Speaking to a standing-room-only crowd in an auditorium at the Salt Lake City Library, with more watching the conversation from an overflow room, House Jan. 6 committee member Rep. Adam Kinzinger said “democracy is on the line” this midterm election cycle.
“How do we get away from every election being basically existential in this country?” he asked, before gesturing to U.S. Senate candidate Evan McMullin. “At the macro-level, the short-term, elect this guy right here.”
The Illinois Republican, who endorsed McMullin in a tweet earlier this month, joined the independent candidate in downtown Salt Lake City on Thursday afternoon for a “Democracy Forum.” McMullin is facing Republican Sen. Mike Lee in the closest race for the seat that Utah has seen in decades.
Kinzinger and McMullin have been friends for years. Kinzinger, who sits on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and is leaving Congress this year, met McMullin when the two were working together on issues related to Syria’s civil war.
As McMullin’s communication director Kelsey Koenen Witt’s introduced Kinzinger, the audience interrupted her with roaring applause as she touted his role as one of two Republicans on the Jan. 6 Committee.
Much of the discussion centered around his experience on that day nearly two years ago, as well as insights he’s gained from his position on the committee.
“I felt — I can’t even describe it, it was as real as you all in the front row are real to me — I felt this darkness kind of come over the place,” Kinzinger said, remembering hunkering down in his office as insurrectionists entered the Capitol.
Days before Jan. 6, Kinzinger recollected, he warned people that there was going to be violence when Congress tried to certify the election. He told his staff to stay home, and asked his wife not to leave the apartment.
Kinzinger warned McMullin, too.
“I remember thinking, OK ... you know, some people will throw some paint or something. It won’t be that bad,” McMullin said, recalling a phone call he had with Kinzinger while standing in a drug store a few days before Jan. 6. “But you knew how bad it was going to be,” he told Kinzinger.
When that day in 2021 — which has become a focus of this Senate race — rolled around, McMullin said he was in a meeting with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ history department, giving an interview about his 2016 presidential run. He said he propped his phone up on a table to watch what was unfolding in Washington.
“I was still in denial, because even though I had seen that kind of thing overseas, I never ever in a million years expected to see something like Jan. 6 in America,” McMullin said, becoming emotional.
Ruminating on his role assessing what went wrong on Jan. 6, Kinzinger said finding accountability for that day reminds him of a commitment he made when he ran for Congress in 2010 after returning from overseas military service.
“If we’re asking young people to fight and die for this country, I have to be willing to give up my career for the same cause,” Kinzinger said. He continued, describing Republicans who wouldn’t certify the presidential election and who oppose the Jan. 6 committee, “I’m surrounded by cowards.”
Jan. 6, and the events leading up to it, McMullin said, created “an opportunity for us to come back with an alternative approach to politics in a way that can make us stronger.”
Throughout the conversation, both Kinzinger and McMullin took jabs at Lee. Although the incumbent senator voted to certify the results of the presidential election, he has come under fire for texts sent to former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, seemingly advising and assisting former President Donald Trump on his efforts to overturn the 2020 election.
Lee has defended his texts as investigating rumors that legislators in several battleground states won by President Joe Biden may appoint electors for Trump, and said that he would appear in front of the Jan. 6 committee to do the same.
The issue came up at a debate between Lee and McMullin on Monday night.
“Joe Biden won the only election that matters, which is the Electoral College,” Lee replied to a question from moderator Doug Wright about whether the president won the 2020 election, while also casting doubt on the legitimacy of some states’ elections processes.
At the debate, McMullin accused Lee of betraying his oath to the Constitution in his text exchange, and said that Lee’s “doing a tremendous disservice to this country.”
“You know that’s not true. You know that’s not true,” Lee, who pulled a pocket constitution out of his suit coat while responding to McMullin’s attacks, said. “You, sir, owe me an apology.”
Kinzinger used that move as ammo against Lee throughout Thursday afternoon’s forum.
“People that find their identity in their job, that can’t understand having a life outside of that title, that despite swearing to protect and defend the Constitution — be it in your pocket or elsewhere — don’t follow through on that,” Kinzinger said.
Referring to McMullin’s CIA service, he added, saying, “Evan has sworn on the constitution to defend this country, and he has done it and he will do it as a U.S. senator.”