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Montana lawmakers reflect on Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riot

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Tester, Daines, Rosendale

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, left, U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, center, and U.S. Rep. Matt Rosendale.

One year after pro-Trump rioters attempted to stop Congress from certifying the 2020 election, there remains a gaping wound in America’s body politic. A significant number of Americans still believe the falsehood that the election was stolen from Donald Trump.

Two Montana lawmakers who were there that day say the nation is far from recovering, but they couldn’t be farther from agreeing the course correction needed to restore confidence in U.S. elections. The assault on Congress is something they will never forget.

Both senators agreed to Wednesday interviews with Lee Montana Newspapers.

“I do think that what happened on Jan. 6 was a game changer. And the fact that it hadn’t happened since early 1800s at the U.S. Capitol is huge,” said Sen. Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat who sees the riot as not only shaking American politics domestically, but also empowering the nation's communist adversaries.

“It empowered them, the Chinas and the Russias of the world,” Tester said. “Some of the same people that broke in the Capitol are the same people that are screaming loudest about China. The truth is that insurrection that day, helped China, major league, as far as them being able to point to that, saying, ‘Look, communism is good, communism works. Look what goes on in democratic countries.”

Tester was in his office when the riot began. He hadn’t made it over to the Senate yet to certify the results of the electoral college. From his office, he could see the mock gallows and the mob demanding that Vice President Mike Pence be hanged if he didn’t reject the electoral college results in order to keep Donald Trump in office. Trump had suggested, falsely, that Pence had that power.

Sen. Steve Daines, a Montana Republican newly reelected in 2020, was just arriving in the Senate before the attack. He was prepared to reject the electoral votes from Arizona, something Trump had encouraged Republicans in Congress to do. He would say the next day that his plan, before the riot, was to reject the results in order to compel an audit of the Arizona results.

After rioters breached the Capitol and Congress was rushed into a series of underground chambers for protection, Daines abandoned his plan, voting instead to certify the election. The violence was too much.

“It was a sad day for our country. The violence that occurred that day, I condemn it,” Daines said. “I strongly believe that anybody who took part in assaulting members of law enforcement and breaking the law are criminals. I support the ongoing criminal investigation. I walked in this morning into my office on Capitol Hill and I recognized and thanked the members of law enforcement who defend this Capitol every day and did their very best defend on that dark day of Jan. 6.”

Many Republicans still very much believe the 2020 election was stolen from Trump. The former president and his allies continue to say it was. Daines isn’t one of them, though a campaign fundraising text sent to supporters on his behalf after the 2020 election stated that “Dems are trying to steal the election. Trump needs our support.” He’s been telling constituents that there isn’t evidence to support the election theft conspiracy.

Daines is one who asserts there is fraud in every election, but there wasn’t enough to change the outcome in 2020. But the falsehood about the 2020 election is alive and well. Even in Montana where Republicans won every statewide office, there are calls by Republicans for county-level hand counts of ballots.

“I'm a numbers guy, a data guy at heart. And you have to show the compelling and irrefutable evidence, not internet rumors, not hearsay, not gossip. We've got to be talking about what are the facts and that needs to drive the discussion and the action,” Daines said. “And so if somebody has the facts and specifics, by all means they should be brought forward. But at this point, I think I commend our secretary of state in Montana, she has taken a look at the facts and the evidence and her conclusion is that she has not seen evidence that any results should be overturned, or there was widespread systemic fraud.”

Both senators say the influence of the Jan. 6 assault wouldn’t have been as lasting had the Capitol Police been able to turn back rioters. The Senate looked at fortifying the police response after Jan. 6 and making sure that the National Guard could quickly be deployed, which didn’t happen the day of the riot. Daines in particular discusses the Jan. 6 riot as something the Capitol Police weren’t prepared for.

The question that remains, Tester said, is why the National Guard didn’t respond more quickly. The House Jan. 6 Commission is looking at what lead to the attack, how the Capitol was so easily overtaken and what role Trump and his allies might have played.

Tester said it’s important those answers are produced. Daines regards the House commission as a political ploy by Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

The next step in the Senate will be voting rights legislation, which Democrats are advancing in response to state-level changes to election laws.

Daines characterizes the federal voting rights proposals by Democrats as an assault on what states have done. He supports the changes made by the Montana Legislature in 2021. Republican state Legislatures made several election law changes, including no longer allowing university student picture identification to count as voter ID, while allowing concealed weapon permits to qualify.

Those state-level changes warrant a federal response, Tester said. The state-level changes were harmful to the future of democracy, he added. The senator speaks of their damage in the same breath in which he discusses the insurrection’s empowerment of America’s communist adversaries.

“I think that, also what state legislatures have done, and what Montana did, of undermining our free and fair election system also speaks to that,” Tester said “And, that some, certainly not all back here, but some, continue the continuation of the Big Lie, shows me that we've got, we've still got a long ways to go for sure. For sure. What's to me about Jan. 6, which is tomorrow, that this happened a year ago, it seems like it happened last week. I mean, it doesn't seem like it's been a year since that happened at all. And the fact that we're here and there are still huge divisions in the country, for a number of reasons.”

Lee asked to speak directly with Montana Rep. Matt Rosendale, but his staff said he was unavailable for an interview. The representative also declined an interview the day after the riot in 2021. He was among the House lawmakers who voted to not the certify the electoral college votes of several states.

Before the insurrection, Rosendale said the evidence of widespread voter fraud was credible, none of which was true. 

“We’ve got numerous extensive, credible allegations of fraud that have taken place in many states and for those states to certify those elections without addressing those allegations properly, I do not feel comfortable in certifying the electors coming from those states," Rosendale said Jan. 4 on "Montana Talks" a conservative radio program

And Rosendale didn’t. He voted against certifying the electoral votes for Arizona and Pennsylvania.

Rosendale, backed the removal of Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney from House GOP leadership because she supported impeachment proceedings. He later objected to the House investigation of the Jan. 6 insurrection, referring the proceedings as a witch hunt as recently as November. Rosendale also voted against awarding medals to the Capitol Police who defended the Capitol during the insurrection.

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