GOP Leaders Warm to Idea of January 6 Commission

Will Nancy Pelosi facilitate a truly bipartisan investigation?

Half of Republicans believe that Antifa was behind the January 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol, according to a poll conducted by the American Enterprise Institute’s Survey Center on American Life. Twenty-eight percent of independents believe the same. The same survey found that 66 percent of Republicans believe Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential election was not legitimate; nearly 1 in 4 independents hold a similar view. Other polling has produced similar results.

These views are mistaken. And their perpetuation portends growing instability in an already polarized and volatile electorate. What’s to be done?

One obvious step currently being discussed on Capitol Hill: a bipartisan, independent commission to investigate, report, and publicize the truth about January 6 and the events that led to it. But the very partisanship and polarization that such an authoritative investigation would potentially blunt might keep such a commission from becoming a reality at all.

In the aftermath of the acquittal of Donald Trump last weekend, discussion about an independent commission ramped up on both sides of Capitol Hill. Some Republicans are adamantly opposed. For this group, the assault, the impeachment, and the trial are something they survived—both literally and politically. The sooner it’s behind them, the better.

Other Republicans, including many who voted against impeaching or convicting the president, favor establishing a commission as an instrument of fact-finding and, perhaps, a means of making clear to their constituents what happened in the election and at the Capitol.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has kept almost entirely mum on the issue of a bipartisan fact-finding mission—his office did not respond to a request for comment. But sources familiar with his thinking say he is open to one provided it’s truly bipartisan and truly independent. Rep. Liz Cheney, the third-ranking Republican in the House, strongly favors establishing a commission. “It needs to have subpoena power, should be made up of retired officials from both parties— should look at the 2020 Presidential election, the efforts to challenge the election between November 4 and January 6, the certification and counting of state electoral votes, the ‘Save America’ Rally, and the ensuing insurrection against the United States of America,” she tells The Dispatch. “Legislation should also compel federal agencies including DOJ to cooperate to the maximum extent allowed by law.”

And in a statement provided to The Dispatch, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy reiterated his earlier support for such an investigation. “Republicans put forward a proposal for a fact-finding commission over one month ago,” he said. “It is our responsibility to understand the security and intelligence breakdowns that led to the riots on January 6 so that we can better protect this institution and the men and women working inside it. A commission should follow the guidance of Tom Kean and Lee Hamilton to be ‘both independent and bipartisan’, and to preserve that integrity it must be evenly split between both parties.”

An assumption underlies all of this: The election wasn’t rigged, and Trump supporters assaulted the Capitol. With a small number of voluble exceptions—Reps. Matt Gaetz, Mo Brooks, their fellow Freedom Caucus members, and Sen. Ron Johnson— few Republicans in Congress actually buy the conspiracies the president pushed and, in many cases, they themselves amplified. In the most optimistic interpretation, a bipartisan commission would provide the kind of cover they could use to disclaim their earlier pronouncements.

Earlier this week, as Republicans who favor a commission discussed privately how best to bring one about, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi unilaterally declared that she would be forming one, potentially blunting momentum on the Republican side. Sources tell The Dispatch she did not consult Republican leaders in either chamber before moving forward with her announcement, which she made in a letter she sent only to Democratic colleagues. (Politico later reported, sourcing Democrats, that Pelosi “is conferring with fellow senior Democrats on the proposal before seeking GOP input.”)

This move prompted GOP lawmakers to wonder aloud whether she really wants a bipartisan commission at all. “I think she’d rather have the issue,” said one GOP representative who favors a commission.

With former President Trump’s behavior leading up to the January 6 riots coming under intense scrutiny in recent days, some Republicans have sought to deflect by accusing Pelosi of not adequately preparing the Capitol for the mob Trump whipped up. “Here’s what I want to know,” Sen. Lindsey Graham said on Fox News last week. “What did Nancy Pelosi know and when did she know it?" That might be dramatic, and Graham has earned the skepticism he often gets these days about his motives. But there are real questions. 

The Washington Post reported last month that an FBI office in Virginia had “issued an explicit warning” on January 5 “warning that extremists were preparing to travel to Washington to commit violence.” Former U.S. Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund—who resigned after the attack—said last month he had talked to then-House Sergeant-at-Arms Paul Irving about having a National Guard presence at the Capitol, only to be turned down, reportedly over concerns of “optics.” Several leading Republicans wrote to Pelosi earlier this week pressing her on these and other questions. 

Beyond Pelosi and inadequate security ahead of the attack, questions remain about Donald Trump’s behavior on and ahead of January 6. There have been numerous reports that Trump was pleased with the assault on the Capitol, the most compelling of which emerged over the weekend and, at least momentarily, looked like it might lead to witnesses being called in Trump’s impeachment trial. GOP Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler released a statement about a discussion she’d had with Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, in which McCarthy shared details of a conversation he’d had with Trump the afternoon of January 6. According to her account, when McCarthy told Trump to put out a statement asking the rioters to stand down, Trump falsely claimed Antifa was responsible for storming the Capitol. McCarthy responded by pointing out that Trump’s own supporters were conducting the assault. Trump reportedly replied: “Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are.”

The public hasn’t gotten detailed accounts from top Trump aides who watched the carnage alongside the president that day, including Keith Kellogg, Mark Meadows, Kayleigh McEnany, and others. Why did Trump repeatedly attack Mike Pence, even as news reports indicated he was being threatened by rioters and might be in danger? And what about the White House’s involvement in planning the rally and the decision to urge rallygoers to march to the Capitol? “At the turn of the year, Mr. Trump decided to join the rally himself, and the event effectively became a White House production, with several people close to the administration and the Trump campaign joining the team,” according to the New York Times.

There are also persistent questions about the conspiracy theories about the vote, amplified by the former president and his team. (Those conspiracies continue. In a conversation yesterday on Fox News after the death of Rush Limbaugh, Trump once again suggested that the election had been stolen.) We know about some of those efforts, including Trump’s call to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, urging Georgia’s top election official to find the requisite number of votes required to declare Trump the state’s winner. What was Trump’s role in trying to overturn results elsewhere? Were there similar calls to Arizona’s Republican governor, Doug Ducey?

Congress passed on the opportunity to explore these issues and many others when it declined, on a bipartisan basis, to hold hearings and call witnesses during the impeachment proceedings. Establishing a serious commission, designed to uncover the truth about this ugly episode and empowered to conduct a real investigation, would be a helpful step to make up for those misjudgments. 

This piece was initially published in our newsletter, The Morning Dispatch. Sign up here to make sure you receive it each day.