Current and former top Montana elected officials reacted sharply last week to the mob violence at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 that temporarily disrupted Congress’ count of the Electoral College vote certifying Joseph Biden’s election as president.
Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, former Republican Gov. Marc Racicot, former Democratic U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, former Democratic U.S. Rep. Pat Williams, and former Republican U.S. Rep. Rick Hill were unanimous and vehement in their condemnation of Wednesday’s assault on the Capitol by pro-Trump insurrectionists who clashed with Capitol Police, smashed windows and doors, vandalized Capitol property and monuments, invaded Senate chambers and looted congressional offices. Members of the House and Senate, along with Vice President Mike Pence, were forced to flee the Senate chamber and wait out the chaos in a secure location.
In a Thursday press conference, Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte, who until recently represented Montana in the House, “categorically condemned” what he referred to as a “siege” of the nation’s Capitol and said it was a “sad and tragic day for America.”
“Our U.S. Capitol was under siege. Our very democracy was under siege. Law enforcement officers and the brave men and women of the Capitol Police were under siege. Lawmakers, staff and members of the press were under siege,” Gianforte said in prepared remarks. “Until recently, I served the people of Montana there and spoke on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives that that violent mob sought to seize. It was jarring to see.”
Responding to a question from a reporter who asked if President Trump should be removed from power, Gianforte said he was pleased that Congress ratified the Electoral College results.
“I’ve said since December that Joe Biden is going to be our next president. That’s going to occur on Jan. 20. And that’ll be the next step in this process. I think there’ll be a peaceful transfer of power,” he said.
As of Friday, the U.S. Justice Department announced it had charged 13 people, and the FBI said it had received more than 40,000 tips about people who took part in the assault. Those arrested so far include a man photographed with his feet on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s desk, a man photographed carrying a lectern out of the Capitol, and a man dressed in a fur headdress adorned with horns — a well-known supporter of the QAnon conspiracy theories — who stood on the dais in the Senate chamber.
For his part, Republican U.S. Sen. Steven Daines, who was in the Senate chamber when the rioters invaded the Capitol, in an interview with Montana Free Press later urged elected officials and the media to “turn the temperature down” and try to unify the country in the wake of “one of the most horrible dark days in our democracy.”
More than 50 police officers were reportedly injured in the attack, and at least five people have died, including Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick, who died Thursday from wounds sustained during the riot. Sicknick was reportedly struck in the head with a fire extinguisher.
House Democrats are planning to introduce articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump for his role in fomenting what many officials have called an attempted coup. Some members of Trump’s cabinet are reportedly considering invoking the 25th Amendment in an attempt to oust him from office before the Jan. 20 inauguration.
Tester, Montana’s senior U.S. senator, pointedly criticized Republicans in Congress who, he said, “perpetrated the lie that caused a coup.”
“The peaceful exchange of power was threatened, our democracy was threatened, and this thing has been going on for way way too long,” Tester said in an interview Thursday. “People have been living off of lies and making decisions off lies, and quite frankly, the result of that is that we have a president who has been trying to divide this country for four years, and we’ve seen the results of a diminished democracy in what happened [Wednesday].”
Tester leveled his harshest criticism at his fellow Montana U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, who, he said, was among the Republican “enablers” of Trump’s election fraud claims.
Prior to the riot at the Capitol, Daines said he would join several fellow GOP senators in objecting to Congress’ count of the Electoral College vote and calling for an emergency commission to audit the vote.
In a statement issued Wednesday evening, after Capitol Police regained control of the Capitol and cleared out the rioters, Daines’ spokeswoman issued a statement condemning the violence and saying that Daines’ initial support for the objections “was never an attempt to overturn the election.” Daines then reversed course and voted to certify Biden’s win when Congress resumed its session late Wednesday evening after authorities secured the Capitol.
