Republicans had their reasons, or so they said, for doing what they did. There were, for example, aspects of the bipartisan agreement that led to the legislation to create the commission that they didn’t like. But the most important reason was their fear that Democrats would use the independent commission’s work against Republican candidates in next year’s elections by keeping alive President Donald Trump’s role in the Jan. 6 attacks and his misdeeds ahead of it.
Many Republican elected officials want Trump to go away. They want him in their rearview mirrors. They want the upcoming midterm elections to be fought in an atmosphere free of the former president and focused on President Biden. That’s why Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) has been such an irritant to GOP leaders, because she refuses to turn away from what Trump’s actions produced on Jan. 6 and, she fears, could provoke again.
Her colleagues are afraid to be more affirmative and aggressive in challenging the former president. They fear Trump, and they fear his followers, who now dominate the GOP rank-and-file, and so they voted on Friday to protect the former president by obstructing the commission, hoping that would protect themselves next year. The vote again showed the hold that Trump has on his party.
Republicans are counting on normal patterns of midterm elections — a backlash against a new president, lower overall turnout and greater energy among members of the party out of power — to restore their majorities in the House and Senate. They don’t want Trump to be a front-and-center issue. They don’t want voters to be reminded why they decided to fire Trump after a single term.
Why not keep the issue of Trump’s role in the Jan. 6 riot alive as part of a deeper investigation? Why not keep it alive at least long enough for a commission with independence, sufficient resources and subpoena power to take testimony, develop a fact-based timeline and produce recommendations about Capitol security and the protection of democracy itself? What do they really fear would be revealed?
McConnell’s explanation is that congressional committees are already doing the necessary work, that there are no new facts to be discovered. He described the independent commission as “extraneous,” though 35 members of his party voted to approve its creation when the legislation passed the House.
Hoping to salvage the commission, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) — one of six Republicans who joined all the Democrats present to support it — had put together some changes to assuage concerns that Democrats could tilt the commission staff in their favor and to assure that its powers were evenly divided between Democratic and Republican appointees. McConnell was having none of it.
McConnell also said he doubted that such a commission could promote healing in the country, which is the same argument some Republicans used to vote against impeaching and convicting Trump earlier this year for his role in whipping up the mob.
Healing is not the express purpose of an independent commission. It could be argued that the responsibility for healing the country lies more with elected officials and others in positions of power than with a commission tasked with finding out as much as possible about the Jan. 6 attacks. This much is clear: Blocking the commission will not lead to healing.
The Jan. 6 commission was to be patterned in many ways on the commission that investigated the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The two leaders of that panel — former New Jersey governor Tom Kean, a Republican, and former Indiana congressman Lee Hamilton, a Democrat — had called for the creation of a commission to investigate the attack on the Capitol just as the Senate was voting to acquit Trump in February in his second impeachment trial.
Kean and Hamilton knew the odds were long. They knew that, in a time of partisanship and distrust, Congress might struggle to come together to agree to create a commission. Nonetheless, they believed it was essential for an independent commission to establish the facts of what happened. As Kean said at the time, the attack was “a wound to democracy itself.”
Reached on Friday, Kean said, “What’s coming out of this is the idea that Congress is incapable now of setting up truly bipartisan, independent investigation. And that has deep implications.”
He said that many of the same arguments used against the Jan. 6 commission were used against the creation of the 9/11 commission, including fear of political weaponizing and assertions that congressional committees had already done their work and there was nothing of note left to learn. “We learned a heck of a lot more,” Kean said.
Kean recalled that, in the case of the 9/11 commission, families of the victims helped break the logjam of opposition in Congress. In this case, pleas by the family of Capitol Police officer Brian D. Sicknick, who suffered two strokes and died of natural causes after defending the Capitol against the attackers, did not affect enough Republicans to win the day.
Kean said he was saddened by the vote. “The American people need to know the facts on this one,” he said. “We should not allow this to pass without a full and public and fair and bipartisan investigation. . . . In a democracy, you never go wrong by finding out the truth.”
Hamilton, in a telephone interview, said he was “extremely disappointed” by what happened on Friday. All such commissions carry risks, he said, but with strong and fair-minded leadership, such bodies can do something that he said Congress is not equipped to do. He added that he hoped there would be new efforts to work around the vote to block the commission. “You can’t sweep these things under the rug,” he said.
Stepping back, he said that what happened in the Senate on Friday “says that democracy is under stress, not functioning as well as it should. It’s being tested, and this is a very good test of whether it can function.” He recalled Lincoln’s words at Gettysburg, asking whether the nation “so conceived and so dedicated” to the principles of liberty and equality “can long endure.”
“That was the question back in Lincoln’s day,” he said. “Unfortunately, in many ways, it remains a question today. . . . It raises an alarm bell for us that our country, our government, our Congress is not functioning the way it should.”