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Mitch McConnell is suddenly legitimizing the Jan. 6 committee. But why?

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) walks to his end-of-the-year news conference on Dec. 16, 2021. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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It’s difficult to dismiss even one Mitch McConnell comment as anything other than part of a concerted and deliberate political strategy. It’s virtually impossible to dismiss two.

All of which makes twin comments this week by McConnell (R-Ky.) legitimizing the House’s Jan. 6 committee quite interesting.

As the committee continues to uncover significant new information — including about the desperate and anti-democratic efforts to overturn the 2020 election that preceded Jan. 6 and about how much allies who went on to downplay Trump’s role initially said something quite different privately — Republicans and their allies have been put on the defensive. And they’ve become defensive. They’ve accused the committee of being partisan and of overstepping.

But McConnell has struck a very different tone this week — in ways that he must know legitimize the committee’s mandate and its work.

On Tuesday, CNN’s Manu Raju asked McConnell about the revelation that Trump allies — including Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr. and Fox News hosts who went on almost immediately to downplay Trump’s role — had pleaded with Meadows during the riot to get Trump to stop it. The text messages showed those people recognized Trump was the catalyst for the events, despite their later comments.

McConnell raised some eyebrows when he responded: “I do think we’re all watching, as you are, what is unfolding on the House side, and it will be interesting to reveal all of the participants who were involved.”

In private text messages on Jan. 6, Fox News hosts condemned President Trump’s response to the attack. In public, those same hosts deflected blame from Trump. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

Okay, maybe a little generic and noncommittal. But it certainly wasn’t suggesting the committee was a bunch of partisan hacks out for political gain, as other Republicans have. It suggested it was worth knowing who might have pushed the efforts to overturn the election — efforts that McConnell is on the record sharply criticizing. And McConnell well knows that the people he’s talking about are political allies.

Things got more interesting Thursday when McConnell was asked again about the committee’s work. And he reinforced that he views it as important. The premise of the question even cited his comments Tuesday, inviting McConnell to walk them back if he wanted to.

But he didn’t just double down; he arguably went further.

“I think the fact-finding is interesting; we’re all going to be watching it,” McConnell said. “It was a horrendous event, and I think what they are seeking to find out is something the public needs to know.”

McConnell’s comments are particularly interesting in that, while he strongly criticized Trump’s role in Jan. 6 (while voting against impeachment), he was a leading force behind blocking a separate proposed effort to probe the Capitol riot: A bipartisan commission modeled on the 9/11 Commission.

McConnell repeatedly derided the commission as unnecessary and duplicative — even carrying only a veneer of bipartisanship. “There is no new fact about that day that we need the Democrats’ extraneous ‘commission’ to uncover,” McConnell said at the time. His opposition came even as the commission was negotiated by a senior House Republican, and he alienated some moderates in his caucus.

What seemed clear at the time — not just from McConnell’s comments but from many other Republicans — was that he and his party weren’t terribly interested in reliving that day and the factors that contributed to it for one main reason: political considerations. It would be nothing but bad news for a party bent on regaining power in 2022, when McConnell has a great shot at regaining his perch as Senate majority leader.

What ultimately resulted was a House select committee that wasn’t as evenly divided between the two parties as the commission would have been. And then Republicans tried to appoint House members who had publicly challenged the election results, leading House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to reject the members offered by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). McCarthy withdrew his party’s participation in the committee, although two GOP critics of Trump — Reps. Liz Cheney (Wyo.) and Adam Kinzinger (Ill.) — accepted slots on the committee.

At the time, McCarthy’s pulling out of the committee altogether was viewed as furthering an effort to delegitimize its work. This would be all Pelosi appointees running the show, so Republicans could claim the committee wasn’t being evenhanded. McConnell also previewed such attacks on whatever investigation Congress might do, calling the previous proposal for a 9/11-style commission “slanted and unbalanced.”

But that’s decidedly not the tack McConnell has taken right now, for whatever reason. Even in the interview above, he was given a chance to weigh in on Cheney’s role, which other Republicans have criticized, and he declined. (Worth noting: The protocol for Senate leaders is usually to not weigh in on what the House is doing, which McConnell could just as easily have invoked.)

Exactly why he’s doing this is a valid question. Perhaps McConnell is sending a message to Trump, as Trump continues to attack him and to (unsuccessfully) push for Senate Republicans to cast McConnell aside as their leader. Perhaps he truly believes that anti-democratic efforts to overturn the election were just that bad and would very much like for those involved to be publicly exposed, believing it won’t necessarily harm Republicans in general.

But in either case, that skates past the plain political calculus that McConnell has demonstrated is central to virtually everything he does. Legitimizing the congressional Jan. 6 investigation in any way, even subtly — which Republicans have been loath to do and which McConnell himself once joined in fighting — diminishes efforts to cast that work as hackery and seemingly could hurt McConnell’s chances of becoming Senate majority leader again.

That brings up another potential read on the situation, which would seem to be validated by the revelations of recent days: This is all going to reflect quite poorly on those involved, and McConnell recognizes it will be difficult to dispute that. Maybe it’s better to express openness to the committee’s findings and then dispute the specifics and pin this on ne’er-do-well individuals later.

Whatever the case — and with the acknowledgment that McConnell has hardly given the committee a full Good Housekeeping seal of approval — what he’s saying is a departure from his party that significantly hamstrings efforts to undermine the committee. And it’s certainly worth keeping an eye on.