Newly elected U.S. Rep. Matt Rosendale, who also said he would join some House Republicans in objecting to certification of presidential electors from “certain disputed states,” held his ground and was among the 147 House Republicans who voted in objection to certification of some Electoral College results.
Rosendale’s spokesman did not respond to an email seeking comment on Friday.
In an interview Friday, Daines said the 12 senators who supported delaying the Electoral College certification and creating a commission to study claims of voter fraud were attempting to “de-escalate” tensions caused by public distrust of the presidential election results. He said there was “a lot of fiction” about the election that wasn’t true, including claims of widespread voter fraud. Daines said he does not believe there was widespread voter fraud, or that fraud affected the results, but that a commission could have confirmed that and inspired public confidence.
“There’s parts of the fraud that were alleged that have not been able to be proved that I believe are fiction. However, there are credible allegations of voter fraud that need to be investigated. And that is what we sought to do, to have a bipartisan group of senators, members of Congress and members of the court that would just investigate some of these allegations and then bring it to light, in a bipartisan fashion, and say: ‘Wait a minute, these allegations are absolutely false. These, there’s some truth to it.’ And then the states would have a decision about wanting to act on that or not. This was never about overturning the election. Never.”
Prior to the riot, Daines had continually refused to acknowledge Biden as the winner. And Daines has consistently and publicly undermined the legitimacy of the election results.
Two days after he was re-elected on Nov. 3, Daines’ campaign sent a fundraising appeal via text message claiming “Dems are stealing the election,” a claim that has been roundly debunked by state and national elections security officials and the Trump Justice Department, among others.
Daines later told NBC Montana’s Maritsa Georgiou that he had been unaware of the text message that his campaign sent with his name on it.
Tester said Daines’ change of course after the riot and his vote to certify the election did not go far enough.
“The fact that Sen. Steve Daines backtracked after the Senate chamber was breached, the U.S. Capitol was breached, and there were people running around the chamber of the United States Senate that had no right to be there, is not a badge of courage, in my opinion,” Tester said. “The actions resulted in what happened [Wednesday]. And they need to understand that words matter. They need to understand that actions matter. They need to understand that they’re in a position of leadership, that they have a different set of responsibilities than a gutter alcoholic, OK? They have to lead and you have to lead off facts. You can’t perpetuate lies.”
Tester said members of Congress who knowingly amplified false conspiracy theories that threatened the peaceful transfer of power should face consequences in the U.S. Senate.
“I think it’s up to the chamber to figure out what the appropriate punishment is … but it could go anywhere from censure to getting expelled,” Tester said.
When MTFP relayed Tester’s comments to Daines in an interview Friday, Daines called Tester’s rebuke and call for censure or expulsion “unfortunate rhetoric.”
“Here’s why I think it’s unfortunate: we are 12 days away from what I hope is a peaceful transfer of power. I’m confident we’ll have that when President-elect Biden is sworn in as our next president. This is not a time to further escalate and elevate temperatures,” Daines said. “This is a time to bring the temperatures down. And rhetoric like that is unfortunate. It only makes problems worse as we’re seeking to try to unify the country at a time when we had one of the most horrible dark days in our democracy, in our nation’s history.”
Daines pushed back at critics who said he and other Republican senators who amplified Trump’s false claims of voter fraud are partly responsible for Wednesday’s insurrection.
Daines called the people who stormed the Capitol and threatened the security of Congress and the vice president “criminals” who acted independently, but said they were not incited by elected officials.
“These are criminals that committed those acts, and we’ve got to hold those criminals accountable for their deplorable actions,” Daines said. “They don’t reflect the values we have as Americans. They don’t reflect the vast majority of Trump supporters who stand against violence.”
According to reports, elected officials from at least seven states were involved in the riot, which Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called a “failed insurrection.”
Daines said the “vast majority” of Trump rallies and pro-Trump demonstrations have been “peaceful.”
“So when you saw these criminals create, have acts of violence against members of law enforcement, that goes against everything that we as Americans hold dear, as well as the vast majority of Trump supporters,” Daines said.
