Even on a grave matter of national security, the GOP has concluded that the political price for standing with former President Donald Trump is preferable to the electoral cost of breaking with the disgraced former President.
More than four months after Trump stoked the January 6 rebellion with his lies about the 2020 election, the vast majority of GOP lawmakers demonstrated this week that they see no upside for revisiting the dangerous events that unfolded at the Capitol even if it means that Americans will never get a full explanation of how close Trump’s supporters came to overthrowing democracy — findings that could prevent a similar incident from happening again.
Only 35 House Republicans voted in favor of creating the 9/11-style bipartisan commission Wednesday even though the panel’s design was devised by a House Republican and a House Democrat and would have included 10 members chosen equally by the leaders from opposing parties — with a rule that the two sides would have to agree before issuing subpoenas.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who had blamed the former President for fomenting the insurrection, made clear where his priorities lay this week when he came out against the commission, arguing it would be duplicative. The Kentucky Republican is squarely focused on retaking the Senate in 2022 and has tossed aside any interest in finding the truth of what happened on January 6 in hopes of sparing his members unwanted conversations about the insurrection as the midterms approach. It was a familiar move from the GOP leader, who voted to acquit Trump in his impeachment trial earlier this year despite calling him “practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day.”
And without McConnell backing the commission, it is increasingly clear that there is little chance 10 GOP senators will join their Democratic colleagues to reach the 60 votes needed to clear the filibuster hurdle in that chamber. Many GOP senators made clear to CNN’s Manu Raju on Thursday that they will even vote to prevent debate on the bill from beginning, effectively ensuring its downfall.
Trump was already issuing threats Thursday to Republicans who voted for the bipartisan commission, stating that “there are consequences to being ineffective and weak” and adding, “The voters understand!”
“See, 35 wayward Republicans—they just can’t help themselves. We have much better policy and are much better for the country, but the Democrats stick together, the Republicans don’t,” he said in a statement.
GOP leaders have been surprisingly frank about their political aversion to the commission this week — making it clear that they are less concerned about getting to the truth of what happened than they are about getting voters focused on issues other than Trump’s role in the January 6 riot by the time the midterm elections roll around.
South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the No. 2 Senate Republican, openly acknowledged that Republicans are worried that the findings of the probe “could be weaponized politically and drug into next year.” Thune added that Republicans would rather try to win the midterm races by wielding their arguments on jobs, wages, the economy and strong borders — “not relitigating the election.” Texas Sen. John Cornyn, who is also part of the GOP leadership team, argued that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been pushing the investigation to help Democrats maintain control of Congress, adding that extending the probe into next year “would be the Democrats’ dream.”
That GOP argument rang hollow given that Democrats may now form their own committee to look into the events of January 6, producing an outcome that will inevitably be cast as more partisan than the product that a bipartisan commission would have produced.
Republican Sen. Mike Rounds of South Dakota, one of several Republicans who told CNN that he would vote to block debate on the bill, argued that his colleagues “want to get everything out” but “they also don’t want it to be the focus of the 2022 election.”
Even GOP senators who voted to convict Trump during his second impeachment trial earlier this year appear to be edging away from further examination of the January 6 events.
North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr, who voted to convict Trump, told CNN he would vote to block debate on the bill creating the commission because he believes the probe is unnecessary. Utah Sen. Mitt Romney and Maine Sen. Susan Collins, two Republicans who also voted to convict Trump, have cited concerns about language in the bill detailing how staff members would be appointed. The bill’s current language would allow the chair of the commission, appointed by Democratic leaders, to name staff in consultation with the vice chair; but some GOP members are arguing that gives Democrats too much power.
The desire of Republicans to move on from the January 6 events has meant that some of them have downplayed the violence that unfolded at the US Capitol as justification for the argument that a bipartisan commission is unnecessary.
But as CNN’s Katelyn Polantz and Hannah Rabinowitz reported on Thursday, the mounting evidence in some 450 criminal proceedings tells a frightening story of the alleged plots and efforts by the perpetrators of the insurrection to obtain weapons. Trump’s defenders in Congress have benefited from the fact that many of those cases have moved slowly and largely out of public view, allowing them to obscure the truth about the events of that day and the dangers that the former President’s supporters posed to lawmakers.
