We don't need a Jan. 6 commission

We already know what happened at the Capitol that day

The Capitol.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock)

A couple of days after indicating he might be open to supporting a bipartisan inquiry into the Jan. 6 insurrection, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Wednesday predictably yanked the football away from Democrats and announced his opposition to the project. This fits a pattern with McConnell, the Senate minority leader. In the days after rioters invaded the Capitol, he let it be known he might support the impeachment of former President Donald Trump — but then helped block Trump's conviction on a charge of inciting the disturbance. There's always a reason, any reason will do, why he can't get on board with holding Trump accountable.

But in the case of the Jan. 6 inquiry, one of McConnell's grounds for playing obstructionist — though probably not offered in good faith — at least seems plausible. "It's not at all clear what new facts or additional investigation yet another commission could lay on top of the existing efforts by law enforcement and Congress," he said.

In fact, a big bipartisan inquiry into the insurrection is both unnecessary and impossible.

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Let's start with why it's unnecessary. The proposed independent commission is modeled after the panel that investigated 9/11, which produced a report so compelling it spawned a graphic novel. The terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., were a generational trauma, sudden and mostly unforeseen, that the country needed help to understand, process, and move forward.

There is no such bewilderment now. We know what happened on Jan. 6, and why.

Americans spent more than four years watching Donald Trump treat democracy with contempt. During his first run for president in 2016, he falsely claimed fraud after losing to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) in that year's Iowa caucus. And when it appeared he might lose to Hillary Clinton that November, he spent the final days of the campaign telling audiences — lying again — that the vote was rigged. Once in office, he appointed a commission to validate his false claims of voter fraud, but it found nothing. And when his re-election began to look shaky in 2020, Trump started spreading accusations and conspiracy theories anew: "The only way we're going to lose this election is if the election is rigged," he told supporters in August. "Stand back and stand by" he commanded his violent Proud Boy allies in September. When November rolled around and Joe Biden won the election, Trump refused to concede and instead spread conspiracy theories far and wide. On Jan. 6, he gathered his most-committed followers in Washington and told them to march on Congress. That he would never willingly give up the Oval Office was obvious long before that day.

All throughout this time, Trump was aided and abetted by Republican members of Congress who either gave him a pass for undermining democracy, as did Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), or who actively promoted his lies, like Cruz and Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.). Until it was too late, social media companies amplified Trump's every instigation. Lackeys such as Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell gave crazy press conferences and filed lawsuits challenging election results, and were laughed out of nearly every court. Conservative networks like Fox News, Newsmax, and OAN loudly promoted Trump's conspiracy theories, then retracted or deleted them after the damage had been done.

When rioters entered the Capitol on Jan. 6, carrying Trump flags and attempting to upend certification of the election results, there was a moment of shock. But nobody who had been paying attention was confused about how the nation had arrived at the moment. An independent commission might be able to fill in the details here and there, but for the most part, Americans understand what happened. It played out right in front of our eyes. The question is what we're going to do about it.

Republicans are already answering that question. Even now, after President Biden has been in office for four months, they are continuing to contest his election, purge members who won't embrace the former president, and rewrite state laws to make it easier for Trump — or his heir — to win the next presidential election. In just about every sense that matters, the GOP has thrown in with the insurrectionists.

Which is why the proposed inquiry is doomed, even if it somehow manages to come into existence. A bipartisan commission cannot succeed where there is no bipartisanship, and it is clear that when it is not pursuing a Trumpist shaping of the election battleground, the GOP would rather change the subject. For good reason. "Republicans don't want information to emerge about what happened on Jan. 6," congressional scholar Norman Ornstein told The Washington Post this week. "They don't want to focus on the role of the president — or their own party members."

Democrats will continue to make a good show of trying to create a Jan. 6 commission. The House approved an authorization bill Wednesday on a 252-175 vote that, surprisingly, included the support of more than 30 Republicans. But McConnell's opposition means the effort is unlikely to succeed in the Senate. That's fine. We already know how Trump and his allies tried to undermine the last election; everybody who cares about preserving democracy might better spend their energies working to defend against the next attempt.

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