My first signal that things were seriously awry was when Capitol Police officers brought a badly shaken colleague to shelter in my Capitol hideaway. “They’re in the building,” she said. Shortly after, I was evacuated as the United States of America lost control of its Capitol to a violent pro-Trump mob intent on stopping the constitutional process of certifying the presidential election. Five people died in the Jan. 6 attack.
We need to understand what took place that day. We need to understand who was behind the tide of disinformation that led to the insurrection, and we need to understand who orchestrated the deadly actions that took place.
Constitutional speech and debate protections restrict executive agencies investigating members of Congress. However, the Senate has the constitutional power to investigate and discipline senators. So last week, six Senate colleagues and I filed a formal complaint with the Senate Ethics Committee asking it to examine the role of Republican Senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Josh Hawley of Missouri in the insurrection. We need to understand if they coordinated or conspired with, aided and abetted, or gave aid and comfort to the insurrectionists and the groups lurking in the background. The committee must decide whether these senators failed to put “loyalty to the highest moral principles and to country above loyalty to persons, party, or Government department” or engaged in “improper conduct reflecting on the Senate” in connection with the violence.
The attack was a frightening result of a long campaign to deny Americans the facts they need as citizens. Americans’ lack of common information is no accident. Foreign powers and special interests have systematically fomented falsehoods and inane conspiracies. They have spread lies about climate change, the Affordable Care Act, COVID-19, and, most recently, election fraud. Politicians helped their project, in pursuit of personal or political gain. Media figures amplified the falsehoods in pursuit of money and celebrity.
Now, we need a full accounting of the disinformation and dark money that produced this humiliating insurrection.
We see glimpses of the forces behind the mob: heavily trained and armed right-wing militias, often with white supremacist and anti-government leanings; cultist adherents of the dark conspiracy of QAnon; political extremists whipped up and egged on by the Trumps and their supporters. But another organizing force was a flotilla of anonymously funded “dark money” groups tied to some of the largest donors and most powerful special interests in Trump’s Washington.
Women for America First, a main organizer of Trump’s “March to Save America” rally, received backing from a dark-money group linked to former Trump Small Business Administration head Linda McMahon. The group’s chair once led the Koch-backed Tea Party Express, which spent heavily to orchestrate the Tea Party movement toward the Koch brothers’ ultra-conservative agenda.
Another organizer was the Rule of Law Defense Fund, an arm of the Republican Attorneys General Association. In the lead-up to the Jan. 6 attack, it sent out a robocall to supporters encouraging “patriots” to “march to the Capitol building and call on Congress to stop the steal.” According to The New York Times, a donor demanded the robocall as a condition of his contribution.
Extremists receiving the robocall didn’t know about any promises to donors. They probably didn’t know about the dark money behind Facebook groups they joined or Twitter and Gab accounts they followed. The alternate reality they observed was, in subtle but powerful ways, constructed for them from behind a curtain of secrecy.
The rioters weren’t the only target of these dark-money spenders. The same covert influence operation organizes to block congressional climate action, control federal regulators on behalf of the industries they regulate, and stock courts with judges who rule reliably in special interests’ favor. This operation infiltrated federal agencies with functionaries like Trump’s first EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, who built power by raising money for that same Rule of Law Defense Fund. And it hides from scrutiny by blockading congressional and executive oversight. It is a massive covert operation run by special interests using dark money and phony front groups.
That’s why we need more than just our ethics inquiry. Law enforcement must investigate not just the looters and trespassers but also the funders, organizers, and ringleaders; not just individuals but also groups. Years ago, the Justice Department won a pivotal case against the tobacco industry for fraud about tobacco’s health dangers. That case, and traditional doctrines like accessory, conspiracy and aiding and abetting, give all the tools needed to get to the truth and impose accountability. We need to make a priority of right-wing nationalist and white supremacist militias plotting domestic terror and of dark-money groups fomenting fraudulent lies.
All these investigations — from the Senate Ethics Committee to law enforcement — must follow the money. We do not know whether politicians pushing the lie of a stolen election have dark-money ties. But we know that, as the mob besieged the Capitol, senators sent out automated solicitations for campaign donations. We know private donors urged dark-money groups to call for a “march to the Capitol.” We know a swamp of hidden donors undergirds the apparatus of dark money and lies seeking to control not just mobs at the Capitol but also our system of government as a whole.
The investigations can create a new template for transparency and accountability, so that we can have the informed and aware citizenry our founders envisioned. Then we can move forward to brighter days.
Secretive interests profited from a sprawling dark-money scheme that has existed for a long time. Jan. 6 proved its sinister power. As long as the scheme lurks behind a curtain of secrecy, our democracy will face many more of its big lies. America deserves to know.
Sheldon Whitehouse is a Democratic US senator from Rhode Island.