The formal Jan. 6 investigation by Congress kicked off Tuesday and was, of course, made almost secondary by fighting over who's doing the investigating.
The first hearing of the new, select, 13-member House committee heard from four police officers who made clear that:
- The Jan. 6 attacks were by Donald Trump supporters, not random leftist posers
- It was dangerous, not a gathering of "love," as Trump himself has described
- It was out of control for hours
We heard ad nauseum from Trump's side that Speaker Nancy Pelosi is a rotten person because the Democrat rejected obstructionist nominees to the committee who were out to make a mockery of its proceedings. She dared in their view to reach into Republican ranks to name two members who have publicly opposed Trump on the insurrection attempt and the continuing Big Steal campaign to declare the last presidential election a fraud.
Both Representatives Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois are paying a price among Republican colleagues for even agreeing to sit on a panel that thinks there is something more important here than party politics. Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy promised retribution against "Pelosi Republicans," even as Pelosi gave Cheney a prime opening speaking role which she used to lambast her GOP colleagues.
Republican mainstay thinking is that Pelosi had wrought a biased investigation panel of specific Democratic interest and majority to bear – even though they, as a group, resisted any attempt to create a more independent, bipartisan group of investigators.
Kinzinger's public statements after his selection by Pelosi were in stark contrast with those of Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana or Jim Jordan of Ohio, whom he essentially replaced. "We are duty-bound to conduct a full investigation on the worst attack on the Capitol since 1814 and to make sure it can never happen again."
Banks and Jordan, by contrast, had attacked the premise of even looking at Jan. 6 is a renewed attack of Trump. They wanted rather to investigate street violence surrounding Black Lives Matter protests and why Pelosi herself had not secured the Capitol rather than look at how Team Trump had assembled and incited armed supporters and sent them to the Capitol – delaying any action to stop the rioting. Five people died in the attacks and scores were injured.
Pelosi tossed the pair and offered to keep three other nominees. Then Republicans chose not to nominate new investigators.
The purpose of the Jan. 6 committee, of course, is to examine how the riot came about, what happened and to recommend steps to stop a repeat.
Because Pelosi insisted on that purpose for inclusion on the committee, Republicans walked away – only now to bleat that the investigation is unfairly biased because Pelosi didn't include those bent on changing the purpose.
But it is literally bipartisan, if you still count being non-Trump Republicans as party members.
Rep. Bennie Thompson, Democratic head of the committee, opened with frankness: "Some people are trying to deny what happened. To whitewash it. To turn the insurrectionists into martyrs. But the whole world saw the reality of what happened on Jan. 6th. . . And all of it: for a vile, vile lie. Let's be clear. The rioters who tried to rob us of our democracy were propelled here by a lie. As chairman of this committee, I will not give that lie any fertile ground."
The hearing itself featured the emotional testimony of four law enforcement officers, particularly in annotating video clips.
- U.S. Capitol Police Sgt. Aquilino Gonell told how he was beaten, had his hand sliced open and was doused in chemical spray during the attack
- Private First Class Harry Dunn said was called racist slurs and has experienced post-traumatic stress disorder
- Metropolitan Police Department Officer Michael Fanone said he faced death threats with his own gun
- Officer Daniel Hodges told of being crushed in a door by rioters and beaten.
This was no lovefest.
This effort is bound to prove controversial at every step. Every statement of "fact" about Jan. 6 will elicit countercharges of presumption, prejudice and denial by the non-participating Republicans. Expect constant attacks on the people asking the questions, on staffers, on versions of the story that don't begin with allegations that voters were rightfully angry because millions of votes for Trump were magically turned into votes for Joe Biden.
Four Republican congress members — Matt Gaetz, Louie Gohmert, Paul Gosar, Marjorie Taylor Greene – held a press conference to decry that Jan. 6 arrestees are political prisoners, for example.
Still, despite court proceedings for now 500 rioters, we continue to have big gaps in the public understanding of what actually occurred, where the money and planning came from, what was going on in the White House while insurrectionists ran riot, why federal response was delayed. We can expect a lot of howling over whether the committee tries to subpoena Trump or his top aides and Trump family members to answer questions about what the expectations were in calling that midday Jan. 6 rally and sending them to the Capitol. The Justice Department decided yesterday that they could testify without the protection of executive privilege.
If Trump were as big a guy as he presents himself, you'd think he would want to face down this committee. But that has not been his pattern, and he certainly won't willingly agree to be under oath. And what of the Republican members of Congress who supposedly conducted Capitol reconnaissance tours just before the attacks?
We should probably be content to see it all as political theater rather than fact-finding, but who knows? Maybe we'll be surprised to learn that there are any number of individuals who participated or who are uncovering actual fact that can provide some answers.
As the hearing was happening, we were seeing evidence across town about why it is needed:
The Justice Department was filing a brief on arguments about whether then Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala was within his official duties as a congressman to promote the riot. He was among the speakers at the rally denouncing his colleagues for failing to overturn the election results.
As Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin noted, "This sounds absurd, but in effect, Brooks is asking the Justice Department to certify that he was acting in the scope of his duties when he tried to overthrow the government. If he succeeds, he would be immune from suit."
She said it is "akin to saying Gen. Robert E. Lee was acting within the scope of his duties in the U.S. Army when he attacked Union troops. Sedition is not within the scope of any official's duties."
Meanwhile, Trump himself broadly hints at trying again. He claims the large sums of money he is raising through front-man groups are for recounts and audits. He's apparently using the money for business and legal bills.
So much for bipartisan wondering about the future of democracy.