All of this makes the calculus for House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) particularly complicated. McCarthy, like others in the House and Senate, was a witness to the events of the day, coloring his perception of what happened. He also spoke with Trump as the violence was unfolding, reportedly telling his colleagues at the time that the-then president had suggested that the rioters seeking to block the finalization of the 2020 presidential election were “more upset about the election than you are.” And, of course, McCarthy also holds the senior position of power in the House Republican caucus, giving him far more ability to facilitate or block any bipartisan commission.
On Tuesday morning, he weighed in on a deal for a commission reached by Reps. John Katko (R-N.Y.) and Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.).
“Given the political misdirections that have marred this process, given the now duplicative and potentially counterproductive nature of this effort, and given the Speaker’s shortsighted scope that does not examine interrelated forms of political violence in America,” a statement from his office read, “I cannot support this legislation.”
Elsewhere the statement seeks to validate each of those three objections. The “misdirections” are general complaints about the politics deployed by Democrats. The “duplicative” efforts refers to committee-level probes underway in the Senate, a deference to that chamber which is not the norm for senior House leaders.
The “interrelated” violence is something else entirely.
McCarthy, like many Republicans, has sought to broadly equate the violence Jan. 6 with the racial justice protests last summer from which infrequently spun off acts of violence or vandalism. Since the riot at the Capitol, this has been a common refrain, attempting to cast that event as the partisan mirror of what occurred last year (while also amplifying the role of overtly political actors). It’s never been a robust analogy, for a number of reasons, including that there’s an obvious difference between, say, declaring a few blocks of Seattle to be an autonomous jurisdiction and trying to forcefully prevent Congress from finalizing the results of a national election. There’s an obvious difference between taking to the streets in response to the killing of a Black man by police in Minneapolis and storming the Capitol after having been encouraged to believe the false claim that the election was stolen.
The effort by McCarthy to cast the Capitol riot as being part of an “interrelated” pattern of violence is particularly wan. He points to “the political violence that has struck American cities, a Republican Congressional baseball practice, and, most recently, the deadly attack on Capitol Police on April 2, 2021” as examples of that pattern. The first is addressed above and conforms to the pattern only in the sense that it involves a subset of a crowd acting badly. The other two examples were individual actions that are connected to the Jan. 6 attack only in broad strokes: attacking lawmakers or attacking Capitol Police officers.
What McCarthy is doing is again reducing the Capitol violence to the individual level. Yes, there have been times when people have acted badly in the broad context of politics or the Capitol and, yes, this is something which needs to be uprooted or prevented. But that activity is specifically targeted by the “445 arrests in conjunction with the events of January 6,” McCarthy’s news release touts. What remains unaddressed is the way in which those individual actions were encouraged in the first place, particularly but not exclusively by Trump. This, too, needs to be uprooted and, to the extent possible, prevented in the future.
But this is, again, is precisely what Republicans — and therefore McCarthy — don’t want. Trump has avoided any accountability for his false claims after the election, claims that he continues to make to this day. Because he had convinced the Republican base that the election was stolen, thousands of people came to Washington on Jan. 6 and hundreds then stormed the Capitol to block the election. Trump was right: They were “more upset about the election” than was McCarthy, because McCarthy clearly knew that Trump had actually lost. But the base continues to believe that the election was stolen, which it wasn’t, and it continues to side with Trump over those in his party whohad sought to hold him accountable.
Just last week, the third-highest-ranking member of the House Republican caucus, Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.), was ousted because she criticized Trump’s efforts to undermine the election. In one of the more bizarre quotes in recent history, a Trump aide told the Hill that the former president felt “vindicated” by that turn of events, as though an obsequious refusal to confront his dishonesty was actually a sober confirmation of it. There may be moral utility for McCarthy in supporting a commission to probe the Capitol riot, but there’s clearly no political utility in it. And McCarthy is a politician.
In recent interviews, Cheney has pointed out that a commission would probably want to subpoena McCarthy to offer testimony under pain of perjury about his conversation with Trump that day. Such a scenario might force the House’s top Republican to either accurately convey that conversation, probably providing damning evidence of Trump’s indifference to the events of the day, or to face a potential legal penalty for making false claims. Again, it’s an easy moral choice but a tricky political one.
And this is why it would be useful to have an investigation into the events of that day that is as unconstrained by politics as possible. Perhaps such a probe would find that the attack itself was premeditated by far-right groups and bore little connection to Trump's rhetoric. Perhaps it would present an unassailable case that Trump bore direct responsibility. Perhaps it would implicate others inside or outside of the government. The point is that we can't say without an investigation.
On the day that the House voted to impeach Trump for having encouraged the Capitol riot, McCarthy was sharply critical of Trump. Over time, that criticism faded. He has repeatedly declined to confirm the report of what Trump told him Jan. 6, something that members of his caucus have confirmed that he told them at the time. With every day that passes, it clearly becomes less useful for McCarthy to endorse any objective assessment of what occurred. So he doesn’t.
Which, in a nutshell, makes the case for a non- — or at least bi- — -partisan commission.