Asked if he now believes Biden won a free and fair election, Daines said: “Yeah, he won the election as certified by Congress. The states have spoken and said that. And it’s not to me to usurp the power of the states. And so it was a free election. It was a fair election. And he won it.”
Daines then reiterated claims of voter fraud, but did not provide specific allegations or evidence of fraud.
“There’s voter fraud in every election. But when you have very tight margins of victory or loss, that can make the difference in winning or losing, and so I think we owe it to the people to form this election commission to continue to investigate these allegations of fraud, what’s true and what’s not, to restore confidence for the American people. Because you look at the polling data, there’s doubts amongst too many Americans across the entire political spectrum.”
Election security experts say cases of voter fraud are extremely rare. Justin Levitt, a law professor at Loyola Law School who studies voter fraud, identified only 31 impersonation incidents between 2000 and 2014 in the U.S., out of more than 1 billion ballots cast. According to the conservative Heritage Foundation, there have been 1,308 “proven instances of voter fraud” since 1979. Trump lost the Nov. 3 election by more than 7 million votes.
RACICOT: ‘HORRIBLY DISAPPOINTED’
As the chaos at the Capitol unfolded Wednesday, Marc Racicot — a former two-term Montana governor who also served as chair of the Republican National Committee and was a legal adviser to former President George W. Bush’s campaign during the disputed 2000 Bush v. Gore election — called the scene “fearsome,” and reiterated his criticism of Trump, who he said shoulders the blame for the violence.
“It threatens the life of the Republic,” Racicot said Wednesday. “And frankly, [Trump] shares, if not bears, the entire burden of responsibility for inciting the kind of things that are going on presently back there.”
Racicot has been a vocal Trump critic since 2016, when he publicly announced that he “cannot endorse or support Trump for president.”
A few weeks before the Nov. 3 election, Racicot appeared on the public radio program Home Ground and told host Brian Kahn that he intended to vote for Biden because he had “grave doubts” about Trump’s ability to lead the country. Racicot said the Capitol insurrection validated his prior warning that Trump — who earlier in the day had urged his supporters to march to the Capitol to “stop the steal” of the election — was unfit for the office.
“If you listen to the radio broadcast, one of the things that I mentioned was the fact that the leadership provided by Donald Trump was dangerous, and that it did not reflect the kind of nobility and discipline and commitment to the underlying principles of this country, and especially those in elected office and serving their fellow citizens, that is necessary to effectively hold the office,” Racicot said. “This kind of incredibly self-centered, narcissistic and inane commentary and solicitation that he has been engaged with throughout his presidency, I think, is a vindication of the fact that he is, in fact, dangerous.”
Racicot described Trump’s presidency as “reckless and incredibly destructive,” and he lamented the fact that the Republican Party, for the most part, has embraced him.
Racicot also had sharp words for his fellow Republicans who represent Montana in Washington, specifically Daines.
Racicot said Daines “absolutely” bears some responsibility for Wednesday’s events at the Capitol based on his parroting of Trump’s election fraud claims and his stated intention to object to Congress’ Electoral College count.
“I have a hard time understanding the motivation for anyone to get so close to the flames, even if you are not inciting it yourself,” Racicot said.
Racicot said he knows Daines and his family personally and said he believes Montana’s junior senator is “made of good stuff.” However, he said, he is “horribly disappointed” in Daines’ actions.
“To sit idly by … to stand by something that is not supported by even a scintilla of evidence … to sign on to an effort to elongate this process, is bad judgment. Even if you embrace the cause completely,” Racicot said. “When you are occupying a position of trust, there is a fiduciary duty to the people you serve to provide leadership. Sometimes leadership is very uncomfortable in the face of unpopular sentiment.”
Racicot said he was “appalled and sad and full of grief” about what transpired at the U.S Capitol on Wednesday, but that he is “not afraid.”
