The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A sign the Jan. 6 committee is having an effect: GOP infighting about it

Vice Chairwoman Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) and Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) at the House Jan. 6 committee hearing on June 16. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
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House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) was furious at Donald Trump. He spoke with the then-president on Jan. 6, 2021, as the Capitol was being overrun with pro-Trump rioters. Trump reportedly dismissed McCarthy’s concerns with a blithe comment about McCarthy not being sufficiently concerned about the election results.

In private conversations, McCarthy called Trump’s behavior “unacceptable” and said he would push Trump to resign if he was impeached by the House. But it soon became very clear that the Republican base was not particularly interested in holding Trump to account for the riot, so McCarthy scaled back his rhetoric.

As the House debated impeachment a week after the attack, McCarthy stood in objection to the punishment.

“The president bears responsibility for Wednesday’s attack on Congress by mob rioters. He should have immediately denounced the mob when he saw what was unfolding,” McCarthy said. And congressional action was warranted — but only “a fact finding commission and a censure resolution.”

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A few months later, a bipartisan group of representatives announced a framework for just such a commission: 10 members, five appointed by each party. The commission would have subpoena power but only if the ranking members of each party agreed to issue one.

McCarthy was no longer interested. Pointing to the “duplicative and potentially counterproductive nature of this effort” (because more-limited investigations were underway in the Senate) and because the commission wouldn’t “examine interrelated forms of political violence in America” (meaning that it wouldn’t loop in violence at protests in the summer of 2020 in a neat bit of whataboutism), McCarthy opposed the idea.

So House Democrats went ahead and formed a select committee independently. It was meant to include Republican members as well as Democrats, with five of its 13 members selected by the GOP and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) having final sign-off. McCarthy opposed this proposal, too; only Reps. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) and Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) voted for it from their party’s caucus. Both had also voted to impeach Trump for his role in stoking the riot.

McCarthy soon presented his choices to serve on the committee. Among the proposed five were Reps. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Jim Banks (R-Ind.), two fervent allies of Trump’s. Pelosi, though, rejected those two, pointing to the committee’s “insistence on the truth” and “concern about statements made and actions taken” by Jordan and Banks. In response, McCarthy took his ball and went home, offering zero committee members. Pelosi added Kinzinger and, as vice chair, Cheney. The committee got to work.

Over the past few weeks, the select committee has been publicly presenting what it has learned about the attack and, more broadly, how Trump sought to retain power despite losing the 2020 election. The presentations have been carefully curated and deliberately constrained; there’s some evidence that views of Trump have grown more critical since the presentations began.

This is, of course, frustrating to Trump and his allies. In recent days, Trump’s long-standing excoriations of the committee (which he calls an “unselect committee” for vague pejorative reasons) have expanded to include criticisms of McCarthy.

“It was a bad decision not to have representation on this committee,” Trump said in a radio interview over the weekend. “That was a very, very foolish decision.” Expanding on his thoughts on Tuesday, he said that “in retrospect [McCarthy should’ve put Republicans on] to just have a voice. The Republicans don’t have a voice.”

Trump pointedly added, “I wasn’t involved in it from a standpoint so I never looked at it too closely.” But in October, he was paying attention, blaming the purported imbalance of the committee not on McCarthy but on Pelosi. Democrats, he wrote, “were unable to make a deal with Kevin McCarthy to put real Republicans on the Committee” — meaning that only Cheney and Kinzinger could participate, people who, in his telling, “have no idea what our Party stands for.”

This is a telling formulation. Republicans do have a voice on the committee; two, in fact. Cheney — until last year a member of the party’s House leadership — has had her voice heard quite literally in each of the recent hearings. But this doesn’t count to Trump, because the committee’s Republicans are not the sort of pliable, obsequious Republicans that he prefers. It’s not that there are no Republican voices on the committee, it’s that there are no voices of Trump loyalists on the committee. And that’s what irks Trump.

Republicans and right-wing voices more broadly have taken a slightly different (and less Trump-centric) tack, conflating the one-sidedness of the committee — which is, in fact, unified in its condemnation of the Capitol riot and Trump’s role in stoking it — with partisanship. This is a tell! It’s not that the committee is solely made up of people who share a progressive political worldview; it’s that the committee is solely made up of people who share a political worldview in which angering millions of Americans with false claims of election fraud and then pointing them toward the Capitol is seen as bad. The committee is admittedly not both-sides-ing that point.

Trump has argued that he deserves some sort of defense, claiming (as he did during the investigation that preceded his first impeachment) that standards dictated he have a right to cross-examine testimony. But, of course, he has no such right. This isn’t a criminal trial. Should he face criminal charges related to the Jan. 6 attack, he would then be free to mount whatever defense he sought.

That’s beside the point. Trump is mad that the committee is presenting a strong case against his actions and wishes that his party had fought harder to moderate its composition. There’s no guarantee that adding more Republicans to the select committee would have significantly changed what resulted, in part because even Trump-sympathetic members of the panel might have been more convinced of Trump’s culpability as the probe continued. But for Trump, what the committee is now is a worst-case scenario that he would like to unwind.

McCarthy could have simply replaced Jordan and Banks with other Republicans and had a full complement of representation on the committee. And then some: Pelosi had already named Cheney — who remains a Republican — to the effort. He didn’t, betting that casting the committee as biased would bear more fruit.

The speaker’s decision to reject Banks and Jordan, incidentally, was later bolstered by the committee’s work. Those two legislators have been subpoenaed for information related to the probe. As has McCarthy.