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Former Rep. Bill Owens: Trump, GOP Supporters Responsible For Capitol Violence

Former Rep. Bill Owens, left
WAMC/Pat Bradley
Former Rep. Bill Owens, left

Former New York Congressman Bill Owens says Wednesday's mob attack on the U.S. Capitol is "the direct result of the inciting words and actions of Mr. Trump and many Republicans" including his successor in the 21st district, Rep. Elise Stefanik. Owens, a Democrat, was in Congress from late 2009 through 2014 and now serves as a WAMC commentator. He spoke with WAMC early Wednesday evening. 

Congressman Owens, as we speak here early Wednesday evening, what's your reaction to what you've seen today happening at the Capitol?

Well, I was aghast when I first heard the reports. But then on reflection, I believe that this is the result, the direct result, of the inciting words and actions of Mr. Trump, many Republicans, including our Congresswoman, Miss Stefanik, and I think she, the 140 Republicans in the House, the 11 Senators and Mr. Trump bear responsibility for what happened today. And they need to take responsibility.

There's been discussion about what that might look like. Right now, the joint session still has to go forward to certify the election of President-elect Joe Biden, what should happen after that?

Well, I think that, in my view, it may be time for the people close to Mr. Trump, to suggest to him that he head back to Mar-a-Lago and that he cease any communication that has anything, any hint, of the kinds of activities he's been promoting for the last several weeks, and he needs to step away from this full set of accusations about the election.

What I find totally incomprehensible is that people like Miss Stefanik have seen the results of the court case, have heard Attorney General Barr, a Republican, many of the judges were Republican. The Republican Secretary of State of Georgia all say these elections were properly conducted, and were fair. And they are rejecting those facts. And coming up with this theory that they've been unable to prove that somehow the election was “stolen” when there is absolutely no indication that that happened. What really happened here was Joe Biden got more votes. It's like your Monday night football team scoring more points than its opponent: it wins.

Why do you think the Republicans have been so unwilling to just accept that reality? I mean, at every step since Election Day, not only has President Trump not conceded, but, you know, he's gotten support in that from many people in Congress still.

That's absolutely right. And those folks believe that that 70-million plus votes that Mr. Trump got, they they need to continue down the path that Mr. Trump has created of selling this idea that there was a stolen election that he has successfully sold to his supporters. So you have this situation where it's sort of snowballing on itself.

He's convinced people, he began to put this in play last year, early last year, about making statements, commenting about a stolen election. And they are unable to step away and say, no, that's factually not accurate. Because they're afraid that those people who support Mr. Trump will turn on them. And that could have impact on their future elections. That's what's really at play here in my view.

This is not about standing up and being concerned about what's right and what's wrong, what's factual, what's not factual. This is — they are protecting their political lives, by playing into the hand that Trump has dealt.

When you were in Congress, you were no one's definition of an extremist, and Joe Biden, the incoming president, has really pitched himself as a moderate figure who can bring people together. Based on what you've seen today, is that possible both within the halls of Congress and nationally, that there's a way forward to bridge this divide?

I think that this kind of crisis has the potential to go one of two ways. It will either wake people up, that in fact, we have to find another way forward, which would open the door for a Joe Biden-type temperament to be able to make deals. Or, we're going to be in a more contentious situation than what we are now. Obviously, I'm hopeful that it goes the former rather than the latter. But crises like this do have the capacity to turn out differently than we might anticipate as we're going into it and going through it.

For her part, Rep. Stefanik, who said she would challenge some Electoral College results, released a statement:

"This is truly a tragic day for America. I fully condemn the dangerous violence and destruction that occurred today at the United States Capitol. Americans have a Constitutional right to protest and freedom of speech, but violence in any form is absolutely unacceptable and anti-American. The perpetrators of this un-American violence and destruction must be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. My staff and I are safe. We pray that my colleagues on both sides of the aisle, their staffs, and all Americans across the country remain safe. Thank you to the United States Capitol Police, all law enforcement, the National Guard, and the bipartisan professional staff of the United States Capitol for protecting the People's House and the American people." 

A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.
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