January 6

Why Would Republicans Want a Credible, Nonpartisan Investigation of the Capitol Riot?

From Mitch McConnell's perspective, an independent commission can only mean trouble.


Senate Republicans today blocked a bill that would have created an independent commission to investigate the January 6 Capitol riot by former President Donald Trump's supporters. Six Republicans joined 48 Democrats in supporting the bill, which was not enough to reach the 60-vote threshold necessary to overcome a Republican filibuster.

Thirty-five Republicans supported the commission bill when the House approved it by a vote of 252–175 last week. But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R–Ky.), despite his condemnation of the riot and the Trumpian election fantasy that motivated it, was adamantly opposed to the idea, saying another investigation would be redundant.

"The Department of Justice is deep into a massive criminal investigation," McConnell said before today's vote. "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."

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R–Alaska), one of the six Republicans who supported the bill, yesterday accused McConnell of elevating "short-term political gain" above "understanding and acknowledging what was in front of us on January 6." Sen. Bill Cassidy (R–La.), who also backed the bill, warned: "The investigations will happen with or without Republicans. To ensure the investigations are fair, impartial, and focused on the facts, Republicans need to be involved."

The bill contemplated a commission evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, modeled after the one that investigated the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The idea was that its findings would be more broadly credible than the charges underlying Trump's second impeachment or the conclusions of ongoing congressional investigations led by Democrats. At the same time, the commission would have had a broader ambit than the Justice Department investigation that McConnell mentioned, considering security failures and presidential misconduct as well as potential crimes.

From McConnell's perspective, both of those advantages were reasons to oppose the commission. While McConnell initially seemed genuinely outraged by the riot and the presidential "lies" that "provoked" it, he pretty quickly abandoned any thought of trying to separate the Republican Party from the Trump personality cult.

"Former President Trump's actions preceding the riot were a disgraceful dereliction of duty," McConnell said after voting to acquit him (based on the position that former presidents cannot be tried in the Senate). "There is no question that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of that day. The people who stormed this building believed they were acting on the wishes and instructions of their president. And their having that belief was a foreseeable consequence of the growing crescendo of false statements, conspiracy theories, and reckless hyperbole which the defeated president kept shouting into the largest megaphone on planet Earth. The issue is not only the president's intemperate language on January 6th….It was also the entire manufactured atmosphere of looming catastrophe—the increasingly wild myths about a reverse landslide election that was being stolen in some secret coup by our now-president."

But McConnell eventually decided that Trump's domination of the GOP was inescapable, which meant there was no political advantage to be gained by dwelling on the former president's reckless conspiracy mongering or the violence it inspired. Based on that assumption, it's better for the party if any further interest in those subjects can be easily dismissed as blatantly partisan.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D–Calif.) is happy to help. "Mitch McConnell asked Senate Republicans to do him a 'personal favor' and vote against the January 6th Commission," she says in a statement released today. "In doing so, Mitch McConnell asked them to be complicit in his undermining of the truth of what happened on January 6th. In bowing to McConnell's personal favor request, Republican Senators surrendered to the January 6th mob assault. Leader McConnell and Senate Republicans' denial of the truth of the January 6th insurrection brings shame to the Senate. Republicans' cowardice in rejecting the truth of that dark day makes our Capitol and our country less safe."

I agree with Pelosi (and McConnell) that Trump's phony election grievance encouraged his followers to invade the Capitol in a vain attempt to prevent Joe Biden from taking office. I also agree that Trump's behavior before and during the riot qualified as impeachable conduct. But I still can't read her statement without rolling my eyes. McConnell may be weaselly and unprincipled, but he's not dumb.