The authoritative investigation into the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol was never supposed to carry the adjective “Benghazi-style.”
But six months after the deadly insurrection, Democrats are confronting the reality that Republicans would rather not do a full accounting of the assault on the cradle of American democracy—their workplace.
Without 10 Republican votes in the Senate, the idea for a bipartisan, independent commission is now dead, and that’s left Democrats and the handful of Republicans who want an investigation with a clear alternative: a new special committee to look into the attack.
Democrats wanted to avoid an overtly political investigation—a special select committee is, after all, the very vehicle Republicans chose for their lengthy probe into the terrorist attacks on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Libya in 2012—but for those who want a deep dive on Jan. 6, this is their next-best option.
Democrats told The Daily Beast they understand that creating a special committee risks making an investigation into Jan. 6 a partisan circus. And Republicans are already arguing that any probe would turn into a political hit job designed to hurt Donald Trump and the GOP ahead of the 2022 midterm elections. It’s just that Democrats don’t have many other good options.
“It’s fascinating,” said Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-MI), “that the people who supported the Benghazi investigation are now the ones accusing Democrats of launching a Benghazi-style commission.”
Slotkin said the criticisms were going to come no matter what. “The response is to take it seriously and construct the best commission we can,” she said.
But the Michigan Democrat acknowledged Democrats were dealing with “second-best options.” She said that didn’t, however, eliminate their responsibility to investigate the attack. “It’s not an option to throw up our hands and say, ‘We had this dramatic event… and we’re just gonna sweep it under the rug because we can’t get it done,’” she said.
Democrats are clear-eyed about the hurdles of producing a sweeping Jan. 6 report when it’s members of Congress doing the investigating. One of the biggest challenges, some Democrats said, would be preventing Republicans from politicizing the investigation and spouting revisionist histories to muddy the waters—particularly when some members are subjects of the probe themselves.
“If Republicans try to make a circus of it—so they appoint Jim Jordan and Marjorie Taylor Greene and people like that—it becomes a farce,” said Rep. John Yarmuth (D-KY). “The Republican strategy was to defeat anything that had credibility, so that any investigation that had actually happened could be dismissed as partisan.”
Yarmuth added that to the extent Democrats could create an alternative that’s able to retain its credibility, “that’s what we oughta do.”
The problem is that no one seems to have a clear answer for that alternative. And those who support a commission are openly acknowledging that they’re now squarely in the terrain of plan Bs, Cs, or Ds.
Tim Roemer, a former Democratic congressman who served on the 9/11 commission, said even a Jan. 6 commission modeled after that gold standard—equal members and staff between the parties, members from outside Congress, space and time to do its work—would have had a hard enough road.
“A select committee, in an election cycle, going into the midterms, with the kind of division we see in Congress... that makes this even more difficult to do,” Roemer told The Daily Beast.
A lot more than Capitol Hill and 2022 politics rides on what lawmakers decide to do next. The 9/11 commission became the authoritative account of that attack for posterity. While there are ongoing avenues for unearthing facts about Jan. 6—law enforcement agencies are probing criminal aspects of the attack and a pair of Senate committees is rolling out a report on security failures that day—Democrats and Republicans worry about what will be lost for history, and for nearer-term accountability, if the worst attack on U.S. democracy in centuries fails to get a similar treatment.
On a call last Tuesday with Democratic lawmakers, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) laid out a few paths forward, according to a source on the call. One of them was to create a select committee. Another was to empower the House Homeland Security Committee to simply conduct the probe. More options, which are not mutually exclusive, include letting a group of committees work together on it, or to send an amended independent-commission bill with even more GOP concessions back to the Senate.
There’s no overwhelming consensus among Democrats at the moment on which of the options is next-best, though the select committee seems a clear favorite even with its flaws. Among roughly a dozen Democrats who spoke to The Daily Beast, nearly all agreed it’d be a waste of time to craft another commission bill that could somehow clear a Senate filibuster.
“If they're not there yet,” said Rep. Sean Casten (D-IL) of Senate Republicans, “they’re not gonna get there.”
But many Democrats feel the gravity and scope of Jan. 6 demands an entity solely devoted to it. Some lawmakers are suggesting that keeping that big investigation in the Homeland Security Committee could ward off any Benghazi problems. The panel’s Democratic chairman and its ranking Republican—Reps. Bennie Thompson (D-MS) and John Katko (R-NY)—were the two that negotiated the bipartisan commission bill that garnered 35 GOP votes in the House and six in the Senate. Both are widely seen as credible and serious-minded legislators, and many hope that the two of them run whatever panel Congress empowers to investigate Jan. 6.
