Rep. Elaine Luria prepares to lead Jan. 6 hearing blaming Trump for violence

The Virginia Democrat has her defining moment on the committee as she faces her toughest election yet

Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va), departs after speaking at a Nuclear Fuel Supply Forum on July 19 in Washington.
Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va), departs after speaking at a Nuclear Fuel Supply Forum on July 19 in Washington. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

She couldn’t forget the time: 1:46 p.m.

It was the moment Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va.) evacuated her office on Jan. 6, 2021, after police found pipe bombs on Capitol Hill. A year later, on Jan. 6, 2022, it was the exact same time Luria announced her reelection campaign — unmistakably linking her bid for a third term representing a swing district on the Virginia coast to her service on the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol.

Now, Luria is preparing for her most defining moment on the committee yet: At the committee’s finale of this summer’s series of hearings, she and Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) will detail what former president Donald Trump did and didn’t do over 187 minutes as the U.S. Capitol was under attack, and as Luria and hundreds of colleagues took cover.

Their presentation is expected to squarely place the blame for the violence on Trump after his months of false claims of voter fraud and will examine his reluctance to condemn the attack — culminating in what the panel plans to describe as a dereliction of duty and violation of his oath. It’s an assignment that people involved with the committee’s work say Luria specifically sought — even as she gears up for her toughest reelection campaign yet in a district that got redder after redistricting.

Trump’s choices escalated tensions and set U.S. on path to Jan. 6, panel finds

But with an air of defiance, the former Navy commander has said she is unconcerned about any potential political consequences that her role in unspooling the former president’s inaction on Jan. 6 could have in her own political future — a message that, rather than whispered to confidants, she has put front and center in her campaign.

“Getting this right, getting the facts out there and making some change in the future so that this doesn’t happen again, it’s so much bigger than whether you’re reelected or not,” Luria said in an interview. “I don’t want to make my bid for reelection seem petty, but that’s inconsequential. Does that make sense? And if I win, it will be a very strong statement about the work of the committee.”

In a sense, Luria has positioned her campaign as a referendum on the committee’s work, almost daring Republicans to attack her over it — even though it’s unclear it’s a motivating issue for many voters in her district. This year’s midterm elections are more often viewed as a referendum on Democrats and President Biden, a political environment that bodes well for Luria’s Republican challenger, state Sen. Jen Kiggans (R-Virginia Beach) — who has sought to paint Luria as “out of touch” with voters for focusing on the Jan. 6 investigation.

Those dynamics make Luria somewhat of the Democratic version of fellow committee member Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) — at least without the abuse from her own party or the national star power.

Rep. Liz Cheney tells Americans why Jan. 6 should terrify them

With the exception of her looming prime-time role, Luria by contrast has largely done the grinding work of the committee from behind the scenes. Luria, who spent 20 years in the Navy, is more known in Congress for her tough questioning of Defense Department leaders on the House Armed Services Committee and her vast — at times head-spinning — knowledge of naval shipbuilding and capabilities, often joining Republicans to call for more top-line military spending. She was one of the first women in the Navy’s nuclear power program, a military career that Luria leveraged to win a race against former Republican congressman and Navy SEAL Scott Taylor to flip the seat blue in 2018.

Since then, Luria has largely stayed out of high-profile political spats, known as a lawmaker who eschews the kind of firebrand partisanship that has turned other lawmakers into viral sensations. In fact, her former two-time political rival, Taylor, described her persona as “bland” — and said that’s in part what made her a tougher competitor. “You’re like, what do you attack her for?” he said, recalling his first race against her in 2018; he lost a rematch in 2020.

“Elaine — how do I say it? — she’s not going to get on TV and say crazy stuff. She’s not like that. She’s quiet. She doesn’t get in trouble,” he said, noting the exception when she called a proposed stock-trading ban pushed by bipartisan lawmakers “bull—-” earlier this year. But usually, “she’s fine. So I think that can be a strength for her.”

It was that same restrained demeanor that Luria’s colleagues, friends and others said they thought made Luria an ideal member of the committee investigating Jan. 6.

“She is the soul of reasonableness and moderation in all things, and I think she’s someone that the committee looks to as a voice for how what we’re doing will be experienced outside of the big metropolitan areas,” said Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.), a fellow member of the committee. “She of course has this distinguished military background, and just a very quiet but fierce sense of patriotism and duty about what she does.”

Even a day after Jan. 6, Trump balked at condemning the violence

Luria’s interest in serving on the committee is rooted in her service in the Navy, and she frequently connects her role to the oath she took in the military and as a member of Congress. It’s something she and her co-pilot in the hearing, Kinzinger, an Air Force veteran, share in common.

After the attack, as she considered seeking a spot on the committee, Luria said, “I thought to myself, you know, I was in the Navy for 20 years and you think about the oath, and it’s against all enemies foreign and domestic. And you think to yourself, you never really think that the domestic part — you never really think that you would have something like that in our own borders within our country.”

