Five big questions about the Jan. 6 select committee
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) last week kicked off Congress’s special investigation into the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, naming eight members to a newly formed select committee and announcing that the first hearing will feature Capitol Police officers.
But the roster on the 13-member panel remains incomplete; its powers to compel testimony remain uncertain; and without a defined deadline, the timeline for the committee to complete its examination and recommend reforms remains up in the air.
Here are five questions that remain unanswered as the investigation commences.
Will Republicans participate?
Pelosi has designated only eight members to a panel intended to seat 13, with the other five to be recommended by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). Yet McCarthy has so far declined to say whether Republicans will participate in the investigation, which most GOP lawmakers have deemed a partisan “witch hunt” designed solely to tarnish former President Trump and his allies in Congress for their role in spreading the falsehoods about a stolen election that instigated the attack.
“When I have news on that, I’ll give it to you,” McCarthy said last week.
McCarthy’s dilemma resembles that faced by Pelosi in 2014 when Republican leaders, who controlled the House at the time, created a select committee to investigate the deadly 2012 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Their main target was former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who would become the Democrats’ presidential nominee in 2016, and some in the party had urged Pelosi not to validate the partisan investigation by putting Democrats on the panel.
Pelosi chose otherwise, judging it better to have some Clinton allies on the stage than allow Republicans to launch their attacks uncontested. She tapped the late Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) to lead Clinton’s defense.
McCarthy may similarly decide that it’s in the best interest of Republicans to have Trump supporters on the Jan. 6 committee, particularly after Pelosi named Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.), Trump’s most prominent GOP critic, to the panel.
But there are risks lurking, as well. Republicans on the panel would be forced to walk a delicate rope, careful not to appear too critical of police officers condemning Trump’s actions — or too sympathetic to the violent pro-Trump mob — all while defending a former president who had encouraged the crowd to march on the Capitol to block the peaceful transfer of power. With that in mind, it may be more politically expedient for McCarthy to avoid any association with the select committee, and attack from afar.
As McCarthy weighs his choice, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the select committee, has made clear that he’s prepared to launch the process with or without the Republicans on board.
“Although we eagerly await the arrival of our five other colleagues, many of us hope to begin the process with a hearing in which the Capitol Police officers themselves could be able to testify about their experiences,” Thompson said.
He did not say when.
Will Pelosi accept McCarthy’s picks?
A wildcard in the process of composing the panel is this: the language of the resolution that created the select committee explicitly gives Pelosi the power to appoint all 13 members, “5 of whom shall be appointed after consultation with the minority leader.” In other words, Pelosi has veto power over McCarthy’s selections, should he choose to make them, and that’s raised questions about how the Speaker might screen Republican lawmakers, if at all.
Even six months after the attack, Democrats are furious with the actions of Trump’s congressional allies before, during and after the insurrection. Most House Republicans had endorsed formal court challenges to overturn the election results in some states, then cheered the thousands of demonstrators in Washington on Jan. 6 to protest President Biden’s ascension to the White House.
After the attack on the Capitol, 139 House Republicans voted to nullify the election results in Arizona, Pennsylvania or both. And since then, a number of Republicans have asserted, without evidence, that left-wing activists — not Trump supporters — had conducted the siege.
Pelosi has declined to say what criteria she would use in seating any Republicans McCarthy might choose to nominate for the panel. But she’ll likely face pressure from her restive caucus to reject those lawmakers who have downplayed the violence of Jan. 6 or gave hope to the mob by voting to overturn the election results.
Thompson, meanwhile, is leaving those decisions to the Speaker.
“It’s the minority leader’s recommendation to the Speaker,” he said. “And it’s for their decision after that.”
Will Trump be called to testify?
For all the news reports, video footage and investigations surrounding Jan. 6, there’s been little light shone on the actions of Trump throughout the attack. And that’s whet the appetite of many Democrats to have the former president appear before the panel to lend his own version of what he knew that day — and when he knew it.
Trump has come under fire not only for months of false claims about election fraud and his fiery speech on the day of the insurrection, but also for his refusal to intervene more quickly after the Capitol was breached.