Slotkin, a member of the Homeland Security panel, said having Thompson and Katko in charge could prevent a Jan. 6 investigation from becoming a mess. “I’m not against a select committee,” she said. “It’s extremely important that it doesn’t become a circus. If I understand the select committee, Republicans have the opportunity to name who they want. I’m not sure I feel that Republican leadership is looking to be a productive partner in this committee.”
What animates that perspective for some Democrats is their experience with the last new committee they stood up. In April 2020, Pelosi moved to create an extension of the House Oversight Committee devoted to the COVID-19 outbreak and the federal response. Republicans opposed its creation, saying again that it would be used to attack Trump, and accused Democrats of abusing their power. Ultimately, the GOP decided to put members like Jordan on the committee.
In the year since, the panel has done some serious investigative work—like looking into federal pandemic loans—but it frequently served as a main venue for each party to go to war over its differing views on the pandemic.
Republicans are weighing a similar response now. “It’s fair to say we expect Pelosi to pivot to a hyper-partisan select committee, and if she does, it becomes another impeachment trial essentially,” a senior GOP aide told The Daily Beast.
“If I were her, I’d set up the select committee to nearly mirror the deal they negotiated with Katko so we couldn’t do that,” the aide continued. “But I don’t think she’ll be able to resist the urge to make a select committee that gives the minority little to no real power.”
Top Democrats are actually urging a course of emulating the independent commission as closely as possible. “My vote would be to do something that’s as close as possible to the proposal the Republicans rejected—so, the equal membership, some say from the minority, and subpoenas,” said Yarmuth.
And a former top member of Pelosi’s leadership team, former Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY), said the gravity of the insurrection means Pelosi “wants the best bipartisan inquiry she can get, and she’ll try to do that. But she will not allow her patience to be tested forever.”
Plenty of Democrats feel an urgency to put the pedal to the metal. “We can of course assume that people from Kevin McCarthy on down are going to do everything they can to accuse us of all sorts of malfeasance,” said Casten, who has vocally called for a commission. “If I woke up in the morning wondering what I could do to make Kevin McCarthy happy, I’d have a pretty sad life.”
But any Congress-led probe will have baked-in problems. The central appeal of an independent commission was to take it out of the hands of lawmakers, insulating it from electoral concerns and clamping down on soundbite-seeking grandstanding. In a select committee, those concerns would almost certainly become realities.
And there’s another thorny issue with letting members control an investigation: What do you do about the GOP lawmakers with reported ties to the organizers of Jan. 6, or the ones who reportedly led tours for insurrectionists the night before the attack?
“This is why it’s so complicated,” Slotkin said. “Frankly, there are people who had roles to play that day, and we vote next to them… this is why we’re in the realm of second-best options.”
Casten argued there is room for Democrats to navigate this tricky terrain. “We have the opportunity, if we lead with integrity, to say, we are not going into this to score partisan points,” he said.
“Whether you’re a member of the Oath Keepers or the U.S. Senate, if you have information that is germane to this investigation, you will be deposed and expected to speak truthfully,” he added. “And there will be consequences.”
During Trump’s second impeachment, Democrats largely avoided trying to hold fellow members accountable for their rhetoric and actions leading up to Jan. 6. Instead, Democratic impeachment managers focused on Trump’s role and ignored their GOP colleagues. Whatever route Democrats take for an investigation, how closely they want to examine those questions is undecided.
All along, Republicans have worried that Democrats would manage a Jan. 6 probe with the express purpose of damaging the GOP in 2022. While Democrats say that’s not the point, they acknowledge it’s easy to see how even the fairest possible investigation could result in awful headlines for Trump’s party.
“You want to make sure that it does its work immune from any political hype,” said Israel, a former chair of House Democrats’ campaign arm who is now the director of Cornell’s Institute of Politics and Global Affairs. “On the other hand, if the findings include that President Trump, or others close to him, were complicit in this insurrection, a Republican vote against that fact-finding is fair game in any election.”
Whatever form the Jan. 6 investigation takes, many on Capitol Hill seem to have accepted it will be far diminished from what seemed possible months ago. A commission with baked-in credibility and distance from the noisy din of Congress is a pipe dream. Lawmakers can try to pull the same thing off—and just hope the public can sort through the partisan warfare.
“Our agenda, mandate, morals, and ethics should be absolutely no different than if this were a nonpartisan panel,” Casten said. “The American people are smart enough to know the difference between truth and lies.”