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After violence at the U.S. Capitol, will Utah Republicans jump the Trump train?

Some lawmakers see Wednesday’s events as the last straw, while others have denounced the violence without discussing the president’s role in it.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah State Auditor John Dougall, pictured at the Utah Capitol, Thursday, May 23, 2019. Dougall is one of several Utah Republicans who has criticized President Donald Trump in the days since a group of pro-Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol.

Utah Auditor John Dougall, a man nicknamed “frugal” for his general attitude of moderation, said he’s tried to maintain a balanced view of President Donald Trump by acknowledging the good along with the bad.

But after watching Wednesday’s attack on the U.S. Capitol, the Republican says he’s fed up.

“Trump is seditious and treasonous,” Dougall wrote on Facebook as violence was still roiling the nation’s capital. “He needs to resign or be officially removed from office. Let there be no doubt of my opinion.”

Many Utah lawmakers and elected officials have remained loyal to the president over the last few years — even through the Access Hollywood scandal (in which he bragged that his fame gave him the power to grab women “by the p---y”), his impeachment trial and his efforts to overturn the U.S. election results in his favor.

The notable exception is Sen. Mitt Romney, the only Republican to vote for Trump’s impeachment, and an increasingly sharp critic of the president, who plainly called the siege on the Capitol an “insurrection” that was “caused” by the president.

But the storming of the U.S. Capitol by pro-Trump supporters to disrupt the counting of electoral votes for President-elect Joe Biden — seemingly at the behest of the president — appears to have been the last straw for some of Trump’s more lukewarm or ambivalent supporters in Utah, who have come out against the president in recent days.

Rep. John Curtis described the events Wednesday in an interview as “domestic terrorism inspired and encouraged by our President.” Utah Rep. Tim Hawkes, R-Centerville, labeled Trump the “Inflamer-in-Chief” in a Facebook post that encouraged Republicans to take stock of why they’d chosen a party leader who was “prone to outbursts, wild accusations, and general mean-spiritedness.” And former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who served in Trump’s administration and supported his reelection bid, said in a statement that the president has “shown time and again he cares more about his own ego and interests than in building trust in our ever-fragile institutions of democracy.”

Other Utah Republicans have denounced the violence at the Capitol but have not gone so far as to criticize the president or his role in Wednesday’s event.

Attorney General Sean Reyes — who has been one of Trump’s strongest supporters in Utah and who helped challenge the presidential election results last fall — condemned the acts of violence at the Capitol “in the strongest terms” but didn’t broach the topic of Trump.

“There is no place for violence in our political discourse, even over the most serious issues and disagreements,” he said in a statement on Wednesday. “We are a nation of laws. This is not how Conservatives and Republicans behave. This is absolutely unacceptable.”

Reyes declined to make himself available Thursday or Friday for an interview with The Tribune about Trump’s response to and role in inciting the violence.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) In this June 2, 2020, file photo, Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes participates in a debate at KUED. Reyes has decried the violence at the U.S. Capitol this week but has not spoken about Trump's role in inciting or responding to the violence.

Dougall, on the other hand, said in an interview that Trump’s unsubstantiated election fraud claims have been troubling him for weeks but that he hadn’t seen anything rising to the level of insurrection — until Wednesday.

“His rantings and ramblings fomented a mob,” said Dougall, who went on to excoriate Trump for “dragging his feet” to protect Congress from the riot he’d helped incite.

“He was slow to respond and mealy-mouthed in his response,” he said. “That is straight-up sedition for his personal benefit.”

The evening of the attacks, Dougall said he texted Utah’s congressional delegation to make the case that Trump needs to resign or be removed from office immediately, even though the end of the president’s term is just days away.

At least one Republican House member, Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., has joined calls for invoking the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office as unfit or even to impeach him again. Utah’s congressional leaders have so far not signed on to that effort.

‘Count me out’

Matthew Burbank, a political science professor at the University of Utah, said the president’s conduct has led some party members to say, “Count me out; I’m just not doing this anymore.”

For some, that’s a decision rooted in their personal ethics. But others likely recognize, Burbank said, that the president’s conduct could have electoral consequences for the GOP in the years to come.

“With this latest episode, it’s really clear that finally Republicans got the point that this is really going to go bad in a lot of ways and you don’t want to associate your political party with a riot and taking over the Capitol for absolutely no reason at all other than the fantasy of the president,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a good way politically for Republicans to proceed as if everything’s fine with Donald Trump.”

State Rep. Jeff Stenquist, who said he’s appreciated aspects of the Trump administration, spoke out against the president after watching rioters ransack “sacred places” in the nation’s seat of power. The rage that fueled the invaders emanated from “a place of deep divisions and feelings of contempt that were amplified by President Trump and his unwillingness to accept that he lost the election,” the Draper Republican wrote on Facebook.

