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What the ‘Weaponization’ Committee Is Really After

‘It’s a drug they’re going to put out on the street for conservative media and conservative voters.’
January 23, 2023
What the ‘Weaponization’ Committee Is Really After
U.S. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) (R) shakes hands with Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) as Representatives cast their votes for Speaker of the House on the first day of the 118th Congress in the House Chamber of the U.S. Capitol Building on January 03, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

The defeat of election deniers running for important statewide offices last fall suggested a nation edging away from seven years of Trumpism. But that trend will be tested in the next two years, with supercharged Republicans newly empowered to spout conspiracies, grievances, whataboutism, and lies from official, high-profile platforms.

The House Oversight Committee’s crammed investigations menu is perilous for President Joe Biden, from the Afghanistan withdrawal, the Southern border, and Hunter Biden’s activities to the recently discovered classified documents at Biden’s residences and a think tank once associated with him.

But beyond the political risk for Biden and his legacy, there is a larger danger for the country—specifically the Judiciary Committee’s new Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government led by Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio. Jordan has long complained about the supposed persecution of conservatives by the FBI and other agencies. Now he’s claimed broad powers to do something about it—including mucking around in open investigations.

Is the government really picking on conservatives? Or, hear me out, did a defeated, twice-impeached president and some of his conservative allies maybe do something unconstitutional or illegal in trying to overturn the 2020 election by lying, scheming and attacking the Capitol? Or moving hundreds of top secret documents to Mar-a-Lago and then (unlike Biden) stonewalling for months to forestall handing them over? Maybe these things deserve federal attention. Right?

The tragedy is that, when it comes to Jim Jordan’s investigations, facts may not matter. What will matter, painfully so, is how shoveling paranoia and distortion into the news stream will further undermine trust in the U.S. government, its integrity, its motives, and its elections.

These fears are not overblown, says David Jolly, a former two-term congressman from Florida who left the GOP in 2018 and is now a political independent. Jolly co-chairs Facts First USA, a bipartisan rapid-response group founded by Democratic activist David Brock.

“Coming off Donald Trump’s stolen election fake narrative and the violent insurrection of January 6th, this subcommittee will stoke a toxic mix of insurrection themes. It will provide justification for Americans to feel they are under threat from their government,” Jolly said in a phone interview. The message to Second Amendment conservatives is that “you have a right to your weapons because one day the government’s going to come for you,” he added. “It gets into themes that are destabilizing.”

From my liberal standpoint, it’s hard to take conservative whining seriously. America has been structurally rigged since birth in favor of states that are sparsely populated, mostly with white people. Two senators apiece, whether a state has over 39 million people or under 600,000. Popular presidential votes that don’t count: Losers who can win—and they have, twice since 2000 alone. A Supreme Court far more conservative than the nation that must abide by its rulings gutting abortion rights, voting rights, gun safety laws, and political contribution limits.

Now House conservatives are going after the same federal government that has allowed them such disproportionate power.

The weaponization subcommittee was an element in negotiations that helped Kevin McCarthy win the speakership. Rep. Dan Bishop (R-N.C.), who didn’t vote for McCarthy until the twelfth of fifteen ballots, summed up the victory:

Note that Bishop, like others talking about this new subcommittee, invokes the mid-1970s committee chaired by Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho), that examined allegations of intelligence abuses unearthed during the Senate Watergate investigation of President Richard Nixon. The panel had a lower-key leader, a bipartisan mission, and a much tamer formal title—the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities.

But the results of its “thoughtful and careful investigative work” (in the words of the Senate Historical Office) were explosive: The Church committee identified “a wide range of intelligence abuses by federal agencies” under presidents of both parties in the Cold War period, and covert activities to discredit targets including anti-Vietnam War protesters and Martin Luther King Jr.

Our era is far more polarized and performative, and Jordan is one of its leading men. Former Republican Speaker John Boehner has described him as “a legislative terrorist,” and former Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi vetoed him as a member of the House January 6th Committee because he was an election objector close to Trump.

Another reason for alarm is the weaponization panel’s charge to dig into “ongoing criminal investigations.” This last-minute addition to its portfolio covers, for example, federal probes of the Capitol insurrection, Trump’s role in it, his many attempts to nullify the 2020 election, the hundreds of sensitive and top-secret documents he took to Mar-a-Lago in apparent violation of the Presidential Records Act, and the August 2021 FBI search that came after fourteen months of requests and a subpoena for the documents.

It’s galling that conservatives complain about all this as if the conduct were normal and the investigations abusive. As if Trump had done nothing wrong. As if the GOP itself had never “weaponized” the government (with its endless Benghazi investigation that McCarthy gloated had lowered Hillary Clinton’s poll numbers, for instance, or Trump-era Attorney General William Barr’s preemptive whitewash of the deeply damaging Mueller Report). As if the new panel itself—approved 222-211 on straight party lines—were not, as Amanda Carpenter writes, itself weaponizing the House.

Even if the Justice Department refuses to grant a single request for information about open investigations, Jordan’s anti-government offensive is frightening. As Jolly put it, “It’s about stoking the flames of government suspicion. It’s a drug they’re going to put out on the street for conservative media and conservative voters.”

And it’s a threat to all of us, especially given the historically close 2022 midterms in a historically divided nation. Jacob Rubashkin of Inside Elections writes that Republicans won their House majority by 6,670 votes in five races. And CNN analyst Harry Enten notes that neither party holds more than 52 percent of Senate seats, House seats, or governorships—which he says hasn’t happened since 1914, the first time all Senate elections were held by popular vote.

By 2024, most voters could be so scared or fed up that they’ll hand the GOP a massive defeat at the polls. But it’s also possible that more Americans will buy what Republicans are selling. It wouldn’t take too many more of them to create a genuine red wave, forcing America to stay on a path that leads ever further away from truth, trust, and a healthy democracy.

Jill Lawrence

Jill Lawrence is an opinion writer and the author of The Art of the Political Deal: How Congress Beat the Odds and Broke Through Gridlock. She previously covered national politics for the AP and USA Today and was the managing editor for politics at National Journal. Homepage: Twitter: @JillDLawrence.