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Why America Needs a January 6 Commission

Our last best hope for a baseline of truth.
May 19, 2021
Why America Needs a January 6 Commission
(Photos: GettyImages)

Everyone knows what happened on January 6, 2021: The United States Capitol was breached by Trump supporters who hoped to block Congress from certifying Joe Biden’s 2020 victory. Explaining why it happened is much harder, which is why America needs a January 6 Commission.

House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy announced his opposition to such an investigation on Tuesday. He is concerned that a 1/6 commission would be “duplicative” of current law enforcement efforts and “potentially counterproductive.” This is nonsense. To date, at least 440 individuals have been arrested on charges related to the insurrection. Earlier this year Donald Trump was impeached by the House for his role in inciting the riot. Several congressional committees have looked at (or are currently looking at) various security and enforcement issues related to the attack.

None of these efforts, however, has universal jurisdiction to comprehensively evaluate the attack from a 360-degree perspective. And this full and complete picture is exactly the information that must be collected and made publicly available if future attacks on our elections—both in terms of disinformation and physical force—are to be prevented.

The first reason why we need a January 6 Commission is that only an independent commission tasked with investigating the events can document the full and complete picture of why the insurrection happened.

But the second reason is arguably more important: the threat is ongoing.

Former President Trump has still not conceded the 2020 election. He continues to stoke conspiracies about a rigged election. He and his allies continue to organize their efforts both on a state and national level, united under false claims about the 2020 election. He has even gone so far as to suggest that the election could still be overturned. Here’s one of his recent pronouncements:

If a thief robs a jewelry store of all of its diamonds (the 2020 Presidential Election), the diamonds must be returned.

Just because something is stupid doesn’t mean it can’t also be dangerous. At this moment, Republican state legislatures across the country are promoting voting restrictions based on the notion widespread voter fraud occurred in the last election. Election officials in Georgia and Arizona are mired in made-up election audit scandals. Trump is expected to resume his rallies this summer and one can reasonably anticipate his grievances over the 2020 election will continue to be a major theme.

A bipartisan commission, with support from Republicans and Democrats both inside and outside Washington, might be our last best hope in terms of establishing any kind of baseline of truth about the 2020 presidential election before the next contests get underway.

A commission should divide its investigations into two periods: “before” and “during”—meaning the time period from Election Day 2020 through January 5, and then on January 6.

It’s easy to forget the wild weeks after the election. From Election Day through the Georgia run-off races on January 5, Trump and his allies mounted an all-out media war to cast doubts on the presidential election, complemented by dozens of bogus, losing lawsuits, and conspiracy-laden press appearances by his various lawyers and surrogates.

On Trump’s behalf, a number of MAGA-aligned organizations and activists engaged in “Stop the Steal” efforts to advocate for recounts and audits. Behind closed doors, Trump pressured Georgia officials to recount the state election results and find enough new ballots to secure his victory. Trump associates spun foreign ballot conspiracies. Trump reportedly held meetings about commandeering ballot machines for his lawyers to investigate. Trump is also said to have discussed the possibility of declaring martial law with his advisors.

This flurry of activity, both inside and outside the White House, contributed to the wild and chaotic atmosphere that existed on January 6. Determining what factors influenced his supporters is necessary if Congress wants to prevent future attacks.

When it comes to January 6, those who organized and participated in the pre-insurrection rally headlined by Trump deserve special scrutiny. That event served a critical organizing purpose for the mob. And those who helped summon thousands of people to Washington that day bear some responsibility and have a duty to testify to everything they knew that could have boosted and or provided cover for the violent actors.

On the official side, the fact that it took the Trump administration more than three hours to dispatch the National Guard to secure the Capitol is confusing and has not been sufficiently explained. There are many discrepancies in the timeline of events provided in testimony to Congress from high-ranking Trump administration and law enforcement officials that must be resolved. Moreover, the contents of Trump’s communications that day remain largely secret, although many people have information about his state of mind at that time and could explain his resistance to providing Congress much-needed security help in a timely manner.

A vote on the commission is expected in the House Wednesday; it is likely to pass with some Republican support. In the Senate, Mitch McConnell said on Tuesday that he is “undecided” if the bill should advance.

No one should be surprised that elected Republicans are not, as a class, eager to support the commission. For some, such as House Minority Leader McCarthy and the people who spoke at the January 6 rally, a vote for the commission is a vote to investigate themselves. If anything, their opposition is further evidence of the need for an independent investigation. These elected officials must be made to explain their roles in the events that preceded the riot and what they saw, heard, and said during the riot.

Could a January 6 commission really happen? And if so, could it really contribute meaningfully toward fixing our dangerous politics?

Seven Senate Republicans voted to convict Trump for his role in inciting the insurrection. Surely 10 votes can be found to produce a report to ensure another one will never take place.

And, while it may prove difficult to get witnesses such as McCarthy to testify, this wouldn’t be akin to former Trump officials dodging subpoenas from Congress. Subpoenas sent by persons who are authorized by federal legislation signed by the president tend to get more compliance. Don’t think there aren’t people who were in and around the Trump White House who may be eager to share what they observed, either.

Give the January 6 Commission its chance. Our democracy may very well depend on it.

Amanda Carpenter

Amanda Carpenter is an author, a former communications director to Sen. Ted Cruz, and a former speechwriter to Sen. Jim DeMint. She was formerly a Bulwark political columnist.