As Congress launches a powerful — albeit delayed — investigation into the causes of the Jan. 6 insurrection on Tuesday, Republicans are already calling it a partisan witch hunt.
But what exactly does that mean? That any panel with more Democrats than Republicans is so political its findings can be ignored or dismissed?
For some on the right, the answer to that question will be yes. But the broader context is that most Republicans have been looking for ways to minimize what happened on Jan. 6 for some time now.
Republicans rejected an investigation that would have been fully bipartisan, giving five positions to Democrats and five to Republicans. In late May, GOP senators voted down that option, which would have used the commission that investigated the 9/11 attacks as a template.
But when House Democrats created a select committee under the direction of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Republicans shifted their strategy. Having nixed the bipartisan route, they decried the new panel as partisan, even though Pelosi made Republican Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., one of her eight picks. On Sunday, Pelosi added another Republican, Rep. Adam Kinzinger, of Illinois.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy nominated five Republicans for the panel knowing they would be subject to Pelosi’s veto. Two of his picks, Reps. Jim Jordan and Jim Banks, not only voted against the certification of the 2020 election in the hours after the assault on the Capitol, but have also staked out reputations as ambitious pro-Trump diehards. Pelosi quickly rejected Jordan and Banks for the committee, allowing McCarthy and his allies to express outrage and declare the investigation to be a farce.
This turn of events was unsurprising. For months now, Republican leaders have done all they can to undermine and distract from any attempt to hold a public hearing on the Jan. 6 riot.
McCarthy’s posturing aside, however, it’s worth asking what kind of partisan conduct by the House Select Committee would actually undermine its legitimacy.
The rhetoric used by its members is one possible example. If committee members were to criticize former President Donald Trump or his supporters in hyperbolic or acerbic language, that would hurt the panel’s credibility. On this count, Pelosi’s decision to block Jordan and Banks — and McCarthy’s ensuing boycott of the committee — has reduced the potential for incendiary exchanges between members during hearings.
Jordan in particular proved during the 2019 impeachment of Trump that he was skilled at playing the provocateur and raising the temperature during hearings that were, at least in some sense, intended to be fact-finding venues. Having spent much of the last decade as a prominent voice on cable news, Jordan knows how to play for the cameras, and did all he could to turn the impeachment proceedings into a circus. He and others on the House Intelligence Committee constructed an alternate reality of conspiracy theories and specious allegations that were then frequently replayed in the right-wing-media echo chamber.
As for matters of substance, if the panel’s inquiry were to become too broad, that could be harmful to its mission. But at this point, there is still a lot that is unknown about the events of Jan. 6.
Quinta Jurecic, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, catalogued some of the open questions about the attack in a recent article: “To what extent were Trump and those around him aware of the danger of a riot in advance? What communications might the White House have had with various agencies before Jan. 6, and how might those have affected how those agencies handled — or didn’t handle — the crisis?”
She went on: “What institutional flaws might have contributed to the failure of the Capitol Police and intelligence agencies to identify the soon-to-be rioters as a threat and prepare accordingly? What was the security response to the riot like on the House side of the Capitol building — a question the Senate report does not address, in part because of a lack of full cooperation from the office of the House sergeant-at-arms?”
One objection may be that the Senate has already released a report on the Jan. 6 insurrection, a joint project by two committees. But that report has been widely criticized as being narrow in scope, and leaving many of the questions mentioned by Jurecic unanswered.
“The document goes deep on what went wrong on Jan. 6 — but it’s less deep on the question of why things went wrong,” Jurecic and Molly Reynolds of the Brookings Institution wrote in June, when the report was released.
“It’s focused on a relatively narrow time frame, digging into how various agencies and the congressional bureaucracy fumbled the ball in the weeks before Jan. 6 and on the day itself. But it doesn’t broaden its scope to examine the structural factors that might have led those organizations to fumble the ball, or examine the role of President Trump in whipping up rioters through his lies about a stolen election.”
Trump’s role is in many ways clear. He exhorted his supporters to march to the Capitol and “stop the steal” just before the attack began. “If you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore,” Trump said. This came after a months-long effort to convince them that he had somehow won the November election, a claim with no basis in fact. And once the rioters had already breached the Capitol and sent lawmakers into hiding, Trump said Vice President Mike Pence “didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution.”
