Can a 9/11-style probe provide answers about the Capitol riot?

·Senior Editor
·6-min read

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

A group of House Democrats and Republicans announced last week that they had reached an agreement to establish an independent bipartisan commission to investigate the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. The commission would be tasked with studying the “facts and circumstances” that led thousands of Donald Trump supporters to storm the Capitol building, and with providing recommendations for preventing future attacks. The commission would be in part modeled on Congress’s 9/11 Commission that investigated the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

“Inaction — or just moving on — is simply not an option,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson, the Democratic chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, who negotiated the details of the proposal with the committee’s top Republican, Rep. John Katko.

Democrats have been calling for an independent investigation into the Capitol assault since shortly after it occurred. But the effort to establish one has been stalled for months amid partisan disagreement over the makeup of the panel and the scope of its inquiry. Republicans took issue with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s initial proposal because it would have given Democrats outsize power to choose who was on the commission. GOP leaders also wanted the inquiry to include political violence by left-leaning groups. The new proposal represents a compromise from both sides. It calls for equal numbers of Democratic and Republican appointees and would focus only on right-wing violence directly related to the Capitol attack.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy came out in opposition to the proposal on Tuesday, claiming that the process had been marred by “political misdirections” and calling the scope of the inquiry “shortsighted.” The bill was approved by the House on Wednesday, with 35 Republicans voting in favor. Whether the legislation can advance through the Senate, however, is less certain.

Why there’s debate

Supporters of the commission say a sweeping investigation is needed to provide definitive answers to the broad set of unanswered questions that still linger from the Capitol assault, including why Capitol Police were so unprepared, whether any elements of the attack were coordinated and to what degree Trump’s lies about election fraud inspired the mob. Identifying the various causes of the riot, they argue, is critical to ensuring it doesn’t happen again.

An independent commission is best suited for this task, proponents say, because it won’t be influenced by the political concerns that would warp the inquiry if it were handled in Congress. “An independent, bipartisan commission will remove politicization of the conversation and focus solely on the facts,” Katko said. Many on the left argue that an official, nonpartisan account of the assault is needed to combat efforts by some Republicans to mislead the public about what happened on Jan. 6 — lies they argue are intertwined with a broader campaign to promote the “big lie” about fraud in the 2020 election.

Doubts about the commission’s effectiveness come from both sides of the aisle. Many conservatives have argued that Democrats want the investigation only to bludgeon Republicans. Skeptics on the left say the proposed setup gives the GOP far too much opportunity to obstruct the commission’s inquiry and block the full truth from coming out.

What’s next

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has also said he opposes the commission, dealing a blow to the legislation’s murky prospects in the Senate. If it is approved, the commission will have until the end of the year to release its final report.

Perspectives

Supporters

An independent investigation will be free to seek the truth without partisan restraints

“An independent commission — if bi-partisan and with immensely respected figures like [former New Jersey Gov. Tom] Kean and Lee Hamilton, the Democratic vice chair of the 9/11 Commission — has unique advantages. It avoids much of the petty partisanship that plagues every level of Congress and goes well beyond the potential legal and criminal aspects of the investigation.” — Albert Hunt, The Hill

An official account of the attack is needed to combat lies about what happened

“It’s no surprise that roughly half of Republican voters now say they believe that the riot was a largely peaceful protest or that the only violence was committed by ‘left-wing activists’ or others ‘trying to make Trump look bad.’ ... This mass delusion is one of the main reasons an independent commission is essential. A commission’s report has the opportunity to establish the authoritative, fact-based narrative of what happened and why.” — Jesse Wegman, New York Times

The commission wouldn’t be a cure-all, but it could make a significant difference

“No commission can be expected to heal the deep divisions in American society and politics. But it could address a fundamental question: How do we maintain the reality and appearance of open government that guarantees the public access to their officials while protecting those officials — physically and psychologically — from intimidation and terror?” — Brian Michael Jenkins, Los Angeles Times

U.S. democracy will remain at risk without a serious inquiry into the Capitol riot

“America needs to understand what happened on Jan. 6 in order to make sure it doesn’t happen again.” — Editorial, USA Today

Existing criminal investigations can’t address the full scope of the attack

“The assault itself, and the failure to stop it, raise numerous troubling questions about security failures, readiness on the part of the Capitol Police, incitement by the former president and other leaders, and the responsibility of social media companies and other parts of American society. Although the FBI is conducting a criminal probe that will address some of these questions, no criminal investigation can address the many noncriminal questions implicated by the events of the day.” — Daniel Byman and Benjamin Wittes, Lawfare

Skeptics

Democrats are not interested in the truth, only in scoring political points

“This isn’t supposed to be a fact-finding mission. It’s a partisan weapon.” — Eddie Scarry, Washington Examiner

The commission may be too timid to provide real answers

“We cannot again allow a commission of senior political figures to focus on process and minimize the culpability of senior politicians and party leaders. … Of course, no review of such consequential and complex issues can solve all problems or avoid personal and political bias, but if Congress cannot stomach a true reckoning over Jan. 6, they would be better to do nothing at all.” — John Sipher, Washington Post

An investigation focused on blame, rather than answers, won’t be successful

“The commission to investigate the events of January 6, no matter its final form, must not lead to scapegoating of Americans on mere partisan grounds. Speed in accountability — while critically needed to provide answers to the assault on the Capitol on January 6 — should not come at the expense of the rights of any class or group of Americans.” — Thomas Balcerski, CNN

The GOP will turn the entire process into a farce

“I expect a full day of debate over whether it is proper to call what happened an ‘insurrection’ or not. I expect endless committee roll calls on why the commission isn’t looking into Black Lives Matter or Antifa. I expect someone to bring up Benghazi. I expect the entire enterprise to rise from the floor and float off out a window to Neverland. I expect, well, nothing.” — Charles C. Pierce, Esquire

No investigation will be enough to stop the lies about the attack

“A Jan. 6 commission — while it could be a step forward toward accountability and enhanced security — won’t stop Republicans … from twisting the truth.” — Pam Sohn, Chattanooga Times Free Press

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