The Jan. 6 House Select Committee has only just begun its work and it’s already proving the great value of congressional investigations to the country.
The committee was established against the backdrop of vast gaps in our knowledge about the Capitol attack. It is a national imperative — one that all public leaders should share — to get to the bottom of what happened when thousands of rioters attempted to scuttle a fair election, threatening American democracy itself.
For the record:
7: 28 a.m. Sept. 20, 2021
An earlier version of this article misstated the name of the chairman of the Jan. 6 House Select Committee. It is Bennie Thompson, not Bennie Johnson.
Except all leaders don’t share that goal. Nearly the entire Republican Party attempted to scuttle any inquiry into Jan. 6’s causes, and when that effort failed, the party refused to participate, hoping to demean the investigation as partisan. The only two GOP committee members, anti-Trumpers Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) and Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), defied their leaders when they accepted invitations to join the inquiry.
In its first public hearing in late July, select committee Chairman Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) made it clear that the group’s investigative power, including subpoenas, could and would be used against members of Congress — a departure from past practices — to get the full story on Jan. 6.
A month later, Thompson sent out sweeping requests for documents from federal agencies and ordered phone and social media companies to “preserve the records” of various Republicans, including the former president, his circle and his family members, who participated in the pre-insurrection “Stop the Steal” rally on Jan. 6 or who may have talked with the president just before, during and after the Capitol attack. Thousands of pages from government archives were turned over Sept. 9, with more to come.
Almost as soon as the committee’s actions were public knowledge, the truth-telling quotient among some members of the GOP improved.
Start with Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio). Just days after the select committee’s first hearing, a TV interviewer asked Jordan if he’d spoken with the president on Jan. 6. The congressman bobbed and weaved like a boxer on the ropes. Any conversation would have been merely routine: “Yeah, I mean I speak … with the president all the time. I spoke with him on Jan. 6. I don’t think that’s unusual. I would expect members to talk with the president of the United States when they’re trying to get [things done]. ”
Exactly when, the interviewer asked next, did he and Trump talk? Before, during or after the attack?
Jordan went into evasion overdrive: “Uh, I’d have to go, I’d, I, I, I spoke with him that day after, I think after. I don’t know if I spoke with him in the morning or not. I just don’t know. Uh, I’d have to go back and, I mean I don’t, I don’t, I don’t know. …”
A month later, not long after the select committee’s phone and social media demands had been publicized, Jordan was much less hesitant. Quoted in Politico, he copped to more than one call with Trump on Jan. 6 and to connecting with the president while hunkered down in a safe room avoiding the marauders.
Why the sudden clarity? Maybe because Jordan realizes he will probably be called to testify, under oath, before the committee and the country. Any discrepancy between his public statements and hard evidence — like phone company records — could prove humiliating, not to mention politically dangerous. It might even put him in criminal jeopardy.
This force of legal process is exactly what the country was denied during the Trump era, when the president and his enablers brazenly lied, stonewalled and doubled down to evade document requests and testifying under oath. Trump relied on throwing sand into the gears of justice and government bureaucracy, maneuvering to keep his behavior sealed from scrutiny.
Two impeachments and one special counsel investigation later, the upshot is that we still don’t know the truth about much of the former president’s suspect conduct, and in particular his role in grave threats to democratic rule that culminated in the events of Jan. 6.
The Jan. 6 committee is playing for keeps, and of course the Biden administration will prove less an executive branch obstacle to investigators. Individuals may still try to stonewall, but Thompson and the other members show every intention to push past the maneuverings of Republicans, including Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield), another Congress member likely to be called as witness.
McCarthy went so far as to threaten the 30 companies, including Apple, AT&T and Verizon, that have been asked to save relevant records of communications with the president. Turning over such records, McCarthy tweeted, would violate federal law (it wouldn’t). A future Republican majority “will not forget, ” said McCarthy. (“Blatant extortion,” responded one legal scholar.) If McCarthy and other obstructionists have their way, we will never know the full story of Jan. 6.
The House select committee isn’t a “partisan sham,” as the former president has charged. It is the best and perhaps last hope we have of countering the GOP’s falsehoods — that there was no insurrection, that the rioters were peaceful protesters and that the only danger to our democracy was a “stolen” 2020 election.
In fact, the committee could achieve a major breakthrough. With the right legal incentives — sweeping information and document requests and orders, subpoenas issued and enforced, testimony under oath — some of Washington’s biggest liars may meet their match. Americans of all political stripes should champion the effort. A full accounting of Jan. 6 is a core requirement for maintaining America’s democracy.