And individual criminal cases will not provide a full accounting of the incitement by Trump that led to the riot, probe how much members of his extended political orbit knew about the intent of the mobsters or tackle the security failings on January 6. A commission would also have been sure to have examined whether the Trump White House made any effort to defend the Capitol while it was under attack.
A fallback option for Democrats
Faced with the likelihood that the commission will be killed in the Senate, Democrats must now confront what’s next.
Party leaders were well aware that an independent, bipartisan commission would be by far the most effective way of holding Trump to account since its findings — likely to be deeply critical of the former President — would have greater credibility than an investigation centered in a hyper-partisan Congress.
“The preference, not only preference — overwhelming preference — is for bipartisanship,” Pelosi said on Thursday.
But one option for Pelosi is the formation of a select committee with a Democratic majority to investigate the events surrounding January 6. Democrats have institutional responsibilities and political considerations in pursuing accountability and the details of what happened behind closed doors in Congress and the White House during the frenetic hours surrounding the Capitol insurrection.
In one way, a select committee with subpoena power would allow Democrats to accomplish exactly what Republicans claim they are trying to do with a bipartisan commission — push the inquiry into an election year. This previous GOP talking point ignored the fact that the commission would be mandated to wrap up by the end of this year, by a bipartisan agreement reached with Republican Rep. John Katko of New York.
A spectacle of televised hearings and demands for leaders like McCarthy to testify would help Democrats remind voters — especially in critical suburban battlegrounds — that their opponents in the midterms are apologists for the most demagogic President in modern history. It could also embarrass McCarthy himself as he sets his sights on becoming speaker from January 2023. The downside is that the hearings could turn into the kind of unhinged circus staged by Trump’s allies during his first impeachment process.
If they seek to use their power to target Trump and key members of his party in the run-up to a crucial election, Democrats would be using a blueprint favored by Republicans following the deaths of four Americans, including the US Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens, in Benghazi in 2012. Hillary Clinton was secretary of state at the time of the attack, and while years of Republican probes and hearings failed to find wrongdoing, they tarnished her in the run-up to her 2016 presidential run.
The Benghazi example helps to expose the deep hypocrisy of the Republican effort to kill the commission on the grounds that it is little more than a partisan effort by Democrats to damage Trump — whose wrongdoing is not in dispute since it occurred on live television and targeted the citadel of American democracy.
In 2015, McCarthy, who was then House Majority leader, celebrated the Select Committee on Benghazi’s success in harming Clinton’s political hopes, a sentiment that was far more partisan than anything Democratic leaders have so far said about the bipartisan commission to examine January 6.
“Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right?” McCarthy said on Fox News. “But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping. Why? Because she’s untrustable. But no one would have known any of that had happened had we not fought.”
To abandon inquiries into the outrage now would be to reward multiple efforts by Trump’s acolytes in Congress to whitewash the truth about the mob that invaded the Capitol after the ex-President told them to “fight like Hell” to disrupt the certification of President Joe Biden’s victory.
It would also hand the Republicans another strategic victory — playing into their effort to ignore the fallout from January 6 and exclusively put the focus on Biden’s sweeping liberal agenda in the run-up to the midterms elections in November 2022.
House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, a Democrat from California, has argued that lawmakers need to fully understand what occurred on January 6 to prevent a similar “act of domestic terrorism.” On Thursday evening, he rejected the arguments of McCarthy and McConnell, stating that the deal for the commission was negotiated in a bipartisan fashion and “couldn’t be more evenly balanced.”
“Those arguments against it are just window dressing,” he told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on “The Situation Room.” “The bottom line is Donald Trump doesn’t want it and they’ve made the decision they’re going to make their future with him regardless of his role in that insurrection.”
The ideal outcome, Schiff said, would be to proceed with a bipartisan commission that has the kind of stature that the 9/11 commission did.
“But we are going to insist on getting answers one way or the other.”