clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The GOP whitewash of the Capitol attack shows the need for a January 6 commission

Two House Republicans have suggested that a commission could subpoena Kevin McCarthy.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) holds a news conference at the US Capitol in 2019.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

On Sunday, a second House Republican suggested that, if a congressional commission examining the January 6 attack on the US Capitol materializes, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) could soon receive a subpoena to testify.

Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI) joined former Republican House conference chair Liz Cheney (R-WY), who was ousted from that job Wednesday, in suggesting that a subpoena could be on the table for McCarthy, telling CNN’s Dana Bash on State of the Union that “I would suspect Kevin would be subpoenaed.”

Cheney struck a similar note in an interview segment released Friday, telling ABC’s Jonathan Karl that McCarthy “absolutely should [testify] and I wouldn’t be surprised if he were subpoenaed.”

“I think that he very clearly said publicly that he’s got information about the president’s state of mind that day,” Cheney said. “The elements of that commission are exactly as they should be.”

Upton and Cheney were among the 10 House Republicans who broke from McCarthy in January to vote to impeach former President Donald Trump in the wake of the Capitol insurrection on January 6, which left five people dead.

Since the attack, House members, who were forced to evacuate the chamber after it was stormed by pro-Trump insurrectionists, have been debating the potential creation of an independent investigative commission, after the pattern of the one formed following 9/11, to look into the January 6 riots.

As of Friday, when the leaders of the House Homeland Security Committee announced a bipartisan agreement on its formation, that commission looks closer than ever — much to McCarthy’s potential discomfort, should he be called to testify.

If McCarthy testifies either voluntarily or under subpoena as part of the commission’s investigation, he could face the prospect of bridging the rather large gap between Trump — who has shown no inclination to relinquish his grasp on the Republican Party — and the truth of what happened on January 6.

As CNN and other outlets have reported previously — and pro-impeachment Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-WA) confirmed in a statement in February — McCarthy spoke with Trump while the riots were still ongoing and pleaded with Trump to call his supporters off.

According to Herrera Beutler, Trump “initially repeated the falsehood that it was antifa that had breached the Capitol” on the call with McCarthy.

Subsequently, Herrera Beutler said in her February statement, “McCarthy refuted that and told the president that these were Trump supporters. That’s when, according to McCarthy, the president said: ‘Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are.’”

Other Republicans have corroborated Trump’s state of mind as the attack was unfolding. According to Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE), “Donald Trump was walking around the White House confused about why other people on his team weren’t as excited as he was as you had rioters pushing against Capitol Police trying to get into the building.”

If McCarthy is called upon to substantiate Herrera Beutler’s account of the McCarthy-Trump call for the commission, however, it would likely also put McCarthy in an awkward position politically.

That’s because McCarthy’s call with Trump — which reportedly took place as rioters were attempting to break through the minority leader’s office windows — is a reminder of the true severity of the January 6 attacks, and of Trump’s support for the mob, who he described as “very special” in a video later the same day. It’s also increasingly out of step with a Republican conference eager to downplay the insurrection and a former president who is hypersensitive to criticism — and it’s hard to imagine McCarthy looking forward to giving a faithful retelling of January 6 to a potential commission.

The commission plan isn’t confirmed yet

Despite Upton’s and Cheney’s comments, there are still lots of “ifs” floating around any potential McCarthy testimony — including the commission itself. Although Friday’s agreement between House Homeland Security Committee chair Bennie Thompson (D-MS) and ranking member John Katko (R-NY) gives the commission at least a veneer of bipartisanship, it’s less clear how much support the proposal will find with House GOP leadership.

Katko, specifically, is an outlier — one of just 10 House Republicans to support impeaching Trump — and his conference just purged the only member of leadership, Cheney, who voted to impeach Trump for inciting insurrection.

For now, McCarthy has yet to come down either for or against the plan — telling reporters Friday that he hadn’t approved the deal and wants to see more details — but a vote on the measure could be coming “as soon as next week,” according to the statement released by Thompson.

“Inaction — or just moving on — is simply not an option,” Thompson said Friday. “The creation of this commission is our way of taking responsibility for protecting the US Capitol. ... We owe it to the Capitol Police and all who enter our citadel of democracy to investigate the attack.”

There are also questions about whether a McCarthy subpoena could materialize even if the commission is established in its proposed form.

McCarthy will likely get a say in selecting half of the commission

According to the statement by Thompson, the independent commission would consist of 10 members appointed by a bipartisan, bicameral leadership group — five by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), including the commission chair, and five by McCarthy himself and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), including a vice chair.

None of those members may be sitting members of Congress or current government employees, according to Thompson, and they must all have “significant expertise in the areas of law enforcement, civil rights, civil liberties, privacy, intelligence, and cybersecurity.”

Though the commission would have subpoena power in its proposed form, actually issuing a subpoena would require at least limited bipartisan consensus — either an agreement between the chair and vice chair, or a simple majority vote.

In other words, McCarthy would have a direct hand in choosing enough commission members to block the subpoena process if they vote as a bloc, which could make Upton and Cheney’s suggestion that McCarthy be subpoenaed aspirational at best.

The Republican conference is trying to whitewash the insurrection

If the commission proposal, which calls for a final report and “recommendations to prevent future attacks on our democratic institutions” to be issued by the end of this calendar year, does come to fruition, it could be a valuable reminder of what actually occurred on January 6 — which some House Republicans appear increasingly fuzzy about.

In just the past week, the GOP effort to whitewash the insurrection, which injured 140 members of law enforcement, has kicked into high gear.

On Wednesday, for example, in a committee hearing on the attack, Rep. Andrew Clyde (R-GA) said that “there was no insurrection and to call it an insurrection, in my opinion, is a boldfaced lie.”

“Watching the TV footage of those who entered the Capitol and walked through Statuary Hall showed people in an orderly fashion staying between the stanchions and ropes, taking videos and pictures,” Clyde said. “You know, if you didn’t know the TV footage was a video from January the 6th, you would actually think it was a normal tourist visit.”

Clyde isn’t alone. Also this week, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) said “there’s no evidence this was an armed insurrection,” and Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ) described the insurrectionists as “peaceful patriots.”

Needless to say, all three statements (and there are several others in the same vein just from this week) are flat-out false — and there’s abundant video evidence to prove it.

In addition to all of the footage that has already emerged from the riot — much of which is graphic and disturbing — CNN just this week obtained new bodycam video showing a DC Metropolitan Police officer, Michael Fanone, being attacked by the mob.

According to CNN, Fanone was “stun-gunned several times and beaten with a flagpole” by Trump supporters. He also suffered a “mild” heart attack, according to the Washington Post, and at least one insurrectionist shouted that the mob should “kill [Fanone] with his own gun!”

As the Washington Post editorial board argued on Friday, it’s no sure thing that the 9/11-style commission agreed on by Thompson and Katko would stop Republicans from pushing a false, revisionist account of January 6.

“But,” the board writes, “as [the commission] answers outstanding questions about how the riot occurred and who is responsible — in part, we hope, by taking the sworn testimony of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and other eyewitness lawmakers — the panel ought to make it harder for Republicans to twist the truth.”

Upton himself has made the same point: In the same CNN interview Sunday, he told Bash that his colleagues’ claims that the attack was “peaceful” were “absolutely bogus.”

“I saw the gallows that were constructed on the East Front of the Capitol,” Upton said. “It was chilling, what happened, absolutely chilling. And that’s why I think that it’s important that we move forward with this bipartisan commission.”

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.