Take his opposition to a stand-alone, bipartisan commission aimed at investigating the insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6. Shortly after the attack, he publicly accused President Donald Trump of fomenting the violence, although he eventually declined to support Trump’s conviction during his second impeachment trial. But the commission isn’t popular among Republicans and is far more likely to uncover information damaging to Republicans than to Democrats, so, despite his expressed sympathies, McConnell came up with a rationale to reject it.
He pointed to the various investigations of individual actors being conducted by the Justice Department and, like House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), noted that two Senate committees were doing their own investigations.
“Obviously, the role of the former president has already been litigated exhaustively — exhaustively! — in the impeachment trial we had right here in the Senate several months ago,” McConnell said Thursday. “I do not believe the additional extraneous commission that Democratic leaders want would uncover crucial new facts or promote healing. Frankly, I do not believe it is even designed to do that.”
This idea that healing the country should take primacy also accompanied the aforementioned impeachment trial. Republicans argued that the country needed to heal, something that would be undercut by an effort to hold Trump accountable for his actions before that day. Now, McConnell offers that trial as having been a sufficient examination of Trump’s role — despite complaints at the time that it was overly abbreviated — which is pretty remarkable.
But it’s the other part of his rejection, that idea that “crucial new facts” wouldn’t emerge, that is worth focusing on. It is certainly true that an investigation of the events of that day could or should unearth new information. Even if it didn’t, there’s an obvious need to have a high-profile discussion about what occurred for the simple reason that there is a massive, partisan divergence over basic aspects of the riot itself.
Polling conducted by YouGov for the Economist this week finds that most Americans approve of the creation of a Jan. 6 commission — although only a small majority hold that opinion. There’s a wide partisan divide, with nearly all Democrats approving of the idea and a majority of Republicans disapproving.
The numbers look similar when considering the question of how much responsibility Trump bears for the attack. A slighter smaller majority of Americans say he deserves at least some blame, with three-quarters of Democrats holding that view and three-quarters of Republicans saying he deserves at most a little blame.
As the Economist’s G. Elliott Morris pointed out on Twitter, McConnell iss lining up with an unusual subset of the country: part of the 29 percent of Americans who disapprove of the commission but also part of the small majority who think that Trump bears some blame for the riot. That’s the uncomfortable part of being Mitch McConnell, the split between what he thinks and what he thinks preserves his political power.
But now we get into the evidence that there might be utility in a high-profile (that is, above the committee level) investigation of the events of that day. For example, the Economist-YouGov polling shows that although most Americans agree that the Trump supporters who stormed the Capitol deserve prosecution — something McConnell embraced — a plurality of Republicans think they don’t. Among Trump voters, there’s a 10-point gap between those who think the rioters should face prosecution and those who don’t.
In sharing those new poll numbers, the Economist also pointed to a YouGov survey conducted for the University of Massachusetts at Amherst last month. Respondents were asked what individuals or groups bore responsibility for the attack, and a plurality pointed at Trump. But that’s only because more than three-quarters of Democrats blamed him. Among Republicans, the group that was most commonly cited as responsible was … the Democratic Party.
It’s not actually clear how that follows. Perhaps this is simply an expression of partisanship. Perhaps it’s a multistep claim about how Democrats “stole” the election (which didn’t happen) and, therefore, bear the blame for outrage at the result. But that 20 percent of Republicans also say that “antifa” was responsible (referring to political identification embraced by some on the far left) suggests a simple reluctance to accept facts or a lack of familiarity with them. The idea that antifa was responsible in any way for the attack, a focus of early misinformation, has never been substantiated. (In the U-Mass. poll, respondents had to pick between options. A survey released in February found that half of Republicans blamed antifa, without evidence.)
Even without new facts entering evidence, it seems obvious that there would be utility in a high-profile effort to walk through what happened and how. It would be useful for a bipartisan commission eliciting heavy coverage on cable news (cough Fox cough) to explain what evidence there is and isn’t for various claims. Elevating new information would be good. But presenting the existing information in a clear, fair way would be good, too.
But this is a pipe dream. Republicans recognize that this offers only a political downside, even if it might offer an upside to reality and national cohesiveness. Fox News wouldn’t actually cover it in that way, just as it reframed the impeachment trial itself as it unfolded.
There are a lot of reasons for the gulf in partisan understanding of what happened. And there’s a reason people such as Mitch McConnell prefer that gulf to any effort to close it.