Could newly released Jan. 6 footage backfire for Mike Johnson and the GOP?

By appeasing his conservative base, the Republican speaker of the House may have given his party another election-year headache

Mike Johnson, the QAnon Shaman and CCTV cameras
Speaker of the House Mike Johnson
(Image credit: Illustrated / Shutterstock / Getty Images)

When Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) finally convinced his fellow Republicans to elect him speaker of the house nearly one year ago, he did so only by agreeing to a Faustian bargain of sorts: empowering any one member of his barely-there majority with the ability to remove him from the role. This, of course, inevitably led to his own ignominious ousting last month. So far, his successor, Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.), has been granted a measure of leeway and patience from his raucous GOP conference and now grapples with the consequences of his own promise made to secure the speaker's gavel: a vow to make public thousands of hours of footage from the Jan. 6 insurrection on the United States Capitol.

"When I ran for Speaker, I promised to make accessible to the American people the 44,000 hours of video from Capitol Hill security taken on January 6, 2021," Johnson wrote on X, formerly Twitter, insisting that now "millions of Americans, criminal defendants, public interest organizations, and the media" will have access to footage themselves, instead of relying on "the interpretation of a small group of government officials."

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While Johnson's promise is not the procedural threat to his speakership that McCarthy's motion-to-vacate agreement was, it nevertheless represents a potential risk for the arch-ultraconservative's relatively untested leadership. Like McCarthy before him, Johnson's decision to revisit the events of, and antecedents to, the attack on the Capitol forces his own party to address both the violence of the day itself, as well as the broader effort by former President Donald Trump to subvert the 2020 elections — an area which many Republicans see as a "terrible political strategy" no matter how often they violate their own instincts on the subject, Politico reported this past spring. 

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What the commentators said

Already, allies of the former president are using the first tranche of newly public footage to "further a debunked narrative" that the insurrection was engineered and orchestrated by federal law enforcement "in order to distract from election fraud," Forbes reported. In particular, "far-right social media users" as well as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) have zeroed in on footage of a man they claim is an undercover police officer flashing a badge during the riot. 

"That's a law enforcement badge in his hand while disguised as a Trump supporter in a MAGA hat," Rep. Greene wrote in a since-edited post on X, which no longer includes that line but continues to assert that "MAGA did not do this."

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Releasing the footage is "part of a larger effort by Republicans to redefine the narrative around the deadly insurrection" after a bipartisan House Select Committee report blamed Trump for instigating the attack, according to The Associated Press. Mindful of his party's extreme right flank, Johnson is working to "curry favor with the group after using a stop-gap bill to keep the government open," CNN reported — a similar move to that which prompted McCarthy's ousting this fall. 

By releasing these tapes, Johnson has not only exacerbated a "serious security concern" regarding how rioters were able to enter the U.S. Capitol Complex but has confirmed "his allegiance, like Kevin McCarthy’s before him, is to Donald Trump and the ultra-right-wing faction of the House," former January 6 committee spokesperson Hannah Muldavin told Roll Call. As former Republican Rep. Vin Weber explained to The Hill during last month's speaker turmoil, "Republicans in marginal districts are worried about Democrat opponents running ads that say Congress person-X voted to make Jim Jordan Speaker, and he was involved in the Jan. 6 insurrection." While Jordan did not succeed at grabbing the gavel, vulnerable Republicans remain keenly concerned over their party's associations with the insurrection itself. 

Evidence suggests that the insurrection "alienates and could mobilize independent voters in particular," The Washington Post's Aaron Blake concurred this past spring. 

What next? 

While Rep. Greene has used the latest released footage to call for a new congressional committee to investigate Jan. 6, her demand is a "political stunt to delay resolution and to muddy public opinion on the matter," Northeastern University Professor of Political Science Costas Panagopoulos told Newsweek, which noted that much of the social media response to Greene's call suggested that a "new committee would backfire on Republicans."

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