Politics Aside, Americans Need More Facts About Jan. 6
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- House Speaker Nancy Pelosi keeps giving Kevin McCarthy easy choices. The Republican leader’s political interest is in discrediting the new select committee investigating the Capitol riot of Jan. 6. A thorough, bipartisan inquiry into the origin of that riot isn’t something that either of the two main groups of House Republicans want: the ones who participated in the campaign to pretend that President Donald Trump had won re-election, and the ones who would like to move on from all Trump-related controversies.
So McCarthy couldn’t lose when given the chance to nominate Republicans to the committee. He named five congressmen, including the vehement Trump defenders Jim Jordan of Ohio and Jim Banks of Indiana. If Pelosi okayed them, the committee would have two members determined to undermine its work. If she vetoed them, as the committee’s founding rules allow and as she did for Jordan and Banks on Wednesday, then McCarthy could point to her decision as evidence of the essential partisanship of the investigation.
McCarthy may have made an error, though, in pledging that Republicans would conduct their own investigation for the sake of Congress and the Capitol police. His statement concedes that further investigation is needed, when many Republicans have been saying that previous hearings by congressional committees and ongoing prosecutions by the Justice Department were sufficient. If McCarthy does not launch an investigation, or launches a phony one, it may lead to negative stories he could otherwise have avoided.
The bipartisan consensus about the need for additional information, even if it is not completely sincere, is correct. There is still plenty we don’t know about the lead-up to the attack. To what extent were Trump’s aides organizing the protests that turned violent? How aware were they of the danger? Was Trump’s claim to have won the election in a landslide a lie or a delusion? And once the attack started, how did White House officials respond?
Some of the answers will dribble out in books by Trump administration insiders, or about them. But the new House committee can perform a valuable service by getting more information and putting it together.
The committee will surely want to hear from a lot of Trump administration officials, including his vice president, Mike Pence, and his attorney general, Bill Barr, as well as lesser-known figures such as Pat Cipollone (who was White House counsel) and Marc Short (Pence’s chief of staff). Pushing hard for their testimony, though, could raise questions about executive privilege. And the Department of Justice, even in a Democratic administration, might not back the committee in disputes about it.
Before seeking testimony, then, the committee should consider issuing a subpoena for any relevant documents, or copies of documents, that Trump’s aides kept with them after leaving office. The chaos and indiscipline of the Trump operation increases the likelihood that some officials kept records; so does their distrust of one another.
Such documents have proven relatively easy to obtain in past investigations. They can create leads for investigators, telling them whose phone and bank records to demand. They can also make it easier to get testimony by eroding privilege claims. If there is evidence that an official was engaged in criminal activity, for example, executive privilege would not protect him from having to testify. Witnesses may also have more incentive to talk if information about them has already come to light.
What the select committee can achieve should not be overstated. Americans are too polarized for it to change many minds among those Republican voters who still believe the election was stolen. It is also unlikely to have much effect on the next election, however much Democrats may hope and Republicans fear that it will. The more the Democrats try to use the committee that way, the more voters will tune it out.
What the new committee can do is provide a fuller picture of how so many citizens came to engage in a lawless action to overturn an election, and help everyone make finer-grained judgments about who bears responsibility for it.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a senior editor at National Review and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
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