WASHINGTON — Calling former President Donald J. Trump “a cancer for the country,” Ohio Republican Representative Anthony Gonzalez said in an interview on Thursday that he would not run for re-election in 2022, taking his seat after just two terms in Congress instead of fighting a Trump-backed primary opponent.
Gonzalez is the first, but may not be the last, of the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump after the Jan. 6 Capitol riots to retire instead of going through savage primaries next year in a party that is still under the spell of the former president.
The congressman, who has two young children, stressed that he left largely because of family considerations and the difficulties of living between two cities. But he made it clear that the tension had only grown since his impeachment vote, after which he was inundated with threats and fears for the safety of his wife and children.
Mr Gonzalez said quality of life issues were paramount in his decision. He recounted an “eye-opening” moment this year when he and his family were greeted at the Cleveland airport by two uniformed police officers, as part of additional security measures put in place after the impeachment vote.
“That’s one of those times when you say, ‘Is this really what I want for my family when they travel, to have my wife and kids escorted through the airport?'” he said.
Gonzalez, who turns 37 on Saturday, was the kind of Republican recruit the party once held in high esteem. A Cuban American who starred as a receiver in the state of Ohio, he was selected in the first round of the NFL draft and then earned an MBA from Stanford after his football career was cut short by injuries. He claimed his seat in northeast Ohio in his first bid for political office.
Mr. Gonzalez, a conservative, largely supported the former president’s agenda. Still, he began to break with Mr Trump and House Republican leaders when they tried to block certification from last year’s presidential election, and he was shocked by January 6 and its implications.
Still, he insisted he could have triumphed in what he acknowledged would have been a “ruthlessly harsh primary” against Max Miller, a former Trump White House aide who endorsed by the former president in February.
But as Mr. Gonzalez sat on a couch in his House’s office, with most of his colleagues still home from the extended summer break, he acknowledged that he couldn’t bear the prospect of winning if it meant returning to a Trump-dominated House Republican caucus. .
“Politically speaking, the environment is so toxic, especially in our own party at the moment,” he said. “You can fight your ass and win this thing, but are you really going to be happy? And the answer is: probably not.”
For the Ohioan, January 6 was “a line-in-the-sand moment” and Mr Trump represents nothing less than a threat to American democracy.
“I don’t believe he can ever run for president again,” Gonzalez said. “Most of my political energy will be spent working toward that exact goal.”
Gonzalez said there was some uncertainty after the Capitol attack over whether Republican leaders would continue to bow to Mr Trump.
But the ousting of Representative Liz Cheney from her leadership position; the continued tribute to Representative Kevin McCarthy, the House minority leader; and the recent decision to invite Mr Trump to be the keynote speaker at a major Republican fundraiser were enlightening. In Washington, at least, this is still Mr Trump’s party.
“This is the direction we’re going in for the next two years and possibly four years, and it will put Trump at the center of fundraising and political outreach,” Mr. Gonzalez said. “That’s not something I’m going to be a part of.”
However, his decision to leave rather than fight will only further trump the party’s congressional wing. And it will raise questions about whether other Trump critics in the House will follow him to the exits. At the top of that list: Ms. Cheney and Representative Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, who both serve on the otherwise Democrat-dominated panel investigating the Capitol riot.
When asked how he could hope to purge Trump’s party if he himself was unwilling to confront the former president in a proxy fight against Mr. Miller next year, Mr. Gonzalez insisted there were still Republicans in office. who would defend “the foundations of democracy.”
More enthusiastically, he argued that Mr. Trump has less following among ordinary Republicans than party leaders think, especially when it comes to who ordinary people want to lead their ticket to 2024.
“Where I see a big gap is that most of the people I speak to at home agree with the policy, but they also want us to distance ourselves from the person” and “the kind of resentment politics the party has taken over,” he said. he. said Gonzalez.
Congressional maps are being redrawn this year and it’s unclear what Gonzalez’s district, the 16th, will look like after that. But he said he probably wouldn’t take sides in the primaries to succeed him, which are now likely to include even more candidates.
He said he would remain in the House until the end of his term unless something changes with his family.
Gonzalez stressed that the threats weren’t why he left — the commute was more difficult, he said — but in a businesslike way, he shared that people online said things like, “We’re coming to your house.”
In keeping with the advice House officials gave to all members, Mr. Gonzalez had a security consultant walk through his home to ensure it was properly protected.
“It is a reflection of what our politics looked like after January. 6,” he said.
Neither Mr Trump nor any of his middlemen have tried to push him out of the race, Mr Gonzalez said.
Asked about Mr Trump’s inevitable crowing over his departure from the primary — “cleaned up,” the former president said in a Friday morning statement criticizing the congressman’s “ill-informed and otherwise very stupid impeachment vote” — Mr. Gonzalez sent him away.
“I don’t care what he says or thinks since January 6, except if he continues to lie about the election, which I have a problem with,” he said.
What clearly bothers him, though, is the Republicans who continue to encourage Trump’s election warnings, acts of appeasement he said were morally wrong and politically reckless after the party lost both the Houses of Congress and the White House under the former’s leadership. president. .
“We as a party have been taught the wrong lesson,” said Mr Gonzalez, “but beyond that, and more importantly, it is terribly irresponsible and destructive to the country.”