On Monday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told House Democrats that a 9/11-styled, independent commission on the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol would in fact be formed. The details are still being worked out, but the goal is something that would mimic the 9/11 Commission formed after the Al Qaeda-plotted terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. in 2001: An independent committee with subpoena power comprising equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats and the staff and resources to fully investigate the events leading up to the unprecedented attack. The White House has signaled President Joe Biden’s support for a commission as well, suggesting that it’s all but a done deal.
Whether such a commission can be successful is another question. Members of the 9/11 Commission itself are offering their own advice, but the main difficulty is both obvious and seemingly insurmountable. It will be difficult to form a credible “bipartisan” committee to investigate the origins of the attack on the Capitol and the myriad government failures to plan for or respond to it when the Republican Party is absolutely insistent that those things not be investigated. The party has already insisted that the nation overlook the then-president organizing a march to coincide precisely with the congressional certification of his loss, promoting that march for weeks, funding it to the tune of multiple millions, and appearing before the resulting crowd to spread hoax theories to demand they march to the Capitol and disrupt the vote counting.
It’s difficult to fathom how a “bipartisan” investigation will fare if bipartisanship demands overlooking all of that.
The national memory of the 9/11 Commission itself has turned fuzzy with time, but despite widespread political self-praise for the committee’s formation, the actual results from the committee were decidedly more muddy. It was marred by partisan obstruction from central figures in the Bush White House, politically motivated decisions on what to keep classified and what to release, CIA stonewalling and other efforts intended to shift blame, and its final report was a fragmented accounting of events rather than the definitive historical account its backers had hoped it would be.
Indeed, Senate Republicans have the power to substantially undercut any new commission’s power even while claiming to support its formation, and are likely to, as The Washington Post‘s Greg Sargent suspects, “do everything they can to cripple it with a barrage of bad-faith nonsense designed to water down its goal of producing an actual reckoning with the causes of insurrection, and especially with the former president’s role in inciting it.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham says he is supportive of a 9/11-style commission to investigate the violence. That does not mean Graham intends for that commission to have subpoena power allowing investigators to probe communications between the violent far right and Trump’s allies or campaign officials.
Let us imagine what questions a new Jan. 6 Commission would be tasked with answering.
First, the proximate cause of the violence: Why it happened. We already know how the crowd was gathered, and that the gathering was specifically timed to coincide with the formal counting of the electoral college votes that would confirm Joe Biden to be the next president and Donald Trump to have lost office. We know Trump specifically asked his supporters—during a speech timed to end just as that counting would take place—to march to the Capitol and disrupt that count. From the outset, the rally was planned with the goal of blocking or overturning Congress’ certification of the presidential election, which was an attempt to nullify an election and reestablish Trump as leader by coup.
What we do not know is the amount of coordination between the White House and violent far-right groups friendly to Trump ally Roger Stone, and the extent to which the Trump campaign was itself involved in not just planning and financing the rally, but carrying it out. Senate Republicans have been irate in their insistence that those questions be left un-probed.
A commission would likely be tasked with determining how the would-be insurrectionists were radicalized and why they believed a violent attack to overturn an election and, if need be, assassinate Trump’s named political enemies was justified. We know this: The crowd had been incited with many weeks of repeated but fraudulent claims that the election was “stolen” from Trump, a hoax propagated by Trump himself, his allies, his campaign, his lawyers, Republican senators, Republican members of Congress, state Republican Party offices, multiple far-right propaganda outlets, Republican pundits, and Fox News. It was an organized campaign of false propaganda intended to discredit the election results and the election itself, a hoax then perpetuated by Republican lawmakers who used the same false claims in a Jan. 6 attempt to themselves nullify the election results by erasing the electoral votes cast by multiple Biden-won states.
How, then, will a bipartisan commission tackle a propaganda effort planned and executed by all levels of the Republican Party itself?
The most rote job of the commission, however, will assuredly be a probe to investigate why the violent mob was so easily able to breach Capitol security; overpower, injure, and kill law enforcement officers; why additional security forces were not staged in advance to respond to the long-known possibility of violence; and why it took hours for additional security to arrive even as the vice president and lawmakers all fled for their lives. It was an unforgivable act of incompetence or malice—a near-toppling of government by no more than a few busloads of seditionists in a country that prides itself on military might capable of defending the nation against any non-nuclear aggressor on the planet.
It also would seem the path of investigation least likely to be undermined by partisan mischief because the United States Capitol Police and associated forces, being nonpartisan, could not count on the sure efforts of party partisans to sabotage investigations into their own ranks. Assuredly, there will be widespread pressure to pin as much blame as possible on Capitol security forces themselves, and a demand that the investigation center around the security failures that allowed a crowd of Trump-supporting would-be topplers of government to overrun the building rather than around how the violent crowd arrived at the building in the first place.
Even that effort, though, can get only a few steps before running afoul of one of the most pressing security questions of all: a new Trump administration order that essentially ordered security forces to stand down even after a summer of robust-to-egregious overpolicing of every political demonstration not explicitly pro-Trump in nature.