On the committee, Luria has become known for staking out one of the most aggressive postures toward Trump. And she has repeatedly noted the committee has a responsibility to refer criminal activity to the Justice Department if the evidence supports charges. Raskin said he was reticent at first to broach the possibility of criminal activity, noting the committee is not a prosecuting agency, which Luria has echoed. But he started to “feel persuaded by Elaine’s view that we should not be shy about stating the obvious when crimes are being revealed in our investigation — by whomever.”

“She was one of the first ones, really, to be so outspoken about it — as the weight of the evidence has become overwhelming, I think more and more of us have been speaking out,” he said.

Rosalin Mandelberg, Luria’s rabbi at Ohef Sholom Temple, said Luria’s decision to pursue a spot on the Jan. 6 committee reminded her of the stand Luria took in support of Trump’s first impeachment in 2019 despite possible political consequences — something Luria said was in part driven by her Jewish faith.

Luria had joined a group national-security-minded Democratic women to pen an op-ed calling for Trump’s impeachment. At the time, few Democrats — let alone Democrats in competitive districts — were going that far. Soon after, Luria appeared at a town hall in Virginia Beach and faced scrutiny over her decision, especially from Republicans in her district.

“People may say, ‘Why would you do that? You might not get reelected,’ ” Luria told the audience. “I don’t care. Because I did the right thing.”

Luria’s similar approach to joining the Jan. 6 committee “didn’t surprise me at all,” Mandelberg said. “She’s a true leader, but she’s also very, very much informed by her Jewish values. Her motto was something like, work hard, do the right thing — her whole being is that way.”

Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-N.J.), who attended the Naval Academy with Luria and joined the 2019 op-ed, said her colleague “feels strongly that they’re doing good work that’s going to keep this nation strong and make our democracy more resilient, and it’s really her duty, really, under the Constitution to do exactly what she’s doing.”

But Republicans in her district aren’t all likely to see it that way — if they are even watching the hearings.

Despite her prime-time role, Luria has yet to attract Trump’s wrath, something that political strategists say wouldn’t necessarily help the GOP in the military-heavy district that’s full of independents and swing voters.

The Virginia Beach-anchored district now tilts two points in the GOP’s favor after its boundaries were redrawn at the end of last year, according to analysis from the Cook Political Report. Biden just barely eked out a win in 2020, while Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) won it by double-digits last year.

Like Youngkin, Kiggans, Luria’s opponent, has appeared to tow a line between appeasing Trump’s base — she was among just a handful of Republicans in the state Senate to support an unsuccessful $70 million audit of the 2020 election, for example — but not beating the “stolen election” drum like more boisterous Trump allies, including the GOP primary opponent she trounced. Still, Kiggans avoids acknowledging Biden as a legitimate president, something Luria has seized on to attack Kiggans as an “election denier.”

When The Post first asked Kiggans in July 2021 if she thought Biden was legitimately elected, a spokesman called the question “insulting” and said Kiggans had acknowledged he was legitimately elected. More recently Kiggans has taken to saying that Biden “lives in the White House and I wish that he didn’t” — a statement she reiterated when asked in an interview to clarify if she believed Biden was legitimately elected. When asked in an interview late last month for a yes or no answer, she would not give one.

Trump’s influence casts shadows in Virginia’s 2nd district GOP race

She portrayed Luria’s work on the committee as a distraction, noting that inflation and gas prices have dominated her conversations with voters, not the Jan. 6 investigation. Indeed, at the polls on primary day last month, numerous Republican voters told The Post they did not realize Luria was on the committee or weren’t watching the hearings.

“I have said and will always say that those who broke the law on Jan. 6 should be held accountable, but I feel like this committee is really one-sided and is not focused on the economic crisis, which is what we have at hand,” Kiggans said. “The Democrats are trying to use shiny objects that are distractions from what every American — Democrats, Republicans, independents — are feeling in their pocketbooks.”

Dave Wasserman, an elections analyst at the Cook Political Report, doubted voters would be predicating their decisions to vote for or against Luria based on her service on the committee. If anything, he said, the impact on the race would likely be indirect.

“The reality is her service on the January 6 committee is unlikely to determine the outcome of the race,” Wasserman said. “Fundamentally, there is one base of voters watching the proceedings, and that is base Democrats. But her service raises her profile a little bit nationally in a way that could allow her to raise more money, and in turn that money can be used to beat Jen Kiggans on the airwaves.”

Luria has highlighted her service on the committee in fundraising emails — something national Republicans have attacked her for — and has raised nearly $6 million. In her first major ad of the general election, her service on the Jan. 6 committee was front and center.

The ad starts with clips of Luria taking the oath, for the first time as a 17-year-old entering the Navy, and closes with a scene from that 2019 town hall over Trump’s impeachment — recasting her defiant statement that she did not care about political consequences for her new role on the committee.

“Do you put our democracy before politics?” a closing message on the screen asked viewers.

The day before the hearing, Luria settled into her office and prepared for a rehearsal. She tried to remove herself, reading her prepared remarks as if for the first time, as somebody who might question why she was revisiting in such detail an event now a year and seven months in the past.

“The bottom line is the threat is still there, and I think of the committee as forward looking,” she said, adding that its goal “is to prevent this from happening in the future.”

When she makes that case on Thursday night, she said, her 12-year-old daughter will be watching.

Jim Morrison contributed to this report.

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