In 2019, we illustrated all of these probes.
Two of the investigations were underway at the time of the 2016 election. One centered on “Operation Fast and Furious,” the ATF operation. The other was the select committee focused on Benghazi.
When that investigation began, then-House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) praised it as being essential because the Obama administration had “willfully disregarded our subpoenas and impeded our investigations.” There had been other investigations into the attacks, but the administration was insufficiently forthcoming, in McCarthy’s view, necessitating the more robust committee probe.
Of course, it was not a coincidence that President Barack Obama’s first secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, was also seeking the 2016 Democratic nomination. McCarthy, who was positioned to become House Speaker in late 2015, tanked his chances by admitting the link between the probe and Clinton. Creating the committee was ostensibly apolitical, but then he went and tied the two tightly together.
Again, this was after seven other investigations of Benghazi had already ended. The probes did uncover that Clinton used a private email server while serving in Obama’s Cabinet, a fact that would haunt her candidacy. But for all of the examination of the Benghazi attacks themselves, no evidence emerged of wrongdoing by the Obama administration. Then Donald Trump won and the political utility dried up as well.
Now, McCarthy and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have come out in opposition to the establishment of a bipartisan commission to examine the violence at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. In a statement Tuesday, McCarthy suggested that it was already being sufficiently probed thanks to the efforts of two Senate committees. On Wednesday, McConnell did the same.
“It’s not at all clear what new facts or additional investigation yet another commission could lay on top of the existing efforts by law enforcement and Congress,” his statement read. “The facts have come out and will continue to come out.”
One fact that’s a bit murky is what Trump said to McCarthy on that day. Earlier this month, CNN reported that McCarthy was not looking forward to the idea that he might have to testify under penalty of perjury about that conversation, one in which Trump told him that the rioters were “more upset about the election than you are,” as McCarthy told other Republican lawmakers at the time. This is something about which McCarthy has repeatedly refused to speak, the sort of formal stonewalling that, in 2014, prompted him to back a Benghazi committee. Things change.
No one is likely less excited about the idea of a commission than Trump himself. Over at his blog, the former president called on McCarthy and McConnell to block any independent commission, calling it “more partisan unfairness.” He framed it as a function of Democrats playing political hardball, perhaps missing that the current proposal emerged from a bipartisan agreement.
It’s useful to consider why this proposal is uniquely problematic for Trump.
Once Democrats took over the House in 2019, they also began investigations into the Trump administration, including impeaching him for his efforts to strong-arm Ukraine into announcing an inquiry into Joe Biden. But Trump learned an important lesson: impeachment preceded certain exoneration from an evenly split Senate, given the need for a two-thirds majority for Trump to be convicted. So instead of being chastened, Trump celebrated that first impeachment trial in the Senate as somehow clearing his name.
Then came Jan. 6, and his second impeachment a week later. Again, Trump was obviously not thrilled about the effort, but he knew that he’d be able to claim exoneration once the Senate voted on conviction. He suffered a historic bipartisan rebuke — but was, in fact, exonerated.
In other words, impeachment didn’t work as an accountability mechanism. Those who voted against Trump have paid more of a political price, facing local censure efforts or, in the case of Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), losing positions of influence within the Republican caucus.
A bipartisan commission that develops an agreed-upon assessment of the violence of Jan. 6 will almost certainly determine that Trump bore significant blame for the events that day. He spent months claiming that Democrats would and then did steal the election — baseless claims that have only gotten more ridiculous over time — and he actively encouraged people to come to Washington on that day. The second impeachment also found that Trump played a role in the day’s events, but it was followed by “exoneration.” A committee report laying out his culpability would have no such resolution.
More worrisome to Trump, certainly, is the prospect of facing criminal or civil penalties for possible past behavior, including during his time running the Trump Organization before he ran for office. Some part of his refusal to accept the results of the 2020 election likely stemmed from awareness that the presidency offered a shield against criminal prosecution, as a much-debated opinion from the Justice Department argues. Without that shield, he’s at risk.
But Trump is clearly not considering this development dispassionately. In an extended rant on his blog, Trump attacked the state, New York City and Democrats generally as he hailed his own presidency’s perceived successes. He made eyebrow-raising claims such as that “pledging to take out your enemies, and be[ing] elected to that job by partisan voters who wish to enact political retribution” would mean that the United States is “no longer a free constitutional democracy” — an assertion that those who recall the “lock her up” chants directed at Clinton in 2016 will find a bit odd.
If Trump’s blog posts are a perfect measure of the level of concern or frustration he feels about a thing, which they well might be, he is about 12 times as unhappy about the criminal investigation as he is about a Jan. 6 commission. There has been no proof offered of criminal activity by Trump or his company, and he should be considered innocent until such proof is demonstrated. He may, in fact, believe that the probe into his company is motivated by partisan bias and, in fact, aspects of it may be. But it is also possible that, for example, various pieces of evidence hinting at tax improprieties are yielding significant problems. Trump’s former attorney Michael Cohen — dubbed “a lying, discredited low life” in Trump’s rant — certainly has suggested that something untoward happened.
What’s happening in both cases is that Trump is facing some effort at possible accountability that he can’t control. Sure, he will argue — in both cases — that he’s being unfairly targeted by his political opponents. But given his track record, there’s no reason to grant Trump the presumption that he’s presenting his innocence honestly. It is immediately clear that he did something wrong that led to Jan. 6: he actively tried to deceive his followers even as he encouraged them to show up en masse. (Speaking to his acting secretary of defense on Jan. 5, he said that “10,000 troops” would be needed in Washington the following day.) It’s less immediately clear that he violated the law and will be indicted on criminal charges, but, again, one would be advised against placing a heavy wager that he didn’t.
Trump ran his own company for decades, using lawsuits and settlements to wriggle out of legal and ethical predicaments. He was rich and a celebrity, but he mostly kept the skeletons in his closet. Then he ran for president and won. He’s been able to leverage the fealty of his party and of his former attorney general to avoid significant accountability repeatedly; he enjoyed protection from prosecution until noon on Jan. 20.
He’s acting worried, and there’s reason to think he should be worried. As the aphorism has it: quack quack.