably is not, despite what Senator Joni Ernst contended in her successful re-election bid last year (including in a debate at which her Democratic rival, Theresa Greenfield, condemned “looting” and “rioting” during BLM protests).

That’s to say nothing of Trump’s direct involvement in amplifying and inventing conspiracy theories before the election warning of fraud and then, in maniacal Twitter rants, relentlessly alleging after his loss that it was the result of an unprecedented theft. Lin Wood — a former member of Trump’s own post-election legal team who filed several of the dozens of failed lawsuits aimed at overturning the result — even suggested that Vice President Mike Pence should be executed for treason after he rebuffed the president’s demand that he selectively reject electoral college votes. Had lawmakers not vacated the chambers before the mob stormed in, it’s possible the violence would have taken a much darker turn. On Friday, a car wash owner and QAnon conspiracy theorist who traveled from Georgia with an arsenal of guns to attend Wednesday’s rally was arrested for having threatened House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in a text message saying he would put “a bullet in her noggin on Live TV.” Others were pictured inside the Senate chamber carrying zip-tie handcuffs, leading to speculation they may have planned to hold lawmakers hostage.

Nevertheless, comparisons with BLM protests were echoed by many others, like Iowa GOP Chairman Jeff Kaufmann, who on Wednesday reacted buffoonishly to a tweet from the Iowa Democrats’ account making the blindingly obvious point that his party’s allegiance to Trump “has fanned the flames of division and hate on display today at the U.S. Capitol.” Singling out his Democratic counterpart, outgoing Chairman Mark Smith, Kaufmann scolded him for his “hostile rhetoric” that “undermines the goal of peace in our nation’s Capitol.” He added: “I condemned the protesters, unlike your failure to condemn protesters that were equally violent on the Left, yet you attack me. Get your priorities straight.”

Two days later, Smith announced that the Iowa Democratic Party headquarters in Des Moines had been closed “until further notice” as a safety precaution after receiving a death threat apparently connected to Trump’s baseless allegations of election fraud. Iowa Republican leaders condemned the threat.

They were also forced to respond to a comment posted on the Facebook page of the Henry County Republican Party by its chair, Trent Hobbs, encouraging chaos at the Capitol. “So from this time forward, patriots stay locked and loaded,” it read in part. “Keep your family close. Get ready for the coming revolution as the storming of the capital today will be likened to the shot heard round the world that launched the first Revolutionary War. Only this time it will be Red vs Blue.” Hobbs resigned over the post. But as the Informer revealed in a lengthy pre-election investigation of social media activity from local GOP chapters across the state’s 99 counties, similar paranoid rhetoric is hardly uncommon.

Although Tom Barton’s report for the Quad-City Times emphasized that Miller-Meeks’ election fraud allegation was false, as were her claims about Democrats not addressing aspects of the BLM protests, numerous articles have parroted statements on the Capitol riot from Iowa Republicans devoid of any such context.

“Rep. Ashley Hinson warns attempt to remove President Trump would further divide nation,” read the headline of one published Friday in the Cedar Rapids Gazette by James Q. Lynch. Hinson said she was “disappointed in how the president handled this situation” and called it “a true disruption to our democratic process,” although she opposed impeachment. “That was unacceptable to me. Words matter. Rhetoric matters. We saw that really firsthand at the Capitol this week.” But the article gave Hinson a complete pass on her own rhetoric in the weeks following the election.

On Friday, Democratic State Auditor Rob Sand criticized Hinson’s supposed disinterest in sowing further political divisions by pursuing impeachment. “If you oppose further division,” he tweeted, “speak the truth: Biden won legitimately. Say it now, before more of your party’s extremist supporters shed blood in vengeance for an election you’ve enabled them to think was ‘stolen.'”

Whatever Sand’s motivations — Republicans frequently accuse him of playing politics in an effort to better position himself for a bid for higher office — Hinson responded indignantly with a bald-faced lie. “Rob, you’re exploiting a very difficult week for our country for your own agenda,” she tweeted. “It’s wrong & serves no purpose other than to further divide us for your personal gain. President-Elect Biden’s election was legitimate. I’ve never implied otherwise & voted to certify the election.” In fact, she had implied otherwise just three days earlier.

