In the days following the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, lawmakers began to discuss the need for an investigation focused on what led to the attack, how the building was breached so easily and how any similar event could be prevented from happening again.
First, many Republicans said any investigation should also focus on violence and damage to public property during the racial justice protests in the summer of 2020. Then they argued that Democrats would simply use the investigation as a partisan political tool by focusing on former president Donald Trump’s behavior in an attempt to tar the GOP ahead of the 2022 midterm elections.
Hope for comity wasn’t dead yet early in the year, and a bipartisan agreement was hammered out in May by the leaders of the House Homeland Security Committee to create an independent commission that was modeled on the panel that investigated the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
House Democrats then decided to create a special investigative committee, and the House passed a resolution establishing one on a 220-to-190 vote on June 30, with two Republicans joining Democrats in voting in favor of the panel.
The Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol was born.
It is made up of seven Democrats and the two Republicans who voted to establish the committee, Reps. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois. They joined at the request of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) after House GOP leaders decided not to participate in the inquiry because Pelosi rejected two of their proposed members.
Committee members say they are making great progress, but Trump and his GOP supporters continue to charge that the inquiry is an overtly partisan exercise designed to undermine Trump and his allies.
With midterm elections in November, this year looks to be contentious and demanding for the panel, with public hearings and publicly released reports on the agenda. What follows is a guide to what the committee has done and where its investigation is headed.
What has the House Select Committee done?
In a little less than six months, the committee has taken in a massive amount of data — interviewing more than 300 witnesses, announcing more than 50 subpoenas, obtaining more than 35,000 pages of records and receiving hundreds of telephone tips provided through the Jan. 6 tip line.
The task of wading through this torrent of information has been divided among five teams that the committee initially put together for its staff of about 40:
- One team, dubbed “Inside the Fence,” is devoted to understanding the preparation and response to the event by federal and local law enforcement.
- A second, called “follow the money,” is examining the funding for demonstrations against the election results.
- A third is investigating online misinformation and extremist activity.
- A fourth is looking at the pressure campaigns in Washington and in state capitols to overturn election results or delay certification of electors.
- A fifth team is focused on the organizers of the demonstrations on the National Mall and at the Capitol.
“We have had a remarkable number of people come in and want to talk with us or cooperate with subpoenas,” said a senior committee aide, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the record. “A lot who want to share the information that they have that’s relevant to our work, multiple hundreds of people and the individuals who have received the lion’s share of focus in the past few weeks, are really the outliers in what we’re doing.”
Those recalcitrant outliers, however, include witnesses who might be able to answer some of the key questions the committee is focused on, including the question of whether Trump’s action or inaction during the 187 minutes from when he told his supporters to march to the Capitol until he released a message telling them to go home amounts to a dereliction of duty.
The House has so far sent two contempt of Congress referrals to the Justice Department: one for Trump’s former chief of staff Mark Meadows and one for Stephen K. Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist. Bannon has been indicted; the Justice Department has yet to say whether it will pursue charges against Meadows.
Meadows backed away from cooperating with the committee after producing thousands of documents for the panel, among them text messages and emails related to the events of the day, including from people telling him to get Trump to call off his supporters.
Jeffrey Clark, a former top Justice Department official who played a key role in Trump’s efforts to challenge the election results, has also been held in criminal contempt by the committee after refusing to answer many questions during a deposition. The committee has provided Clark with another opportunity to appear before the panel after he said he would invoke his Fifth Amendment protection against self incrimination, but that deposition date has been postponed.
The committee is also waiting on another crucial disclosure: 800 pages of Trump’s official records and communications related to Jan. 6. Whether those records have to be turned over is being litigated in the courts. Last month, the former president asked the Supreme Court to block the release of his White House records, arguing that the case is a unique conflict between a sitting president and his predecessor. Trump’s lawyer also argued that the committee is acting beyond the scope of its authority by discussing possible criminal referrals rather than focusing on legislative proposals.
President Biden has already determined that the material should not be protected by executive privilege and can be released to the committee. Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the committee, has asked the court to expedite consideration of Trump’s request.
What has the committee learned?
Each of the panel’s staff groups has made progress, according to people familiar with their work. The “Inside the Fence” team has developed questions about possible law enforcement and intelligence failures. The “Stop the Steal” group has studied the pressure applied on federal as well as state and local officials to overturn the election results. These include calls made by Trump to state leaders as well as the effort to press Vice President Mike Pence to intervene in the counting of electoral votes.
Some of these efforts — what Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.) has referred to as the “political coup” — took place just a block away from the White House in a set of rooms and suites at the Willard hotel, where Trump’s outside legal team camped out in the weeks and days leading up to Jan. 6.
The committee is also scrutinizing efforts by Clark and others who suggested using presidential emergency powers to overturn the election, ranging from seizing assets of voting machine companies to deploying the National Guard or using the Insurrection Act.
In addition, the committee has started to focus intently on Trump’s actions that day as it begins to discuss whether to recommend that the Justice Department open a criminal investigation into the former president.
Thompson told The Washington Post in an interview last month that of particular interest is why it took the former president so long to call on his supporters to stand down — a posture panel members said could amount to criminally impeding or obstructing Congress’s official proceeding to count electoral votes.
“That dereliction of duty causes us real concern,” Thompson said. “And one of those concerns is that whether or not it was intentional, and whether or not that lack of attention for that longer period of time, would warrant a referral” to the Justice Department.
The committee is weighing other potential criminal referrals, according to Thompson and people familiar with the matter, surrounding the pressure put on state and local officials to overturn the results of the election as well as whether people raised money for the rallies and events surrounding Jan. 6 while knowing the claims of election fraud were false.
What is the committee focusing on going forward?
The panel continues to seek new information even as it begins to focus on two must-do tasks: a slate of public hearings to tell the story of Jan. 6 from start to finish, along with one or more written reports. The reports will not only detail the events of that day but make recommendations on how to prevent a similar situation from occurring again. This includes whether the laws overseeing how electoral votes are tallied (the Electoral Count Act), and that grant a president emergency powers, need to be changed.
“I consider it important for us to determine to what extent the president was prepared or preparing to mobilize the National Guard or any other part of forces under the insurrection act or any other emergency power in a statute,” Raskin said in an interview.
“After assembling a complete documentary record of what happened on Jan. 6 and what caused it, the main purpose of the Jan. 6 committee is to make recommendations as to policy changes that will prevent any further close calls with violent and lawless attacks on our government. So we have to look at fortifying our defenses against both inside political coup attempts and violent insurrectionary challenges to the government,” Raskin added.
The rough timeline being discussed among senior committee staffers includes a number of public hearings starting this winter and stretching into spring, followed by a possible interim report being released in the summer, with a final report coming out before the midterm elections in November. The midterms are a key date for the committee because political prognosticators expect Republicans to win the House and then shut down the panel.
The panel is also expected to continue pushing for cooperation from Republican lawmakers who communicated with the White House on Jan 6. It has already asked Reps. Scott Perry (Pa.) and Jim Jordan (Ohio) to answer questions, but both men have signaled they will not comply with the request.
The question of whether the committee has the legal authority to force sitting lawmakers to comply with its requests is expected to be the subject of court battles in the coming months.
Committee members have expressed confidence that they can overcome hurdles put up by reluctant witnesses and other legal challenges and complete an investigation that will affect how citizens view the attack even in this partisan moment for the country.
“It is very much one that brings together a group of us who have very different policy views, but who come together when the issues have to do with the defense of the Constitution, and so that does give me hope,” Cheney, the panel’s vice chair, told ABC News on Sunday.