Adam Kinzinger
Congressman Adam Kinzinger, Republican from Illinois, questions witnesses during the House select committee hearing on the January 6 attack on Capitol Hill in Washington, July 27, 2021. (AP Photo/ Andrew Harnik)

To many Republicans, Illinois Representative Adam Kinzinger is an outcast. To Democrats, the six-term congressman is among the few conservatives left on Capitol Hill who is not slavishly beholden to Donald Trump. (The bad news, though, is that, like several other Never Trumpers, he’s retiring.) Kinzinger, one of only two Republicans on the House Select Committee investigating the January 6 attack, believes that the panel’s open hearings and report, due this summer, could have far-reaching consequences for contemporary American politics.

In an interview with the Washington Monthly, the Iraq and Afghanistan War veteran said the committee’s findings could galvanize bipartisan support for reforming the Electoral Count Act, closing the loopholes that Trumpists wanted to exploit to overturn the 2020 election, and hurt Republicans in this year’s midterm elections who have cemented their cult-like allegiance to the disgraced former president.

We also discussed the unfolding situation in Ukraine. Kinzinger told me he supports most of what President Joe Biden has done to unite NATO allies, beef up Ukraine’s security, and impose crippling economic sanctions on Russia—although he said he would have started imposing sanctions sooner and would not have signaled to Russian President Vladimir Putin so clearly, as Biden did, that U.S. troops would not be deployed to Ukraine. Like most hawks, Kinzinger, who serves on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, believes that diplomacy works best when backed by a credible threat of force. 

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

As we speak, the broader Russian invasion of Ukraine may soon be under way. You recently tweeted that we must never allow an authoritarian like Putin to dictate which eastern European countries can democratize or join NATO. Is he afraid of democracy more than NATO? Is it a fear of democracy winning in his region?

I think that Putin’s biggest fear is losing power. He’s a smart guy. He knows that NATO has no desire to invade or attack Russia. His biggest fear is not the expansion of NATO. It’s that there are countries on his border that will show that democracy works. It can show an example like what happened during the Cold War, that his people will come to realize they can actually self-determine. And I think that’s his biggest fear—of what will come if Ukraine succeeds in turning westward or if Georgia succeeds in building a close relationship with the United States. Everything else is kind of a pretext for him. 

How would you grade the Biden administration so far on how it’s pushing back against this aggression?

At the moment, it’s okay. There are certainly things I would do differently. I would not have been so clear that American troops would never intervene. At least keeping that as a gray area would have been itself a deterrent. I also would shut down Nord Stream 2, because Putin is using energy as a weapon. At the same time, it was fairly smart to put the intelligence out early that Russia would try to plant a false flag. All Russia has to do is create murkiness on Twitter, and that permeates. [Editor’s note: Nord Stream 2 is the natural gas pipeline linking Germany to Russia that was halted Tuesday by the Germans in response to the Kremlin’s recognition of two separatist republics in Ukraine.]

Obviously, we’ll be able to tell more in hindsight. I think the problem with the left, in foreign policy, is they’re of this belief that diplomacy in and of itself works. I’m more of the belief that diplomacy with an adversary works when it’s backed by real threats. And I don’t know if they’ve done enough to put those on the table, but we’ll see.

Biden did put more troops on the front lines of those eastern European NATO countries and gave security assistance to the Ukrainians. He’s done some things that are pretty strong. 

Yeah, I think those are strong. We’re also up against Germany. I don’t know all the details, but when Estonia wanted to send weapons to Ukraine, Germany blocked that. Germany has been very murky about Nord Stream 2. That’s a real concern. As a friend, we need to be dealing with Germany after this in a different way. I think we need to be very clear to them that U.S. troops in Germany, which they seem to like, rest on them being a good partner in this. I don’t think the Biden administration has been really weak on this stuff, but I’d want to seriously remind the Russian military that if we chose to fight them, we would crush them in a matter of days. It’s an important point for Americans to remember that we still have some swagger.

