Democrats seek to keep spotlight on Capitol siege
Democrats are scrambling to keep the Jan. 6 insurrection in the public eye, pressing Republicans to back a months-long investigation into the deadly rampage that would shine a spotlight on former President Trump’s role in the attack.
House GOP leaders have endorsed the concept of a bipartisan commission, similar to the one formed after the 9/11 attacks. But Republicans are also eager to move beyond discussions of the Capitol siege, which was carried out by a pro-Trump mob seeking to overturn his election defeat — and sparked an animated debate about the threat of far-right extremism around the country.
Trump remains the GOP’s standard-bearer, one who retains outsize popularity among the party’s conservative base. And to insulate the former president, Republicans are demanding that any new commission also investigate other episodes of political violence, including recent incidents surrounding the Black Lives Matter protests — an expanded scope that would deflect some of the attention away from Trump and other Republicans.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is fighting to prevent that from happening. This week, she yielded to Republican demands surrounding two elements of the proposed commission: the composition of its members and its powers to call witnesses. But she’s refused to budge on the breadth of the investigation, arguing that the special panel should keep its focus on just one event: the attack of Jan. 6.
“Our purpose is to find the truth for that,” Pelosi said Thursday. “It’s not about investigating one thing or another that they may want to draw into this.”
That objective is being reinforced by other powerful Democrats who contend that straying away from a concentration on the Capitol rampage would hinder the investigation.
“Obviously, it is critical that we assess the facts and the causes of the Jan. 6 insurrection, and I know that the Speaker has been determined to do it,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), who served as Democrats’ lead prosecutor in the impeachment trial focused on Trump’s role in the attack. “I know that there are some on the other side of the aisle who are wanting to derail a meaningful investigation.”
Yet Republican leaders have other ideas, insisting that Democrats broaden the commission’s mandate to include an exploration of other cases of politically motivated violence. GOP lawmakers are particularly keen to explore the sporadic incidents of looting and violence that accompanied the national protests against police brutality that followed the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May.
Many Democrats, including Pelosi and President Biden, were vocal proponents of those demonstrations, citing a desire to advance civil rights and racial justice. But Republicans, flipping the script from the Jan. 6 narrative, have accused those Democrats of promoting the rioting that sprung up at some Black Lives Matter marches.
Black Lives Matter “is the strongest terrorist threat in our county,” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a first-term Georgia Republican, tweeted this week.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) is amplifying calls for an expanded probe, saying any new investigative panel should also look into the killing of Billy Evans, a Capitol Police officer struck by a car outside the Capitol on April 2, and the violence surrounding the Black Lives Matter protests.
“If you’re going to have a commission, you should look at the whole broad spectrum,” said McCarthy, a top Trump ally. “We just went through a whole summer of riots throughout this city. We should grasp that as well.”
Republicans are familiar with the political power of investigating political adversaries heading into high-stakes elections. In 2014, they created a special panel to examine Hillary Clinton’s role in the deadly 2012 attack on a U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, when she was secretary of State. Clinton later became the Democrats’ presidential nominee, and the protracted probe — which churned headlines through the length of the 2016 campaign — was thought to be a factor in her defeat to Trump.
Five weeks after the 2016 election, Republicans disbanded the Benghazi panel.
Some Democrats, distrusting of their GOP colleagues, are privately urging Pelosi to go it alone and create a partisan, Democratic-controlled select committee of lawmakers, in the mold of the GOP’s Benghazi committee. Pelosi has even threatened to launch the special panel if she and Republicans can’t reach a deal.
But key Republicans and Democrats say a dedicated, independent commission would be better suited to get to the bottom of what led up to and transpired on Jan. 6 — even if they disagree about Trump’s role in the assault.
“It was not an organic protest that was spurred by Trump’s rhetoric on the Mall; this was planned. They had intelligence that for some reason was ignored by someone or some group here [at the Capitol] even though the FBI and Secret Service were taking it very seriously,” said Rep. Barry Loudermilk (R-Ga.), who serves on the House Administration Committee that oversees Capitol security and backs the creation of a commission.
“We can’t get to the bottom of it,” he said of Congress’s efforts. “I’m trying to find out, who was it? Was it the Capitol Police Board? Was it the sergeant-at-arms? Was there political influence from White House or from the Speaker or the majority leader? Everybody clamps down when we get to that [question], including the inspector general.”
Another House Administration Committee member, Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.), said he believes the two parties are “making progress” and will eventually strike a deal on an independent commission — an important process, he argued, if the divided public is to find the conclusions credible.
“If we want to get to the truth of what happened Jan. 6, then doing so in a bipartisan way will show the American public exactly what happened,” said Aguilar, who serves on Pelosi’s leadership team as vice caucus chairman.
Asked about Democrats’ distrust of GOP lawmakers who voted to overturn the 2020 presidential election results, Aguilar pointed to proposed language that would ban current lawmakers from serving on the commission.
“I don’t think there’s a lot of trust in folks who were part of that insurrection caucus to serve on this panel,” he said in an interview on the Capitol steps. “But outside individuals playing a role in a bipartisan way, we hope that they can shine the light on exactly what we need to do moving forward and exactly what transpired leading up to and including the 6th.”
The partisan fight over investigative commissions is hardly new to Congress. After the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the Bush administration initially opposed an outside investigation, and former President George W. Bush himself pressed congressional leaders to limit the scope of their own internal probes.
It took lawmakers more than 14 months after the attacks to agree on the legislation establishing the 9/11 commission, a bill authored by Pelosi, who is using that experience to guide the current debate over how to design a bipartisan Jan. 6 commission that both sides can support.
“There are other options, which I would not want to use because I want this to be bipartisan,” Pelosi said. “And if the price of the confidence that the public would have in this is to make it a little harder to get some things done, so be it. But we have to agree on the scope.”
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