If a set of high-profile Senate and House hearings into the Jan. 6 insurrection and related domestic terrorism are any indication, Congress is determined to look away from the elected Republican politicians who provoked hundreds to storm the Capitol and leave five people dead.
The Senate hearings revealed an abiding interest in pinpointing intelligence and security failures ahead of and during the insurrection. A House subcommittee hearing on Wednesday took a look at domestic terrorism at the state and local level, from prosecutors’ perspectives. A different House hearing on Thursday excoriated the social media giants for their role as disinformation vectors. Those intelligence, information and security failures are real, as is far-right terrorism in places like Michigan where a militia plotted to kidnap the governor. They’re a critical part of the fiasco of Jan. 6. But they’re not the whole story.
The hearings also revealed an abiding disinterest in pinpointing the reason any of those errors coalesced into failure in the first place: the false narrative of election theft promoted by Donald Trump and his allies, including many in Congress. Without recognizing them as the wellspring of the insurrection, some observers warn, they will be free to produce the next one.
“I think my colleagues who helped spin up that mob have gotten off remarkably lightly,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT). “I don’t know what the proximate cause of the insurrection was, but, you know, if Donald Trump had been telling those lies without support from the Hill, there might not have been enough tinder to light that fire.”
“I don’t see any reason,” continued Murphy, “to shy away from talking about what Congress did to help push these guys into the building.”
There has been no shortage of villains during the past two months of congressional inquiry. The former heads of congressional security, and particularly disgraced Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund, traded accusations of irresponsibility during high-profile hearings in February. D.C.’s police chief, Robert Contee, accused the FBI of insufficiently conveying an intelligence report warning of potential violence. Its National Guard commander, Maj. Gen. William Walker, accused senior Pentagon and Army leaders of unreasonably restricting the Guard from deploying to the Capitol for three hours and 19 minutes.
But the congressional hearings showed real limits as to who qualifies as a villain. The senior-most Trump official singled out for blame, acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller, wasn’t present and a spokesperson for Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), who presided over a pair of Jan. 6 hearings, didn’t answer whether the committees invited or will invite him. Nor were leading Trump-aligned attorneys providing the false narrative of fraud, like Sidney Powell, who this week asked a judge to dismiss a defamation suit against her on the grounds that she was obviously making things up.
On Wednesday, a House of Representatives subcommittee heard from state and local prosecutors who spoke in generalities about internet radicalization and disaffection from the government, and only at the end acknowledged the violence they faced was “race-based, white supremacy-based,” as Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel put it. In their hearings, Sens. Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, Republicans who voted against certifying a lawful presidential election after amplifying fraud claims, weren’t testifying about their complicity, they were questioning witnesses.
There are a few reasons why a more intense focus on GOP lawmakers may have been derailed, a Democratic aide told The Daily Beast. One was the way impeachment put the focus squarely on Trump in the immediate aftermath of the attacks—an effort that constrained Democratic impeachment managers from addressing their colleagues’ enabling as they courted GOP votes to convict the ex-president. Beyond that, the actions of Republicans who allegedly collaborated with rally organizers—or were accused of offering Capitol tours to attendees ahead of the riot—“made a new tier of heightened complicity that sort of took the focus off of the larger problem of the big lie in which many more of them were complicit,” said the aide.
But there’s a broader issue. Though Democrats continue to talk among themselves about how to hold their colleagues’ enabling accountable, they “never figured out satisfactory answers,” according to the aide. Understanding that a party-wide decision on such a question would be elusive, especially in the fractious 220-member House caucus, many offices have simply taken steps of their own, like deciding to not work with any of the 121 House Republicans who voted to object to the Electoral College.
The hearings’ most poignant moments may have come from Walker, whose frustration over the Pentagon suppressing the Guard’s arrival was powerful. But so was his agnosticism over the central question facing the episode: why did Miller and others obstruct him?
Walker was within his rights to decline speculation, but not to have anyone in position to answer it left an unspoken implication hanging over the hearings. That is, the Pentagon didn’t interfere because it was supporters of Trump ransacking the Capitol. The fallback position a Defense Department official offered to the Senate panel was that the Pentagon likely didn’t want a return to criticism of the Guard’s actions against Black Lives Matter protesters over the summer—an explanation that served to underscore the difference in treatment experienced by Trump’s allies and by his perceived enemies.
Turning away from whose political deceits brought the mob to the Capitol has a functional effect of exempting powerful politicians from consequence. The 400 or so insurrectionists thus far charged are not too politically powerful for those consequences—but they’re the ones who answered a call that Trump issued, 18 Republican state attorneys general took to the courts, and over 100 Republican congressmembers and senators endorsed.
The two Senate committees conducting the January 6 hearings seem uninterested in pursuing that path. On Thursday, their bipartisan leaders Klobuchar, Gary Peters (D-MI), Rob Portman (R-OH), and Roy Blunt (R-MO) put out a statement pledging to issue a “bipartisan report on our investigation” later this year.
Bipartisanship, used as a synonym for credibility, was also a theme stressed in Wednesday’s House subcommittee hearing, chaired by Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-MI). The ranking Republican on the panel, Rep. August Pfluger (R-TX), expressed gratitude for such efforts and promptly drew a false equivalence between the insurrectionists and the summertime “attacks on federal buildings” from left-wing demonstrators against institutionally racist policing.
Increasingly, it seems these committee efforts may end up as Congress’ only real contribution toward shedding light on how and why Jan. 6 happened. A body modeled after the commission on the Sept. 11th attacks gained some early bipartisan buy-in, but the idea is now effectively dead after Republicans balked amid complaints that such a project was “politically driven.”