You serve on the January 6 Committee. Do you feel the need to fix our democracy at home if we’re going to project power abroad? One answer would be that those responsible for the Capitol attack need to be held accountable—and not just the foot soldiers. Do you think the report will lead to the Department of Justice prosecuting people at the highest levels, including the former president? 

This isn’t based on any special knowledge, because the DOJ is very cautious about even communicating with the Select Committee, but I do have a sense they’re building a broader case. I don’t know if it goes all the way up to the top. But I would be surprised, frankly, if there’s not more people ultimately indicted. I expect that they will be interested in our findings, even though we’re not a criminal referral committee. We will have information that they don’t have. So yes, holding people accountable is important. As a democracy, you’re going to have bad days. Whether you succeed is based on how you come back from those bad days. If we can have full accountability, if we can implement changes, and inform people of things like misinformation, how conspiracies spread, we can come back from that bad day. 

The only way self-governance can work is if our citizens have the right to vote—and that our votes will be counted accurately. You can disagree on everything else, but if you know that your voice is heard on Election Day, for the most part you’re good. 

Do you think the panel’s findings will galvanize interest on the part of Republicans and Democrats to reform America’s voting laws? Do you see a bipartisan renewal of interest to reform? If not the two voting rights laws that didn’t pass in Congress, what about the Electoral Count Act? 

I do think there’s hope there for the Electoral Count Act. There were a lot of little stupid things that could have happened that day [January 6]. If the unnamed clerk had not grabbed the official ballots, for instance, and they had been destroyed by the rioters, that would have been a constitutional crisis, because the act is clear, it has to be the original ballots. Those kinds of things, I think, can be galvanized to ensure that bad actors can’t toss out an outcome they don’t like. 

Do you think your committee report will be the record that will go down as the historical record and be accepted by enough Americans?

I do. I think when we look back at 9/11, and we have a conversation about what went wrong, the 9/11 Commission report is usually referenced. I think that’ll be the case with ours. Does it mean that everybody will accept it in the next five years? I’m hopeful, but maybe not. But I think if you fast-forward in 10 years, I do think there will be an accurate accounting of that day. And I think we are on track to have the most comprehensive story of that day that I’ve seen yet.

Do you think the committee’s work will hurt Republicans in the midterms in any way?

I do think it could have a pretty significant impact on 2024, because accepting the Big Lie as a presidential candidate may be seen as far less cool to do. I think it could have game-changing potential then. For the midterms—look, I think it’s possible. Given the economic trends, it’s probably going to be hard to overcome a real Republican wave. But I do think it can make a difference in the midterms in close races. This is why I think it’s important for candidates running as Republicans to not go too deep on trying to make the MAGA faithful happy at the moment, because I’m going to tell you, history won’t be kind to you. And the members of Congress who all think about their legacy, you may feel good about your legacy at this moment, but trust me, in five or 10 years, you’re going to be ashamed.

How about the impact of Trump himself, and his role in the midterms? If GOP candidates are trying to out-Trump each other in these primaries to be more like him, would that hurt them with moderate voters in the general election? 

Trump doesn’t have the leverage he used to. A lot of his endorsed candidates are losing. They’re not raising money. People are getting exhausted. I do think this could actually significantly benefit those that are either Trump-light or Trump-agnostic or even anti-Trump in the Republican Party. The question is whether they can get through the primaries, but I think those stances can be certainly beneficial for those candidates in general elections.

Could you see a number of Trumpist Republicans winning their primaries and then losing to moderate Democrats in the November general election?

Yeah, I think so. You could see real impacts in the Senate. Look at Missouri, where you have these primaries of Eric Greitens, or the one in Ohio with Josh Mandel and J. D. Vance. The more they out-Trump each other, yeah, they can win the primary, but they could easily lose those general elections. They’re still fairly swing states. I just recently saw a poll in which Eric Greitens would only win a head-to-head general by three points. And Trump won Missouri by 20 points. 

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Storer H. Rowley

Follow Storer H. on Twitter @BobSHRowley. Storer H. Rowley, a Washington Monthly contributing writer, is a former national editor, editorial board member, and foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune. He teaches journalism and communication at Northwestern University.