“I think this is a time for a recommitment to what it is that drove us to found this nation in the first place,” Racicot said. “I think we will endure. There will be a coalescing sense of direction that guides us to the better interest of our state, and the better side of our existence. An appeal to the better angels of our nature. I think we’ll be fine.”
BAUCUS: ‘A TRAVESTY’
Former Montana senator and U.S. ambassador to China Max Baucus called the raid on the Capitol “a travesty.”
“It’s something I never would have expected when I was representing our state,” Baucus said. “This is something you see in a banana republic. Not in America. We cannot ever let this happen again. There are a lot of actions we have to undertake to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Baucus is among those who put the bulk of the blame for the insurrection on Trump, who he said has incited the protesters. Even in a videotaped statement released during the storming of the Capitol, Trump, while urging the rioters to go home peacefully, repeated the claim that the election was “stolen” and that he won in a “landslide.”
Baucus said he’s worried Trump’s influence will not go away after the Jan. 20 inauguration of President Biden.
“The deeper cause, frankly, is a lot of Americans are concerned with the elites on both coasts. The political elite. The Republican leadership. The Democratic leadership. Media. Big business. They feel that they are not being listened to,” Baucus said. “He’ll be gone in two weeks, but the question remains: what’s his staying power? Will he actually stir things up once he’s gone?”
Baucus said he thinks Wednesday’s riot could have a catalysing effect on Republicans who have supported Trump in the past, and who might now rethink their support.
“This could cause Trump’s stature to somewhat decline sooner than people anticipate,” Baucus said. “I think there’s a huge opportunity for Joe Biden, when he’s sworn in as president, to show strength, to try to be a president for all of America.”
Top Republicans are increasingly turning on Trump in the wake of the Capitol siege. At least 16 White House officials, including Trump cabinet members Betsy DeVos and Elaine Chao, have resigned. On Saturday, Sen. Patrick Toomey, R-Pennsylvania, said Trump had “committed impeachable offenses.”
Baucus said he shares the fears of Democrats that Trump could endanger the U.S. in the final days of his presidency, but he thinks the fact that Trump has only a handful of days left in power will empower others in government to “do the right thing.”
“I am very concerned because he clearly is unhinged,” Baucus said. “But he will be gone soon, and that empowers those who want to prevent anything untoward from occurring in that two-week period.”
Baucus said Vice President Mike Pence showed himself to be a “stand-up guy” in his refusal to bend to Trump’s insistence that he disrupt the Electoral College certification process as president of the Senate.
“He clearly carried the wrath of Trump, but he stood up. I do think that Pence, along with U.S. political leadership, including military leadership, will work to prevent future actions like this.”
Baucus said he thinks efforts to impeach Trump are not likely to succeed, and he doesn’t think it’s likely that Trump’s remaining cabinet will invoke the 25th Amendment to force him from office.
Baucus said all 10 living former secretaries of defence sent a strong signal when they authored a Jan. 3 Washington Post op-ed affirming Biden as the winner of the election, and saying “there’s no role for the U.S. military in determining the outcome of a U.S. election.”
On Friday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told members of her caucus that she had spoken to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, about “available precautions” to prevent Trump from initiating military action or ordering a nuclear launch during his final days in office.
“I don’t know if they predicted violence, but they wrote that letter, I’m sure, because they wanted to generally nip it in the bud, any action that they might otherwise take, and also bolster members of the House and the Senate, both sides of the aisle, who care more about their country than they do about [Trump],” Baucus said.
Baucus, who served as ambassador to China from 2014 until Trump was sworn in to office in 2017, said he’s especially concerned about how the insurrection at the Capitol is viewed by America’s allies and adversaries.
“The Chinese government will use this for propaganda purposes to show the American form of government is in decline,” Baucus said. “But there will be many people who will think it is sad to see the United States of America, the largest and strongest country in the world, is seemingly having trouble living up to its stature.”