Trump tweeted twice during the siege imploring the mob to stay “peaceful.” But it wasn’t until 4:17 p.m. — more than two hours after the Capitol was overrun — that he put out a video statement calling for the rioters to “go home in peace.” In the same video, he also amplified the lie about the “stolen” election, and praised the rioters as “very special” people.
In the midst of the attack, Trump also fielded a call from McCarthy. According to an account from Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-Wash.), McCarthy had pleaded with Trump to call off the attack, only to hear the president siding with the mob.
“Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are,” Trump said, according to Herrera Beutler.
It’s highly unlikely that Trump would appear before the select committee, even under subpoena. And a court battle over the request could stretch for years. But the act of summoning the former president — and having him refuse — would bolster the Democrats’ suspicions that he has something to hide, lending them political ammunition against his GOP defenders.
Pelosi said such a request is a decision for the committee. Thompson, meanwhile, is keeping the option open.
“We’re not going to decide [yet] who we’re going to talk to,” he said when asked about Trump. “We have to assemble the committee. We have to get the staff.”
Will the committee have the power to subpoena lawmakers?
While the House resolution empowers the select committee to issue subpoenas to compel witness testimony, it’s unclear how broadly Democrats will cast their net. But there are plenty in the party who want to hear from some of their House colleagues who had unique connections to the event.
Two GOP lawmakers — Reps. Mo Brooks (Ala.) and Madison Cawthorn (N.C.) — had appeared at Trump’s rally just before the siege, for instance.
Other Republicans were allegedly in contact with some of the organizers and participants of the Jan. 6 “Stop the Steal” rally before the Capitol attack. That list includes Reps. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) and Brooks, who were singled out by a prominent Trump supporter as having “schemed up … putting max pressure on Congress” that day.
More recently, one of the rioters appeared with a group of roughly two dozen House Republicans on a visit to the U.S.-Mexico border, led by the Republican Study Committee.
Rep. Greg Pence (R-Ind.), the brother of former Vice President Mike Pence, was alongside his brother throughout Jan. 6, when the vice president was a top target of the mob.
McCarthy, who has declined to reveal the full details of his phone call with Trump on Jan. 6, is also a potential witness for the select committee.
And Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) has accused Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) of giving tours through the Capitol complex in the days leading up to the insurrection — a charge Boebert has adamantly denied. Boebert has also been criticized for live-tweeting the attack from the House floor, where she revealed the moment that Pelosi — another chief target of the mob — “has been removed from the chambers.”
Thompson, for his part, declined to say if he’ll try to compel his own colleagues to testify on their experiences. But nor did he rule it out.
“We have not set all the parameters of the committee at this point,” he said. “Hopefully we can get the select committee fully composed.”
How long will it take?
The duration of any investigation into Jan. 6 has been a concern of Republicans, who are wary of a high-profile, headline-grabbing probe wrapping into 2022, a midterm election year when GOP leaders like their odds of winning back both chambers.
With that in mind, Rep. John Katko (N.Y.), the lead Republican negotiator on the independent commission proposal, was able to secure a Dec. 31 deadline as part of that deal. But McCarthy and other GOP leaders, after deputizing Katko in those talks, opposed the agreement he’d won, setting the stage for Senate Republicans to block the legislation when it hit the floor in May.
That left Pelosi to set her own deadline, and she’s landed on no deadline at all.
“The timeline will be as long as it takes,” she said last month.
Republicans are familiar with the political potency of special investigations in high-stakes election years. Their Benghazi probe, begun in 2014, carried all the way through the 2016 election cycle, and was thought to be a factor in Clinton’s loss to Trump that year.
Five weeks later, Republicans dissolved the committee.
Some Democrats are warning against a scenario where Democrats release the select committee findings too close to the midterm elections, saying that could backfire on the party at the polls. But Thompson is not playing his hand, saying only that he intends to be thorough.
“I can’t give a timeline,” he said. “We’ll let the facts help determine how long we’ll meet.”
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