“It is hard for the various committees to focus on a whole of Congress approach,” Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI) told The Daily Beast. “I’m hopeful [Speaker Nancy Pelosi] can get this commission through, but it’s not looking so great because the Republicans don’t want to focus on what happened. Short of that, these hearings should continue.”
Members of Congress have not utterly shrunk from holding those responsible for Jan. 6 to account. There has been plenty of high-profile tongue-lashing directed at Republicans from Democrats: in a tense moment during a February hearing, Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA) told Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) that, “I didn't vote to overturn an election, and I will not be lectured by people who did about partisanship.” And two Democratic lawmakers, Reps. Bennie Thompson and Eric Swalwell, have moved through the courts, filing lawsuits against Trump and his inner circle for their conduct on and before Jan. 6.
Some Republicans, meanwhile, saw the danger coming. On Jan. 3, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) said his colleagues’ Electoral College objections amounted to an "egregious ploy" that "dangerously threatens our Democratic Republic."
Trump himself, meanwhile, earned an unprecedented second impeachment, which attracted Republican support and became the most bipartisan impeachment in history.
In Congress, the QAnon-supporting Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, of Georgia, has been stripped of her committee assignments, though her Republican colleagues overwhelmingly backed keeping the conspiracy theorist on the Budget and Education and Labour Committees.
But Greene’s penalty may be the only lasting consequence encountered by the election-thief caucus; even some corporate entities that seemingly swore off donating to the campaigns of these lawmakers may have funneled cash to them anyway through other avenues. Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL), who spoke at the rally on Jan. 6, is kicking off a bid for U.S. Senate. Far-right activist Ali Alexander, a key instigator of the rally, said that Arizona Reps. Paul Gosar and Andy Biggs helped him coordinate it—they are greater pariahs among Democrats than before, perhaps, but little else has changed for them.
Even the federal prosecutor who began Justice Department scrutiny of the insurrection, Michael Sherwin, has drawn a dubious distinction between the rioters and their catalyst. “Where it was initially pro-Trump, it digressed to anti-government, anti-Congress, anti-institutional,” Sherwin told 60 Minutes, which would have been news to insurrectionists who screamed things like “our president wants us here.”
Every intelligence and security failure is downstream of the incitement caused by the Trump allies who pushed the election-fraud lie. Restricting the hearings into a forum about the lassitude and incompetence of the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, and various police forces puts only one set of institutional failures on display. They will likely end up making those supposed scapegoats more powerful; among the questions the FBI and DHS faced was, predictably, whether they need more authority to confront far-right terrorism.
Slotkin, for one, explicitly backed granting DHS additional “tools it needs from an intelligence analysis perspective to better understand the threats” of domestic terrorism and plans to introduce a bill to do so. Nessel, the Democratic Michigan attorney general, explicitly referenced the lack of federal laws banning the funding of domestic terrorists or giving them other “material support” before telling the panel that “changes to federal criminal laws must be made.”
It has been Democrats who have spearheaded the push to remedy perceived deficiencies in the federal government’s ability to respond to domestic extremism. On Jan. 19, a group of Democrats, along with some Republicans, introduced the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act of 2021, which proposes new powers within the DHS, FBI, and DOJ to “to monitor, investigate, and prosecute cases of domestic terrorism.” The legislation is backed by the influential Judiciary Committee chairmen in both the House and Senate.
The same day, over 150 civil liberties organizations signed a joint letter urging lawmakers “to oppose any new domestic terrorism charge, the creation of a list of designated domestic terrorist organizations, or other expansion of existing terrorism-related authorities.”
All this follows a grim pattern. After 9/11, the first inquiry came from the joint congressional intelligence committees, which looked at intelligence failures in isolation. The subsequent 9/11 Commission had a wider aperture, but as an establishmentarian enterprise, it was not particularly interested in blaming George W. Bush’s administration for its lack of focus on al Qaeda before the attack, and less still in assessing any contribution U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East made to the jihadist reaction. After the invasion of Iraq, Bush dodged responsibility for taking the country to war based on delusions about weapons of mass destruction by empanelling yet another commission that blamed the intelligence agencies, rather than the administration that pressured it to instantiate a threat from a hated Saddam Hussein.
The main lesson of accountability in the Trump era is that exoneration will be met with greater transgression. The day after Robert Mueller told Congress about why he didn’t accuse Trump of obstructing his investigation into 2016 election interference, Trump attempted to blackmail Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky into interfering with the 2020 election. It’s no accident that as the blame for the insurrection gets pushed onto the insurrectionists, the Republican Party is moving around the country to restrict the right to vote amongst perceived Democratic constituencies, something Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell insists is not in fact happening. With prominent conservatives coalescing around a narrative of hostility to democracy for producing outcomes they disfavor, the next insurrection becomes inevitable – unless real political action against the anti-democratic turn occurs.
That said, some Democratic lawmakers harbor hope that voters will serve as the ultimate mechanism of accountability for these Republicans—even if that seems far-off, given that some of the lead endorsers of election conspiracies have reportedly raked in piles of campaign cash from small-dollar donors since Jan. 6.
Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) said “there's a lot of responsibility to go around” among his GOP colleagues but admitted that confronting that is “hard to do here.”
“I do think the Republican Party is facing consequences,” said Heinrich, “because they're unwilling to divorce themselves from the sort of fact-free lunacy of the Trump years.”