Even so, Baucus said there’s an opportunity in the crisis. With Democrats now controlling both houses of Congress as well as the White House, they have a chance to show that they can govern in a way that doesn’t leave millions of people — including Trump supporters — behind.
“They need to address the concerns of most Montanans, most Americans. Mainly for middle-American income, health care and jobs,” Baucus said. “A significant infrastructure jobs bill is in order. Not just ordinary infrastructure legislation like building and repairing roads and bridges, but also the infrastructure of the future: AI, deep learning, 5G, all the technologies that, if developed, are going to make America strong and provide jobs long into the future.”
WILLIAMS: ‘THE KIDS ARE WATCHING’
Former U.S. Congressman Pat Williams, who represented Montana in the House of Representatives from 1979 to1997, said his overwhelming emotion while watching Wednesday’s events was “sadness.”
“Our youngest daughter, Whitney, when she was very tiny … if she would see the Capitol building on TV or in a photograph, she’d say, ‘look, that’s daddy’s office,’” Williams recalled in an interview Thursday. “It was a great honor for me, and for anyone who has had the opportunity to work in the Capitol, to be in that building every day. A great honor.”
Williams said he recognized every hallway and every door as he watched videos of the rioters streaming through the Capitol and the Senate floor.
“[As] I watched it on TV last night, with the windows being smashed and the place being looted, it’s an insult, and an assault, both on our democracy and on our country.”
Williams called it an act of “domestic terrorism” and said responsibility for the mob taking over the Capitol will be spread “throughout the system.” Like nearly every other Democrat and a growing number of Republicans, he laid the bulk of the blame at Trump’s feet.
“If it was any one person’s fault, and primarily it was, it’s tragically Donald Trump’s fault. He was the inciter in chief [on Wednesday],” Williams said.
Williams also expressed “extreme disappointment” in Daines and Montana Congressman Matt Rosendale, who he said irresponsibly amplified Trump’s false claims about election fraud and did nothing to restore their constituents’ faith in the election or the democratic process.
“They have many friends and followers in Montana watching what they were doing and saying,” Williams said. “There were many who were probably OK with that mob reaction outside and within the Capitol. Not to say all of Daines’ and Rosendale’s supporters were overjoyed with the damage done to the Capitol. I don’t believe that for a minute.”
Williams said many Republicans who continue to cast doubt on the election result don’t seem to understand the consequences of their words.
“We all have responsibility. That’s the cost of America. Responsibility. Not enough of it went around [Wednesday] in our Montana congressional delegation,” Williams said.
Williams said the challenge going forward is figuring out how to heal the “great, great divide in America.”
“Every time it’s exposed, it’s found to be wider and deeper than it was supposed. That’s a danger to America. We have to figure out how to close that without kowtowing to the thugs,” Williams said.
Williams, who is married to former Montana Senate Majority Leader Carol Williams and is the father of 2020 Democratic gubernatorial candidate Whitney Williams, said whenever he sees an act of violence on TV, or an elected official behaving badly, he says to his wife: “The kids are watching.”
“America’s children are watching, and who knows what they carry with them later in life. Who knows what goes with them, and what they think matters,” Williams said. “We ought to pay attention when the kids are watching, and be very careful with our words and actions.”
HILL: ‘FUEL TO THE FIRE’
Republican Rick Hill succeeded Williams in 1997 after Williams retired and Hill defeated Democrat Bill Yellowtail in the 1996 election. Hill held Montana’s sole U.S. House seat until 2001. Hill returned to politics a decade later and was the Republican Party’s nominee for governor in 2012, a race he narrowly lost to Democrat Steve Bullock.
Hill, like Racicot, is among Montana’s former elected GOP officials who have been highly critical of Trump. Reached at his winter home in Arizona on Saturday, Hill said he was not surprised that Trump whipped his supporters into a violent frenzy, and said “everybody who threw fuel on the fire is responsible” for what unfolded.
