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McConnell moves from rebuking Trump over Jan. 6 to potentially killing a Jan. 6 commission

Then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) arrives for a weekly news conference in 2017. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

When House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) announced Tuesday that he opposed a bipartisan deal to create a commission to examine the insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6, it served notice that the proposal was in trouble. House Republicans can’t kill the proposal by themselves, but it seemed to signal the party’s overall stance on this, which would put pressure on members to fall in line.

And if McCarthy put the nail on the board, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) may have just delivered the hammer blow.

McConnell told colleagues Wednesday morning that he, too, opposes the proposal. In a later speech on the Senate floor, McConnell pitched the commission as redundant — pointing to legal prosecutions and other congressional probing using the regular committee process — and suggested it was a partisan proposal.

“After careful consideration, I’ve made the decision to oppose the House Democrats’ slanted and unbalanced proposal for another commission to study the events of January 6,” McConnell said.

McConnell’s case against the panel is worth a close parse. For one, it’s hardly unusual for Congress to create special commissions to look into such things, if the gravity warrants. Congress opened myriad investigations of the attacks in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012, for instance. You could just as well argue that Congress could have looked into the 9/11 attacks using the regular committee process. But when something rises to a certain level, there has generally been a recognition that something more is warranted.

Beyond that, McConnell’s argument that this is some kind of “slanted” partisan proposal is probably news to the House Republican who helped negotiate it — along with plenty of others. The package was the product of a negotiation between House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) and Rep. John Katko (N.Y.), the panel’s ranking Republican. It has also been apparently supported by as many as a dozen or more GOP members of the House Problem Solvers Caucus, with one whip count finding at least 17 GOP House members who support it.

It has been said that McCarthy threw Katko under the bus after deputizing him to negotiate the deal. But McConnell arguably went even further than McCarthy, essentially ignoring Katko’s role and pretending Katko didn’t actually represent the GOP at all.

(Katko argued Wednesday that the negotiated deal was “nearly identical” to one proposed by dozens of House Republicans in January.)

But more than anything, this is a significant statement not just from a Senate leader, but from one who was sharply critical both of what transpired on Jan. 6 and what certain very high-ranking members of his party did surrounding it. McConnell, while voting against convicting Donald Trump at his impeachment trial because Trump was no longer president, had some of the harshest words for Trump of any member of Congress.

A sampling of what McConnell said while explaining his vote to acquit:

  • “There’s no question — none — that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day.”
  • “The people who stormed this building believed they were acting on the wishes and instructions of their president, and having that belief was a foreseeable consequence of the growing crescendo of false statements, conspiracy theories and reckless hyperbole which the defeated president kept shouting into the largest megaphone on planet Earth.”

What we saw Wednesday was perhaps the inevitable result of McConnell’s failed efforts to distance his party from Trump and Jan. 6.

It’s plausible that someone could truly believe those things — and truly want to hold Trump accountable — while also not liking the bipartisan proposal put forward in the House. But McConnell also advanced an argument that the likes of McCarthy haven’t focused on: that such an effort, even on more agreeable terms, is somehow redundant and unnecessary.

“So there is, has been, and there will continue to be no shortage — no shortage — of robust investigations by two separate branches of the federal government,” McConnell said. “So … it’s not at all clear what new facts or additional investigation yet another commission could actually lay on top of existing efforts by law enforcement and Congress.”

McCarthy has argued that such an inquiry should be broader — that it should also focus on violence at racial-justice protests last summer that didn’t involve an effort to directly intimidate lawmakers or violently overturn a federal election. Relative both to McCarthy’s case and against the backdrop of the 9/11 and Benghazi investigations, to say that an attack on the seat of government in Washington might not require such an investigation is certainly a novel one, especially for someone who laid this at the feet of the then-president.

At the same time, we also have to look at what McConnell’s denunciation of Trump in February has led to. Like others in his party, he genuinely seemed to want to move on from Trumpism, and he stuck by that posture longer than others, including McCarthy. (Even McCarthy took a turn at criticizing Trump, including calling for a censure of the then-president, before watering down his comments.)

But the party has since sent an even stronger signal that it stands by Trump and will continue to do so. Pressing for an investigation that could make Trump look as bad as McConnell suggested it would could throw good political capital after bad. With Republicans remarkably close to winning back the House and the Senate in 2022 and Trump apparently not going anywhere anytime soon, the political incentives clearly weigh more heavily on pressing forward and not reliving the past that McConnell has acknowledged is rather ugly.

McConnell’s No. 2, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) essentially acknowledged such a political calculus Wednesday, saying, “Anything that gets us rehashing the 2020 elections, I think, is a day lost on being able to draw a contrast between us the Democrats’ very radical left-wing agenda.”

A number of Senate Republicans including Thune had signaled they could support a proposal similar to the bipartisan House one — potentially even enough to allow for it to get the 10 GOP votes and the 60 overall votes it would need.

McConnell’s statement, though, more than anything, suggests it will be the posture of the party to try to simply move on. It would be one thing to attack the proposal; it’s another to pitch it as unnecessary, regardless of the terms.

Trump has in the months since McConnell’s harsh February criticism sought to turn the Republican base against the Senate GOP leader. On Tuesday night, though, Trump appealed to McConnell for help. “Republicans must get much tougher and much smarter and stop being used by the radical left,” Trump said. “Hopefully, Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy are listening!”

It’s too simple to say that McConnell bent to that pressure. But it’s clear that his incentives align with Trump’s position more than he may have hoped three months ago.