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As Jan. 6 panel digs for facts, partisanship may obscure them

Experts warn that the committee investigating the insurrection needs both to pin down details of the attack and to ensure that Republican condemnations don't drown out their findings.

WASHINGTON (CN) — It was the first Wednesday of the new year and a ceremony typically considered uneventful and rarely reported. Lawmakers recovering from a holiday break gathered in the Capitol building to certify that Joe Biden had won the 2020 presidential election, a representation of the peaceful transition of power.

But on Jan. 6, 2021, all eyes, and cameras, were on the Hill. Thousands of protesters moved closer and closer to the building, egged on by former President Donald Trump's months of unfounded claims that the election was plagued with voter fraud and the lawmakers inside the Capitol's walls were stealing the election from his grip. Once the mob breached the Capitol, a typically formulaic day became etched into the brains of millions of Americans. Five people died, including one Capitol Police officer. Approximately 150 people were injured.

Many details of the siege have been made clear in the intervening year, but House lawmakers tasked with investigating the insurrection are honing in on one area that still remains shrouded in mystery: What was known, and when, by Trump and his staff?

Experts say the Jan. 6 investigative committee's goal is to create a historical record of the day that rattled the country, and to determine the degree to which White House officials were involved and how security procedures failed to keep rioters out. But the committee faces an uphill battle as Republicans sharpen allegations that such efforts are mere political posturing by the Democrats.

“The main point of any commission like this is to investigate what happened and to really come up with the answer to the question ‘Why did this happen?,'" Todd Belt, director of the political management program at George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management, said. “The secondary purpose is to provide recommendations to provide legislative remedies, 'What can be done to make sure this doesn’t happen in the future?'"

After holding one public hearing with the Capitol Police and Metropolitan Police back in the summer, the committee has been interviewing witnesses behind closed doors, racking up a list of more than 150 sources and keeping much of its investigation close to the chest.

"We’re in this investigative stage right now and and there is some of it that we’re seeing publicly and there is a lot of it that we’re not seeing," Molly Reynolds, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, said.

The committee is expected to resume public hearings in the new year, which will likely provide clarity on the unfolding narrative of Jan. 6. Reynolds said the committee's discussions so far have indicated the panel is likely to eventually recommend changes to internal security procedures among the Capitol Police force as well as legislative changes to the Electoral Count Act of 1887, an obscure law that lays out the process for certifying the presidential election.

Members of the committee have said publicly that the archaic and confusing law is an issue. Trump used a contrived understanding of the legislation, part of which allows for lawmakers to object to the certification of the election results, to garner support to overturn the election and incite the insurrection.

Recommendations to reform security procedures on the Hill are also a likely eventual result of investigation.

"There were a multitude of law enforcement agencies that were responsible for the protection of the Capitol, protection of the president, and, apparently, they were not talking suffieciently to each other. There was not adequate communication, there was not adequate policy and procedures for securing the Capitol," said Thomas Kahn, distinguished faculty fellow at the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University.


While the committee will take months to issue any recommendations, experts warn that widespread Republican opposition to the committee may undermine respect for its eventual findings.

Belt compared the House committee's purpose to that of the bipartisan 9/11 commission, which aimed to provide a comprehensive account of the events leading up to the Sept. 11, 2001, attack and the government's response to the tragedy.

Although its goal may be the same, the Jan. 6 committee has been perceived differently than the 9/11 commission was from the start.

The 2001 commission, for example, was an independent panel supported by both chambers of Congress. The Jan. 6 committee, on the other hand, has faced political opposition from Republicans before it even existed.

The House voted to create an independent commission back in May, but Senate Republicans threatened to filibuster the legislation, resulting in the House select committee comprised of seven Democrats and two Republicans.

“Democrats begged for this committee to be bipartisan," Kahn said. “Sadly, it did not start in the way that the 9/11 commission did or Democrats wanted it to.” 

Both Republicans on the committee, Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Representative Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, have a complex relationship with the GOP.

Cheney was ousted from party leadership earlier this year over her critiques of Trump, and Kinzinger has repeatedly defected from the rest of his party on legislation, most recently voting in favor of Biden's $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill.

"The problem with Republicans saying, 'It’s a partisan committee and the only Republicans on it are ones who had voted to impeach the president' — I think that might have some legs and might undermine some of the credibility of the committee in the minds of voters," Belt said.

After deciding to recommend contempt charges against former Trump allies who have refused to comply with congressional subpoenas and claimed executive privilege, the committee has faced growing allegations of partisanship in recent weeks.

Former Trump confidante Steve Bannon is now facing criminal charges for his decision not to testify before the committee about his knowledge of the insurrection and Trump's former chief of staff Mark Meadows may meet a similar fate after he pulled out of a deal to partially cooperate with the panel earlier this week.

President Biden publicly waived any executive privilege that would have kept former Trump officials from divulging details of their time in office, but multiple former Trump allies are standing firm.

Anita Krishnakumar, a professor at Georgetown Law School, said the committee was within its right to move forward with contempt charges, describing the claims of executive privilege by former Trump administration officials as political stunts.

“The idea that a former president could assert executive privilege in the face of what the current president has been saying, especially since this was all about [Trump's] campaign and fighting the election results, it really had nothing to do with the execution of his office, I just don’t think there’s even a slim thread to stand on," Krishnakumar said.

Belt added that some of these officials are trying to evade testifying while also continuing to speak selectively in public about their time in office. An upcoming book by Meadows,"The Chief's Chief," about his time in the White House, has raised eyebrows over his claims of privilege.

"I think one of the things we need to look at is all these former Trump administration officials who are writing books and have said things in the public and then are trying to claim some executive privilege. I think that’s going to get them in some trouble," Belt said.

While experts view the contempt charges as a necessary step that's within the committee's power, the public conflict between the committee and former Trump officials has added fuel to assertions that the committee is politically motivated.

“In terms of public opinion, it can look more partisan when you have these contempt charges but it signals to other potential witnesses […] that they are playing hardball and we’ve seen it has actually worked. If one person gets charged with contempt and is facing these sorts of sanctions, it can make others become more forthcoming because they realize that the charges are real," Belt said.

Krishnakumar added that it doesn't help to quell condemnations of the Jan. 6 panel as partisan that there's been a small number of contempt charges in recent history.

"I think Congress has sort of ceded some of its authority in the past at least 50 years or so," Krishnakumar said. "I’m in favor of Congress flexing its muscles more. I think it’s been hampered by the fact that it hasn’t done that [recently]. It didn’t do that in the Nixon years, it went to the courts to provide the muscle, so that’s not what’s in people’s recent memory."

Not only does political opposition to the committee by many Republicans potentially endanger the perceived objectivity of the committee's findings, but it places the committee's existence in danger as well.

"I think folks correctly expect that, if Republicans take control of the House in the midterms, they will disband the committee. It will not survive into a Republican-led House. So, trying to make sure the committee gets as much work as it can done in the next year, I think is a big challenge," Reynolds said.

Belt emphasized that the partisan concerns can easily distract from what Jan. 6 represented.

"It’s surrounded in politics, but ultimately there was an attack on the Capitol," Belt said. "What makes our democracy so unique in world history is we have this peaceful transition of power, and we almost lost it. I think that’s one of the things that Democrats are trying to underscore, that that is a nonpartisan goal, to make sure that we continue to have a peaceful transition of power."

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