We know that Trump officials were aware of the potential for violence at the event. We know there was a directive to not deploy the same federal forces that were used for all other similarly sized protests, whether violent or not. It appears that the risk assessment warning of potential violence did not make it to Capitol Police beforehand, or was downplayed, or was not acted upon—but after the violence started, we do know, even from Republican statements, that Trump himself took no action to help secure the safety of his vice president or other officials but instead belittled them and, in Vice President Mike Pence’s case, appeared to intentionally incite violence against them after he was made aware that rioters were inside the building.
The biggest questions of all, then, revolve around the Trump administration’s actions after the attack was well underway, when a response was delayed for hours despite the clear risk to all three of the topmost officials in the presidential line of succession. There’s good reason to believe that Trump administration officials downplayed the possible threat to Congress specifically to avoid the spectacle of riot gear-clad federal troops facing down a sea of Trump supporters, risking national security in the process. Evidence suggests that after the violence began, however, Trump himself either intentionally delayed the security response or, at the least, washed his hands of providing one at all. Reports indicate it was Pence, not Trump, who finally approved the deployment of the National Guard.
What we have here is a national security crisis caused by a planned and furiously promoted hoax propagated by top Republican officials for the explicit purpose of nullifying a U.S. election, which led to a violent attack on lawmakers by Republican supporters on behalf of the Republican president who gathered them on that day and hour in a premeditated effort to sabotage the vote count and declare himself the true winner.
The 9/11 Commission may have been flawed, but it was not constructed with the “bipartisan” goal of including Al Qaeda’s input on what should happen next.
It does not take a cynic to suspect that what will happen with any appointed commission, bipartisan or not, is that it will face relentless attacks by those partisans most responsible for the hoax that now comes with a death toll. Sen. Josh Hawley and Sen. Ted Cruz will, like Graham, tolerate no suggestion that their attempts to delegitimize democracy through the peddling of false theories and abject hokum were key in convincing a large number of Americans that force would be justified to overturn the supposed harm. House Republicans, a rancid group of fascists who have thrown in their lot with every conspiracy theory and xenophobic supposition the far-right has scrounged up over these last years, will pitch hysterical fits at the notion that “free speech” does not include a right to instigate violence by peddling hoaxes designed to demonize particular, named enemies.
Fox News, a for-profit company that responded to its own role in promulgating fraudulent, malevolent attacks on democracy, responded to the violence on Jan. 6 by retooling its lineup to double down on hoax-peddling, panic-baiting punditry. It is absolutely assured that any report accurately identifying their own propagandizing as responsible for the violence will itself be made the subject of countless new conspiracy theories, because that’s what they do. The company’s board and leadership is devoted to elevating far-right power over even democracy itself, if necessary. It will not turn back now.
Even before Robert Mueller released the report of his team outlining the extent of Russian disinformation and espionage in the 2016 election, it was pre-spun by Republican attorney general William Barr to immunize Donald Trump and his campaign from the findings. Federal investigators found themselves blocked by multiple top Trump allies who lied about their own actions to investigators; Trump would go on to pardon several of them for those crimes.
But from the beginning day of Trump’s maladministration to the end, the Republican Party devoted itself to undermining the probe, discrediting it, attacking those that took part in it, making selective leaks, producing disinformation, and claiming that the entire effort was a “deep state” attempt to make Donald Trump look bad. The conclusions of the Mueller Report itself were erased, replaced with propagandistic fictions that blamed Republicanism’s myriad enemies for even launching the investigation in the first place.
A new probe to investigate the aftermath of a Republican Party-backed plot to overthrow democracy via cheap hoax is not going to be pretty. A truly “bipartisan” effort can be kissed goodbye from here.
We are in a conundrum we have been in for years now. According to the now fascist-minded Republican Party, any action that is not strictly illegal is warranted and defendable in service to party power, and any action that is illegal is also warranted and defendable if consequences can be nullified by party power. Propagandizing—the spreading of hoaxes—is seen as good. Stochastic violence in response to those hoaxes is simply ignored, brushed off as unaffiliated, or used as the basis of further hoax-promoting claims.
As long as Republican officials and officeholders have the power to immunize themselves from the consequences of even an attempted coup, there will be no reason not to go that far again, and farther. As long as the party can sabotage democratic government in the old fashioned way—by putting up barriers and then more barriers between voters and ballots in the first place—they can cling to power even as public disgust at their actions continues to rise.
We can hope that truly nonpartisan investigators will at some point be able to sweep the officials that did actual crimes—the lawmakers most eager to spread false information also seem to keep getting caught in far more petty financial crimes for reasons that are probably worth exploring—out of our politics now that a deeply, deeply corrupt Republican administration has lost its ability to prevent it. But the only true means of removing a movement now premised on misleading Americans as election strategy is to crush them so soundly in those elections that its practitioners are made historical footnote. It requires the public to become so enraged with the lying that they punish the liars, and it requires the public to be able to know who is lying despite a widespread authoritarian-minded effort to turn our broadcast and social media into a blizzard of conflicting claims so opaque that truth and fiction cannot be separated.
It will be a tough haul. Bipartisanship, however, will not enter into it. Anyone in the Republican Party unwilling to tarnish their names by associating with those who would attempt even to nullify an election rather than accept its outcome has already left the party. Everyone remaining is now an accomplice.