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SCHAPIRO: Jan. 6 panel’s other Virginian says its focus is future threats

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NEW JEFF

Jeff Schapiro

There is a third Republican, so to speak, on the House 1/6 Committee: former U.S. Rep. Denver Riggleman.

He’s a Virginian, too. And as the committee plumbs Donald Trump’s role in the deadly attempt to extend his presidency, Riggleman — disproving the notion there are no second acts in American lives — fears the insurrection won’t be the issue it should be in the November midterm elections that could restore Republican control of Congress.

From last August through April, Riggleman was an adviser to the committee, paid $125,000. As part of a 50-member staff that included Tim Heaphy, an Obama-appointed former federal prosecutor fired as counsel to his alma mater, UVA, by the new Republican regime in Richmond, Riggleman helped piece together the quilt of electronic communication — tweets, texts, email and mobile telephone calls — essential to the planning and execution of the attempted coup.

Riggleman, not one to conceal his outrage over the attack on the U.S. Capitol, worries that too many voters consider it old news. That it’s been overtaken by a jittery economy — manifested by $5-per-gallon gasoline, a shortage of baby formula and a four-decade high in inflation. And then there are those loyal to Trump who are mindful of the committee for the wrong reason: It confirms their fantasy that Joe Biden stole the 2020 presidential election.

“It’s very difficult to break through the political chaff,” Riggleman, a one-term-and-done House member defeated for renomination in 2020 by election-denier Bob Good, said in a telephone interview Friday, referring to the silos of social media to which the right and the left retreat. “People can self-select their echo chambers. It could be a rabbit hole filled with crack cocaine.”

Riggleman, who represented a mountainous swath of the state’s conservative rural heartland, says that should the findings of the committee be sufficiently persuasive to wrest three in 10 Republican voters from Trump’s grasp, the elections could be more competitive than expected. The committee has two Republicans and seven Democrats, including imperiled two-termer Elaine Luria from a toss-up district on Virginia’s Atlantic coast.

Riggleman described Luria’s work on the committee as “exemplary,” saying she faces a tough race in which she could be punished by voters more concerned about threats to their pocketbook than their democracy. “Facts and politics are mutually exclusive,” he said.

“I’m not as confident in the short term that it will be as explosive as we’d like it to be,” said Riggleman, an Air Force intelligence officer-turned-national security consultant-turned whiskey distiller who describes himself as “unaffiliated” with the Republican Party. “It could have a small effect and that could have an explosive effect on the election.”

Instead, the House committee — in laying out the scheme to upend the Biden victory through violence and illegal, if not unconstitutional, procedure — is making a case that will have a “historical effect,” Riggleman said. Over the long run, the committee’s findings might instill in Americans a fuller awareness of the dishonesty that, Riggleman said, propelled Trump and his inner circle — and could well up again if Trump seeks the presidency in 2024.

“You’re talking about deprogramming of a large portion of the population ... to the grift and fraud perpetuated against them and whether they see the ridiculousness behind January 6,” he said.

Because of the breathless whirl of social media and cable news, Riggleman in short order joined the thin ranks of go-to Trump-bashing Republicans. They include the incumbents on the House committee, Reps. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois. They were appointed by Speaker Nancy Pelosi after she rejected Trump loyalists recommended by the Republican leadership.

Riggleman’s visibility has rattled some on the 1/6 committee. Politico reported earlier this month that members viewed Riggleman, in an appearance on CNN, as violating an agreement to not publicly discuss the committee’s work. Riggleman, who left the committee nearly two months ago, said he was not bound by such a rule.

Before he turned against Trump, Riggleman stood with him, seeking the president’s support for a second term in Congress. “I thought I could ride the lightning, that somehow I could keep my integrity and accept Donald Trump’s endorsement,” he said.

Riggleman’s defeat to Good, attributed to Good’s criticism of Riggleman for officiating at the same-sex wedding of campaign volunteers, was one of the few losses for Trump-backed candidates in 2020. Among the four Republicans in Virginia’s House delegation — all of whom voted to overturn Biden’s election — Good may be the Trumpiest. He even shares 45’s claim that the coronavirus was a hoax, never mind that it killed more than 300 people in Good’s district the year he was elected.

As committee-generated evidence mounts — in the court of public opinion — that Trump fully participated in a plot to thwart the peaceful transfer of presidential power, whether Trump is held accountable in a court of law is, as Riggleman sees it, a long shot. Considering it a formality, he’s not much taken by the possibility the House panel would refer possible criminal charges to the U.S. Department of Justice.

After all, the department and the committee — represented by Heaphy, its lead investigator — are negotiating terms for sharing transcripts of interviews with committee witnesses. To Riggleman, that’s big: “And if DOJ’s requesting evidence, then something is going on.”

Contact Jeff E. Schapiro at (804) 649-6814 or jschapiro@timesdispatch.com. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter, @RTDSchapiro.

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