No members of Iowa’s delegation were among the eight senators and 139 representatives who ultimately supported objections to Biden’s electoral college victory when Congress reconvened early Thursday morning after security had swept the Capitol. Hinson had already indicated her voting intentions in a January 5 letter signed by 12 lawmakers and addressed to Nancy Pelosi and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. The letter served as an excuse to have things both ways, agreeing to certify the results based on a legal technicality while at the same time airing baseless grievances about the voting process.

“We, like most Americans, are outraged at the significant abuses in our election system resulting from the reckless adoption of mail-in ballots and the lack of safeguards maintained to guarantee that only legitimate votes are cast and counted,” the letter falsely claimed. It added, also falsely: “The people cannot trust a system that refuses to guarantee that only legal votes are cast to select its leaders. The elections held in at least six battleground states raise profound questions, and it is a legal, constitutional, and moral imperative that they be answered.”

As the Informer has previously reported, Hinson and one of her freshman House colleagues from Iowa, Randy Feenstra, have both made similar implications about election fraud by claiming without evidence that the state’s voter ID law ensured the integrity of Trump’s wide victory here. Similar laws are needed elsewhere, both have argued, while ignoring the fact that two of the states whose results the president was suing to overturn have among the strictest voter ID laws in the nation already.

The Washington DC bureau of Cedar Rapids TV station KCRG (whose notable former employees include Hinson) interviewed Feenstra after the storming of the Capitol Wednesday. “We had just a wonderful group over the last 24 hours to protest peacefully,” he said in a Steve King-esque response that quickly drew criticism. “Obviously, in the last four to six hours, that changed dramatically and that’s just tragic and unfortunate. We live in this free country that we have freedoms and liberties, freedom of speech specifically, and this group got carried away. And it’s sad, it’s a very sad day for our country.”

Feenstra responded to the criticism over his remark in a follow-up report from KCRG. “Thursday, Rep. Feenstra’s office clarified that the ‘wonderful group’ referred specifically to the peaceful protests and rally before the attack on the U.S. Capitol,” wrote Adam Carros, the station’s news director.

Nowhere in his report did Carros even mention the delusional reason for the group’s protest, nor that many of its members were far-right extremists and QAnon conspiracy theorists. Feenstra’s clarification drew a distinction between peaceful demonstrators and the “anarchists” that stormed the Capitol. But it continued to ignore the fact that all of them were in Washington in the first place because of a lie Feenstra himself helped perpetuate when he joined 26 Republican House colleagues in a letter of his own demanding an investigation into nonexistent “fraudulent activities” surrounding the election.

Relying on weasel-word technicalities, even Senators Joni Ernst and Chuck Grassley waited for more than five weeks after the Associated Press called the race for Biden before acknowledging him as the president-elect. In noncommittal statements, both senators admitted that Trump bore some responsibility for the Capitol riot. However, only Cindy Axne, the sole Democrat in Iowa’s congressional delegation, has endorsed removing him from office (via the 25th Amendment).

The senators’ continued reluctance to offer anything but the mildest of criticism of the president, even after his election defeat and as Wednesday’s chaos gave other Republicans the excuse they’d been searching for to finally break from Trump — if not the party entirely, as did former Iowa Congressman Jim Nussle — is remarkable. But it’s consistent with their acquiescence since Trump first began campaigning in the state and their permissive behavior since, which earned Grassley a personal shout-out from the president after he helped acquit him on two articles of impeachment despite the overwhelming evidence of his guilt.

Meanwhile, Governor Kim Reynolds’ commitment to Trump’s election fraud lies held steady in the wake of the Capitol riot. The day after, she falsely told reporters there were still “a lot of questions” concerning whether the election was “transparent, strict, and fair.” And Iowa GOP Chairman Jeff Kaufmann — whose Twitter profile boasts the Trumpian nickname Dr. Deplorable — maintains that his remains the party of “law and order.” It’s a testament to how he’s remade the Iowa GOP in the image of Trump. How much longer it will remain that way, at this point, is anyone’s guess.

Gavin Aronsen
Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.