“I think that the people that came to Washington for the protest were pretty hyped-up, emotionally, and had pretty strong passions getting there,” Hill said. “I can remember thinking, as different political figures were talking about challenging the slate of electors, people were talking about what a tinderbox this was, and let’s not add fuel to the fire. But that’s what was happening. What was happening was people were adding more and more fuel to the fire. I just don’t think you can say, ‘well, I’m going to pour gasoline on this, but whatever you do, don’t light a match.’ And so it just seems to me that things are getting more and more out of hand, and that intensified the emotions of the people that were there.”
Hill said his first reaction as he watched the rioters storm the Capitol building was anger, but that emotion quickly gave way to sadness about the state of the country. He said he recalled the earliest days of his term in office, when he first arrived in Washington, D.C. for his freshman orientation. He said he arrived in the evening, and as he drove toward the Capitol that night, he was struck with awe.
“I mean, it’s the tallest building, it’s one of the largest buildings in Washington, and the dome was lit up and it was a full moon. And this incredible emotion kind of swept over me about the sense of responsibility you have when you serve there. And so when I was watching these events unfold, that was the first thing that came to my mind, the feelings and the thoughts that went through my mind that first time I actually saw the Capitol at night, knowing that I was going to be serving there, and the awesome responsibility that goes with it.”
Hill has been a vocal critic of Trump on Facebook over the years, a fact he said has cost him friendships. He said in recent weeks he has been using the social media site to point out facts about the election, and to push back against the conspiracy theories pushed by Trump and the president’s allies.
“I don’t buy in to the notion that Trump lost this election because it was stolen,” Hill said. “I’ve tried to look at the facts in each of the complaints, but I just don’t find there’s any evidence of that there. So the people that were promoting that falsity were adding fuel to the fire.”
Hill said he thinks Trump supporters who believe the election was fraudulent don’t feel they ever got a chance to have their grievances heard.
“The people that were there, that were so passionate, also don’t believe that they were ever given a forum to have these complaints and these charges aired,” Hill said.
Hill said he believes there’s no validity to those claims, but elected officials and the media — mostly the right-wing media, Hill said — did a poor job of explaining the facts and the dozens of court cases that were thrown out by judges throughout the country.
“I’m not using that to justify the violence that that occurred. The point is that people were frustrated about the fact that the courts dismissed case after case after case and they never believe that they got the chance to enter their evidence.”
Even so, Hill said, the Constitution does not provide a mechanism for using Congress’ reading of the Electoral College votes as a forum for challenging the election.
“The truth is that Biden beat Trump by 7 million votes,” Hill said. “As a matter of fact, [Trump] lost to Biden by 7 million votes while Republicans only lost by about 2 million votes in the collective House seats. This election was really a repudiation of Trump, not a repudiation of Republicans.”
Hill said his opposition to election fraud conspiracy theories has probably diminished his stature as a Republican among some GOP colleagues.
“And that’s fine. I don’t I don’t care,” Hill said, “because to me, the important thing here is truth.”
Correction: This story was updated on Jan. 11 to correct the following error: Rick Hill did not defeat Pat Williams in the 1996 election. Williams retired in 1996 and Hill defeated Democrat Bill Yellowtail in the 1996 election.
Montana Free Press reporter Chris Aadland contributed reporting to this story.
NOTE: Montana U.S. Congressman Matt Rosendale’s office did not respond to a request for an interview by the publication deadline. Former U.S. Congressman Denny Rehberg declined to be interviewed.
UM fire ecologist Philip Higuera says climate change is shrinking the window between wildfire events in subalpine forests of the central Rockies
Attorney General Austin Knudsen and Superintendent Elsie Arntzen have drawn Montana into a national conservative fight over race-based public education.
Between Oct. 27 and Nov. 2, 7,790 Montanans in 52 of the state’s 56 counties either registered to vote or updated their voter status. On Election Day, the total was 8,172 — the second highest figure in a general election since Montana implemented same-day registration in 2006.