The peaceful transfer of power is foundational to the functioning of democracy, he said, and now that Trump has exhausted his options for challenging the election, it’s time for his supporters to accept the defeat.

“Joe Biden won the election, and Democrats now have control of the House and Senate,” said Stenquist. “If we don’t like the results, we have to wait until the next election.”

The insurrection in the nation’s Capitol also appeared to sour former GOP gubernatorial candidate Jeff Burningham on Trump, whom he’d supported for a second term.

“Enough is enough!” Burningham, a Provo entrepreneur, wrote on Twitter. “If it isn’t clear who this president is &what he represents shame on us.”

In a subsequent interview, Burningham blamed the violence in D.C. more on a toxic political climate than on any one person but said he does think Trump has pushed his post-election crusade too far.

“I think he’s obviously lost some confidence from some people,” he said. “I think my wife and I are kind of in that camp.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) This Jan. 23, 2020, file photo shows businessman Jeff Burningham, a 2020 candidate for governor, speaking to the Professional Republican Women of Utah at the state Capitol in Salt Lake City. In the wake of insurrection at the U.S. Capitol this week, Burningham said in an interview that he thinks President Donald Trump has "obviously lost some confidence from some people," including him and his wife.

‘That could end my career’

While many Republicans have spoken out against the president in recent days, Burbank said the question of how to respond to the violence at the Capitol poses a “real challenge” for a number of party members as support for Trump has become a kind of litmus test for conservatism.

“The fear is of being challenged by somebody who says, ‘You’re not a strong enough supporter of President Trump’ because there’s this sense that Trump’s got this base of support and they can turn out at will,” he said. “And that’s what members of the House in particular are looking at and saying, ‘I don’t want those people mobilized against me; I could lose a primary and that could end my career.’”

While Curtis has been forceful in disavowing Trump and his role in Wednesday’s events, other Utah House Republicans have been less willing to criticize the president.

Freshman Rep. Blake Moore said Thursday he was “frustrated and disheartened” with Trump for posting a video as rioters were storming the Capitol that “started with comments about the election and election fraud.” But he said the blame for the violence rests not with the president but on those who actually took action at the Capitol.

Even among the Republicans who are speaking up against Trump, some still assert there are legitimate questions about the fairness of the presidential election — despite the fact that dozens of judges have tossed out the president’s attempts to contest the outcome. Others say the events Wednesday don’t erase what they see as the positive work the president has achieved while in office.

Retiring state Sen. Ralph Okerlund is among that group, and believes that the D.C. violence doesn’t overshadow Trump’s legacy on trade agreements and taxes and his attempts to achieve “energy dominance.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Retiring Sen. Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe, on the Senate floor at the State Capitol in Salt Lake City, Feb. 11, 2020. Okerlund said he doesn't think President Donald Trump's legacy will be overshadowed by Wednesday's assault on the U.S. Capitol.

Okerlund, an early supporter of Trump, says he thinks the president was “remiss” in not acting swiftly to disperse the riot but also faults Democrats and the media for what he sees as their complacent reaction to property damage and unrest during the largely peaceful racial justice demonstrations last summer. The lesson, he argued, was that acts of violence will be tolerated.

The Russia investigation and Trump impeachment have also added to the sense of grievance harbored by many of the president’s supporters, an emotion he says boiled over in Wednesday’s mob scene.

“It has created this divide,” the Monroe Republican said. “And so the people that reacted yesterday are reacting to things that have been happening for years. There’s blame enough to go around on both sides.”

Outgoing state Rep. Kim Coleman took this train of thought a step further by promulgating a baseless theory that anti-fascist and Black Lives Matter demonstrators infiltrated Wednesday’s crowd and pushed into the Capitol.

“No this is not acceptable,” the West Jordan Republican wrote on Facebook. “Yes, they should be stopped and prosecuted. No, they don’t look like any of the people I know who went to peacefully protest.”

Her post featured images of a shirtless man wearing a horned fur cap who was photographed storming through the congressional hallways and posing on the U.S. Senate dais. Though some have baselessly suggested he was an anti-fascist demonstrator, he’s been identified as a QAnon supporter who has frequented right-wing rallies in Arizona.

As Trump leaves office, Burbank said it remains to be seen whether party members will maintain the loyalty many Republicans have continued to display in the days since the events at the U.S. Capitol.

“The real question there is does he continue to kind of command that group of voters,” he said, “or do people kind of recognize, ‘Oh yeah, he doesn’t have power anymore; he’s just a guy on Twitter’?”

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