Trump was found guilty of inciting the insurrection by a majority of U.S. senators in February, with seven Republicans joining all 48 Democrats in the chamber and two independents to find him responsible. The 57 votes fell short of the two-thirds margin required to convict.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell blasted Trump after the vote and pointed the finger at him, even though McConnell did not vote to convict, because he said he did not believe the Constitution allowed Congress to convict a former president.
“There is no question — none — that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day. No question about it,” McConnell said.
“The people who stormed this building believed they were acting on the wishes and instructions of their president. And having that belief was a foreseeable consequence of the growing crescendo of false statements, conspiracy theories and reckless hyperbole which the defeated president kept shouting into the largest megaphone on planet Earth.”
But what is not yet known is what exactly Trump was doing after he spoke to his supporters on the National Mall. He returned to the White House while his revved-up followers attacked police officers at the Capitol, overwhelming the perimeter in multiple locations and swarming onto the outside of the building and then inside it.
There are two known phone calls Trump made that day. One came at approximately 2:15 p.m., when Pence was being evacuated from the Senate. Trump called Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, on his cellphone, but asked to speak with Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala. Tuberville informed the president that Pence had been hustled out of the chamber, and in the days after the attack a Lee spokesman said that Trump asked Tuberville to continue objecting to the certification of election results in order to stall for time as Trump supporters were attacking the building. Given that Lee later disputed this version of events, it would be one obvious point of inquiry.
Trump also had a phone call with Kevin McCarthy at some point. McCarthy was shaken and asked the president to call off his supporters, but Trump reportedly dismissed his concerns and instead suggested that the people ransacking the Capitol and attacking police officers were acting properly. But a lot is still unknown about that call.
Trump is also reported to have been watching live TV coverage of his supporters attacking the Capitol — rather than attempting to stop an assault on democracy — but there have been conflicting reports about what he was doing during this time. Testimony under oath from close advisers who have anonymously relayed these details to reporters would further illuminate these circumstances.
And then there is the question of what role, if any, Trump and the White House played in leaving the Capitol so vulnerable to attack, and in the agonizing delays in getting more police and National Guard members there as the assault unfolded. The blame here is sure to extend beyond the White House, but much remains unknown about how and why the Capitol was left so exposed for so long on Jan. 6.
In particular, why didn’t the FBI do more to raise alarms about the very visible online chatter in advance of that day in which some Trump supporters were openly discussing plans to be violent?
Jurecic, the Brookings scholar, elaborated in an email about the kind of partisan inquiry that the committee should avoid.
“What I mean when I write that the committee shouldn’t be partisan is that it should be aggressive, fair, and follow the facts where they lead, without worrying about angering the GOP — and, as part of that, that it shouldn’t pursue the investigation only to make the Republican Party look bad, which would be partisanship in the sense I mean it,” she wrote.
Republicans have been suggesting lately that Pelosi is somehow to blame for the slow response by law enforcement on Jan. 6.
“Was there a decision by the speaker not to have the National Guard at the Capitol that day?” McCarthy asked on Fox News. This criticism was first leveled by a handful of House Republicans in February in a letter, but the questions raised do not appear to hold much weight.
The most interesting single member on the committee is sure to be Cheney, who has stood virtually alone against Trump’s campaign to drag the Republican Party back into loyalty to his lies about the 2020 election. Kinzinger was the only other House Republican to vote in favor of creating the select committee.
Cheney supported Pelosi’s decision to reject Jordan and Banks, and accused McCarthy of having “at every opportunity attempted to prevent the American people from understanding what happened” on Jan. 6.
But she will also have an interest in keeping the panel from the kind of overt partisanship that would discredit it among fair-minded observers. Cheney, who lost her post in the House GOP leadership for her refusal to stop acknowledging Trump’s role in the attack, is looking to retain her seat in Congress in the face of primary challengers loyal to the former president.
Jurecic referred to the House Republicans’ select committee investigation into the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, as an example of what the Jan. 6 hearings should not do.
The committee “should conduct a real, serious investigation, not something like the Benghazi investigation that was engineered solely for political point-scoring,” she said.
“The evidence suggests that a serious investigation will be very damaging for Republicans. But if an investigation somehow turns up material that looks bad for Democratic leadership as well, the committee shouldn’t shy away from that, either.”
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