Nearly six months after insurrectionists, white supremacists, and rioters mobbed the US Capitol on Jan. 6, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Thursday announced she would create a select committee to investigate the attack, as Democrats and even some Republicans in her chamber say there are still many unanswered questions about the events of that day.
“The select committee is about our democracy, about ensuring that the Capitol dome remains a symbol of freedom, about preserving America’s emblem of resilience, determination, and hope,” Pelosi said.
The committee is expected to investigate the role Former President Trump played on Jan. 6 and the security issues that befell the Capitol, as well as how white supremacy and anti-semitism motivated the mob.
Pressure to move forward with a thorough, whole-of-government approach to establish a neutral set of facts of what happened on Jan. 6 has been building since Senate Republicans sunk a bipartisan House bill that would have created an independent commission with members appointed by Democrats and Republicans and modeled after the body used to probe the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
Experts say such a commission had a better chance of avoiding partisan infighting and being viewed as political by the public than a select committee, but Pelosi said she gave up hope that Republicans would ever support that approach after she read that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was personally attempting to quash it.
Many unanswered questions await the select committee.
Since February, a string of witnesses called to testify before various Congressional committees — including generals, intelligence officials, and Capitol police leaders — have sought to shed new light into the security failures and mishaps that overwhelmed their agencies on that day. But questions remain over the quality and timing of intelligence information law enforcement received, as well as over who the organizers of the insurrection were — and what, if any, help they received from people working inside the government.
No witness has provided an official, public account as to what Trump was doing as his supporters stormed the Capitol, following Trump’s rally where he falsely claimed he had won the election and urged his supporters to “fight like hell” earlier that day.
“We need to put all the pieces together,” House Assistant Speaker Katherine Clark of Melrose said. “How can we proceed with security of not only our Capitol but our democracy if we don’t get to the truth of the entire lead up to what culminated in the insurrection on January 6?”
Most Congressional Republicans have shrugged off the need for any more investigation into the attack, pointing to the FBI’s ongoing work to prosecute rioters, impeachment proceedings against Trump over his role in the insurrection, and a series of congressional hearings that have already taken place.
“This... isn’t about gathering facts, it is about gathering political points,” said Representative James Comer of Kentucky during testimony this month from generals and intelligence officials.
But supporters of a deeper probe point to a lack of clear information over what was responsible for the slow response from law enforcement that day, what the level of organization was among rioters and protesters, and who, if anyone, was behind funding it.
“As an intelligence professional, I look at this as, who organized this? That is the fundamental question,” said Cedric Leighton, a military analyst and former US Air Force intelligence officer. “It is a follow the money question — who was paying for things?”
Some are hoping the investigation could include testimony from White House aides and members of Congress about Trump’s actions that day, given the body’s likely subpoena power. Trump has been said to have been pleased over the attack instigated by his most diehard of supporters, and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy was on a tense phone call with him that day, begging him to forcefully tame the mob, according to Washington Republican Representative Jaime Herrera Beutler. Pelosi declined to say whether the committee would call on McCarthy to testify.
Witnesses have so far painted a chaotic response to the events of that day. Capitol officers were understaffed and undertrained, and reports of organizers planning an attack widely available on social media were sent to FBI and intelligence officials who did little to investigate what leaders have called “raw, unverified information.”
Some Democrats also have spotted contradictions between the timelines of various law enforcement agencies that arrived at the Capitol, and others have not been satisfied with responses over the lack of clear intelligence ahead of the attack.
“Some of the answers seem thin to me,” said California Representative Jimmy Gomez, who sits on the House Committee of Oversight and Reform, pointing to explanations of why the FBI did not produce an emergency bulletin warning of the high threat level. “Why didn’t [FBI officials] take it more seriously?”
A select committee was not the top choice for Democrats as independent commissions have greater powers to subpoena and interrogate witnesses, and experts say select committees have a higher likelihood of being overtaken by partisan antics, such as the Benghazi select committee in 2014.
“A select committee would draw from members of Congress and that carries the risk of undue political interference and that could be a problem, especially if one side is totally bent on obfuscating the truth or preventing the truth from getting out,” Leighton said.
Yet, many lawmakers and experts see the formation of a select committee as better than no investigation at all, and some said it could serve as a crucial first step to the formation of a such an independent commission later.
“It’s important for us to make sure we have a full investigation into what happened on Jan. 6,” Representative Liz Cheney, a Republican from Wyoming, said. “I think we should have passed a bipartisan commission. Since that didn’t happen, I think it’s very important for us to have something else.”
Former New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean, who served as chairman of the 9/11 commission, recalls it took a while to build appetite in Washington for the creation of the body to investigate the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
Families of the victims — unsatisfied with the string of congressional hearings that seemed to turn up more questions than they answered — continued to press Congress and the Bush administration for such a move until both relented.The 9/11 Commission conducted interviews with more than 1,200 people across the globe and produced unanimous findings about what led the attacks that served as the basis for the recommendations of more than 40 sweeping security changes, nearly all of which were adopted.
“People forget that the 9/11 Commission wasn’t a popular idea, but the American people demanded it,” Kean said.
Already there are indications that the select committee is headed toward partisan bickering as some congressional Republicans have attempted to rewrite the narrative, suggesting the rioters who busted through doors, broke windows, and assaulted police officers were largely peaceful protesters. Gomez, who crouched in fear with other House members as the mob burst into their chamber, this week struggled to find the words for his frustration with his Republican colleague Representative Andrew Clyde.
“He was terrified, trying to barricade the door,” Gomez said of Clyde, who likened the insurrectionists to people on a tourist visit. “Instead of changing what they believe to fit the facts, they’re changing the facts to fit their beliefs.”
McCarthy, who declined to support the plan for an independent bipartisan commission because it would not also investigate unrelated “political violence” from the left, on Thursday dismissed the select committee as “political.”