Riot probe to likely focus on McCarthy-Trump call
Wary of inflaming tensions within his own party, House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) is staying silent about his frantic Jan. 6 call to then-President Trump as rioters raided the Capitol.
But he may not have that luxury forever.
That heated phone call — which Democratic prosecutors made part of the official impeachment record — is almost certain to be investigated by the 9/11-style commission that Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is promising to examine the events surrounding the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection.
Congress is moving quickly. Leadership sources said a bill to create an independent commission could come this week.
Multiple House and Senate committees, all controlled by Democrats, are also likely to analyze the McCarthy-Trump phone call, in which Trump reportedly blamed far-left anti-fascists for the attack, then suggested the pro-Trump rioters were more patriotic than the legislators under siege.
The call also could be part of any future criminal or civil complaints against Trump, including a suit filed Tuesday by the Democratic chairman of the Homeland Security Committee Bennie Thompson (Miss.) .
“The thought of cross-examining Kevin McCarthy just filled my heart with glee,” one of the impeachment managers, Del. Stacey Plaskett (D-Virgin Islands), said on MSNBC on Monday.
The 9/11-style commission “will look at the facts related to the Jan. 6 domestic terror attack. Certainly the president doing nothing to stop the attack, even after the urging of the Republican House leader, would be a relevant part of the inquiry,” Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), an impeachment manager and member of Pelosi’s leadership team, told The Hill on Tuesday.
McCarthy was among the first leaders to endorse the 9/11-style commission, and he issued a statement on Tuesday both amplifying that call and warning against any partisan lean to the panel.
“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,” McCarthy said. “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.”
Republicans are hoping the commission will shed new light on whether the threat assessments — conducted by the FBI and the Capitol Police, among others — were shared with congressional leaders in the days before the attack.
“I want to look at what Pelosi knew, when she knew it, what President Trump did after the attack, and on the Senate side was Senate leadership informed of a threat,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said in an interview with “Fox News Sunday.” The Senate reference was to GOP Sen. Mitch McConnell (Ky.), who was majority leader at the time of the siege.
Yet the coming slate of investigations, which promise to extend for many months, will also keep the public’s eye on Trump’s actions throughout the Capitol assault. Many Republicans were hoping to turn the page on the turbulent Trump chapter and unite in opposition to President Biden ahead of the 2022 elections, when both chambers are in play.
New revelations about the McCarthy-Trump call infuriated lawmakers in both parties, and are sure to be featured in any investigation seeking insights into Trump’s thinking during the deadly attack. Those call details dominated the final day of Trump’s second impeachment trial after House prosecutors shocked Washington and made an eleventh-hour push to hear from witnesses, including Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-Wash.), who asserted that McCarthy had personally told her about the contents of his Jan. 6 call with Trump. Senators voted 55-45 to extend the proceedings and allow witnesses to testify.
But moments later, prosecutors and Trump’s defense team struck a deal to avoid witnesses and instead admit Herrera Beutler’s 255-word statement into the record as evidence. In it, the congresswoman — one of 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump — recounted that McCarthy told her how he had called Trump during the Jan. 6 insurrection and pleaded with him to call off the assault. During that call, Trump appeared to celebrate the rioters as he was trying to overturn the election, according to Herrera Beutler’s retelling.
“When McCarthy finally reached the president on January 6 and asked him to publicly and forcefully call off the riot, the president initially repeated the falsehood that it was antifa that had breached the Capitol,” Herrera Beutler said in her statement.
“McCarthy refuted that and told the president that these were Trump supporters. That’s when, according to McCarthy, the president said: ‘Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are.’ ”
By all accounts, McCarthy was furious. CNN reported that the Republican leader’s response to his White House ally was hardly genial as rioters smashed the windows outside his office: “Who the f— do you think you’re talking to?” McCarthy said.
Later that afternoon, McCarthy told Fox News he called Trump to give him “a firsthand report” of the violence to convince him to urge his supporters to stop. And a week later, as the House was set to impeach Trump, McCarthy said he would oppose that effort, but made it clear he thought Trump was directly to blame for the assault.
“The president bears responsibility for Wednesday’s attack on Congress by mob rioters,” McCarthy said on the House floor. “He should have immediately denounced the mob when he saw what was unfolding.” McCarthy floated the idea of censuring Trump instead of impeaching him.
Yet a week later, McCarthy was singing a very different tune, maintaining that Trump was not the spark that sent the mob to the Capitol, and should therefore not be blamed for the violence that followed.
“I don’t believe he provoked it if you listen to what he said at the rally,” McCarthy told reporters. The remarks contradicted those coming from McConnell, who said Trump did indeed “provoke” the attack.
McCarthy followed up those comments by taking a trip to visit Trump in Mar-a-Lago late last month, when the Republican leader urged the former president to help Republicans in 2022 races around the country.
But McCarthy has said nothing publicly about Herrera Beutler’s account of his call with Trump, including the expletive-filled denouncement of Trump’s actions.
A McCarthy spokesman declined to comment on the episode Tuesday.
McCarthy’s flip-flop reflected the raw political reality facing House GOP leaders heading into a 2022 cycle when control of the chamber is up for grabs. They might be furious with Trump for his actions surrounding the attack, but the former president remains the single most popular figure in the GOP — one with enormous sway over base voters — and an overwhelming majority of Republicans on Capitol Hill are now seeking to make amends with Trump, rather than ruffle his feathers.
“To the Republican Party, if you want to win and stop a socialist agenda, we need to work with President Trump. We can’t do it without him,” Graham told “Fox News Sunday.” “The [former] president is a handful, and what happened on Jan. 6 was terrible for the country, but he’s not singularly to blame.”
If the 9/11-style commission is to be conducted by independent investigators, Congress is hardly ready to cede the sole responsibility to outsiders. At least half a dozen House committees are poised to launch their own probes, which will follow two generally distinct tracks.
One, led by the Homeland Security, Intelligence and Oversight committees, will concentrate largely on the intelligence leading up to the attack, including the role of outside companies like Parler. The second, led by the House Administration and Appropriations committees, will focus largely on internal Capitol security, including assessments and communications between the various law enforcement agencies throughout the siege.
It’s the second track that’s likely to include scrutiny of the Trump-McCarthy call.
“We better find out why it happened, how it happened, how security was breached, so we can make recommendations to make sure it never, ever happens again,” former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, who served as the chairman of the bipartisan 9/11 Commission, told PBS.
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