In Jan. 6 hearings, the GOP gender divide has been a strong undercurrent – The Mercury News

WASHINGTON — Before Sarah Matthews, a former deputy White House press secretary, even opened her mouth to testify Thursday before the select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the Capitol, the House Republican Conference attacked her on Twitter as a “liar” and a “pawn” of Democrats.

The group did not mention the man seated beside her, Matthew Pottinger, a former deputy national security adviser, who was also there to issue a scathing indictment of President Donald Trump’s behavior on the day of the riot. Nor did Trump himself mention Pottinger when he lashed out hours later with a statement calling Matthews a fame-seeker who was “clearly lying.”

The contrast highlighted how, in a series of revelatory hearings that have focused on issues of democracy, the rule of law and the peaceful transfer of power, another, less-discussed theme has emerged: the gender dynamics that have been a potent undercurrent.

In the course of exposing Trump’s elaborate effort to overturn the 2020 election, the House committee has relied on the accounts of several women who came forward to publicly tell their stories. Their statements, and the attacks that ensued, laid bare how women often still pay a higher price than men for speaking up.

Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., vice chair of the panel — who herself has suffered heavy consequences for her insistence on publicly condemning Trump’s conduct — has been explicit about the role of gender in the proceedings. She has positioned herself as the champion of the women who have agreed to testify in person, comparing them favorably with the many men who have refused to do so.

At the committee’s prime-time hearing Thursday, Cheney wore a white jacket, the color of the women’s suffrage movement. She invoked Margaret Thatcher, the first female prime minister of Britain, and the fight by American women to secure the right to vote as she described the women who had publicly appeared during the panel’s investigation as “an inspiration to American women and American girls.”

She was referring to Matthews as well as Cassidy Hutchinson, another White House aide who appeared at one of the committee’s hearings; Caroline Edwards, a Capitol Police officer who testified about how she was assaulted by the rioters, sustained a concussion and continued to fight them off; and Wandrea Moss and her mother, Ruby Freeman, election workers from Georgia who told the panel about how they endured harassment and death threats after Trump named them in a false conspiracy theory about voter fraud.

The result has been that as the committee unfurls the story of the Jan. 6 attack — playing footage of a mostly male crowd laying waste to the Capitol in Trump’s name, with the president looking on supportively from the West Wing — many of the witnesses who have emerged most prominently have been women, with Cheney as their defender.

It is a notable strategy by Cheney, a tough and hawkish conservative who throughout her career has worked to avoid being viewed through the lens of gender.

It comes as the Republican Party has labored to diversify and expand its appeal among female voters, a group that polls showed was a weak spot for Trump in 2020 and has only drifted from him since. A recent New York Times/Siena College poll found that 6 in 10 women believed Trump’s actions after the 2020 election threatened democracy, while men were almost evenly split, with 48% holding that view and 45% saying he was just exercising his rights.

Cheney was the highest-ranking Republican woman on Capitol Hill last year when she broke with her party after the riot and called out Trump and his election lies, voting to impeach him for incitement of insurrection. Within months, she had been ousted as the No. 3 Republican in the House, and she is now at risk of losing her seat in Wyoming as she faces a challenging primary election next month against a Trump-endorsed opponent.

It was difficult not to hear some parallels when Cheney described on Thursday how Hutchinson, the 26-year-old former White House aide who became a critical public witness, knowingly exposed herself to harsh criticism from former colleagues. Cheney said that Hutchinson “knew all along that she would be attacked by President Trump and by the 50-, 60- and 70-year-old men who hide themselves behind executive privilege.”

“But like our witnesses today, she has courage and she did it anyway,” she added.

After Hutchinson’s testimony, Trump dismissed her in an interview with Newsmax as “this girl” who was making up stories. “She’s got serious problems,” he said. “Mental problems.”

Amanda Carpenter, a former adviser to Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., said it was notable to see a conservative woman drawing attention to the gender dynamic.

“I know how hard it is for these women under these circumstances,” Carpenter said. “I imagine it means a lot to the women being targeted. It means a lot to me just watching it.”

The Twitter attack by the House Republican Conference on Matthews, who works as a House Republican aide, was quickly deleted. But Trump’s targeting of her and Hutchinson was in line with how the former president has often publicly treated women who challenge him, criticizing them in personal terms intended to call into question their credibility, sanity and self-worth.

Trump’s allies like to describe him as an equal-opportunity counterpuncher who would attack anyone who crossed him. But over the years, he has singled out female antagonists with particular viciousness, including television personalities Mika Brzezinski and Megyn Kelly, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan and Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors. His allies, many of them seeking his approval, have mimicked his behavior.

In the case of Hutchinson, a person close to her said, stories have been shopped to Trump-friendly media outlets smearing her personally.

Garrett Ziegler, a junior aide in Trump’s White House, went on a misogynistic rant during a livestream this past week after sitting for an interview with the Jan. 6 committee in which he repeatedly refused to answer questions. In the rant, he used sexist slurs against his former female colleagues who have cooperated with the inquiry.

“Pat Cipollone, Bill Barr, Marc Short, they’re saying the same thing, yet you attack the young women,” said former Rep. Barbara Comstock of Virginia, a Republican whom Trump in the past branded as a “RINO loser,” for Republican in name only.

Comstock was referring to the former White House counsel, the former attorney general and the former chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence — all of whom gave closed-door testimony to the committee that painted Trump in an unflattering light.

“This is a pattern,” said Comstock, who is close to Cheney. “The president does this, and this is intentional.”

Some of the male witnesses have also suffered professional consequences and public rebukes for their candor. Rusty Bowers, the Arizona House speaker and a Republican, was censured by his state’s Republican Party after his emotional testimony before the Jan. 6 committee. Bowers, who is running for reelection, told NBC News that it would take “a miracle” for him to survive politically.

And Barr, who as attorney general directly told Trump that his claims of election fraud had no merit, echoed the sentiment about the realities of cooperation.

“I get a lot of vitriol from the right,” Barr said.

Yet while male witnesses have received some criticism from the right — in Cipollone’s case, Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., tweeted that he should “grow a spine & go on record” — the attacks have not been at the same volume or intensity, or of the same degree of personal nastiness, as those against Hutchinson in particular.

Trump’s allies insist they have substantive concerns about what Hutchinson has told the committee. They have raised specific challenges on matters of fact in her testimony, homing in on a discrepancy between her account and that of Eric Herschmann, a former White House lawyer. Each has claimed authorship of a handwritten note displayed at one of the hearings that provided instructions for what the president could have told rioters Jan. 6.

There has also been an effort to undermine the veracity of some of the most explosive parts of Hutchinson’s testimony. Secret Service officials, who spoke to reporters on the condition of anonymity, disputed a scene that Hutchinson said she had been told about in which Trump was said to have grabbed a Secret Service agent and lunged for the steering wheel of the SUV he was riding in as he demanded to be driven to the Capitol on Jan. 6.

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