How the Capitol Riot Commission Died

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S1: If you ask Slate’s Jim Newell what happened last week with that vote to establish a bipartisan commission to investigate the January 6th riot, he’s got two words for you.

S2: Mitch McConnell making sure there weren’t 10 Republicans willing to to vote for this, I think took a lot of effort from Mitch McConnell in a way he really hasn’t had to exert himself in a while.

S1: How did you know that, like how did you see that?

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S2: So, you know, there are some reporting that Mitch McConnell had to call in a few personal favors with Republicans to get them to actually vote against this. So, you know, I think if McConnell wasn’t trying to stop this, you know, it very easily could have gotten 10 Republican senators.

S1: In the end, the commission got six Republican votes, that’s far short of what it needed to overcome a legislative filibuster and overcome the Senate minority leader. For a while, it seemed like the commission had real momentum behind it. 35 Republicans voted for it in the House. Swing senators like Susan Collins and Mitt Romney started signaling their support. Police who responded on January 6th and relatives of one officer who died began knocking on Republican doors asking for votes. We want answers. Nobody nobody has the answers. And it’s just sad. Sandra Garza, the longtime companion of Brian Cesnik, the officer who died the day after the riot. She said Officer Cesnik was a Trump supporter. He had a picture of the president’s plane at the top of his Twitter page.

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S3: For me, this isn’t about, you know, being a Republican or a Democrat or it’s none of that. It’s about doing what’s right for the country.

S1: But as Jim Newell says, none of this really mattered again, because of one person, Mitch McConnell.

S2: He first came up with a couple of technical reasons for why he didn’t support it. You know, a couple of things in the bill text they didn’t like. And then Susan Collins got some amendments ready to change those and fix, you know, those issues they had with it. And Democrats said they would support it. So then McConnell kind of has to change his excuse.

S1: It’s funny. It’s like Mitch McConnell was bluffing at poker and the rest of the Senate didn’t understand he was bluffing.

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S2: Yeah, it was like Susan Collins took him at. Face value that when he said, oh, I’m concerned about, you know, the chair will have too much power to appoint the staff, you know, Susan Collins is like, OK, here’s an amendment to fix that. And he was like, wait a minute, you you weren’t supposed to do that.

S1: After legislation establishing the commission died on the Senate floor, relatives of that fallen Officer Cesnik, they called it a spit in the face to all Capitol Police Senator Susan Collins, who’d voted in favor of the commission. She called the outcome unfortunate.

S2: You know, you could you could tell that some Republicans who did end up voting for the commission were just pissed off that McConnell was being so aggressive in trying to stop this whole thing. You know, it kind of puts puts to the lie a little bit, this whole idea that they back the blue, you know, they’re willing to do anything for police officers as they work to kill this commission.

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S1: Today on the show, how the January 6th commission went from Republican compromise to dead on arrival and what that means for all the other legislation Congress is trying to pass. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick around. It didn’t exactly surprise Jim Newell that the January 6th commission couldn’t make it past a filibuster in the Senate, but he says it’s worth looking back to consider how and why Republicans became so divided on it. Because it wasn’t always like this.

S2: If we want to look at the beginning of this commission storyline, this originally came forward as a sort of GOP counteroffer to impeaching Donald Trump. Like a lot of House Republicans, including Kevin McCarthy said, we, you know, we don’t need to impeach Donald Trump. Let’s move on. He’s only got 10 days left, but we should have a independent commission to study what happened on January six modeled after the 9/11 Commission.

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S1: So this is a Republican idea.

S2: Yes. I mean, Democrats wanted it to. They also, you know, thought that Trump merited impeachment. But it was it was a Republican counteroffer to impeachment, the commission. Yes. And you had a bunch of House Republicans in mid-January release a bill that would have set one up. And that bill was very close to what this compromise legislation eventually became. So that’s kind of the origins of this. Later on, Pelosi released her own idea for a commission, and it was pretty partisan. The makeup would have been, I think, seven Democratic appointees, four Republican appointees with the chair having pretty much unilateral power to do basically everything. And so, you know, Republicans just dismiss that. But then they start negotiating. And the Republican demands, including Kevin McCarthy, specific in writing demands, were the commission be split, five, five Republican appointees and Democratic appointees, the chair and the vice chair, one appointed by Democrats, one by Republicans, would have joint subpoena power being the chairman couldn’t just issue subpoenas, had to get signoff from the from the vice chair, and that there wouldn’t be any predetermined findings in the legislation about, you know, what happened on that day. In other words, they let the investigation lead them to wherever they go rather than starting from a certain set of facts

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S1: and where the Democrats are OK with all that?

S2: Well, you know, I think it took some negotiating, but in the end, that’s the deal that Bennie Thompson and John CatCo in the House, the chair and ranking member of the Homeland Security Committee, that’s basically the deal they cut. It was exactly along those lines, and so, you know, even though Republican leadership had been had tasked, John Katka with doing these negotiations, you know, did they think he would cut a deal eventually? I don’t know, because as soon as he did, then House Republican leaders were saying, I’m opposed to this. And then that’s where, you know, the real excuses came from. Like Kevin McCarthy and a lot of Republicans started saying, why are we just focusing on January six? Why aren’t we focusing on leftist violence in in the cities last summer after antifa antifa? Yeah. Why don’t we talk about antifa in Portland and Seattle? You know, let’s have a broader commission on violence, so to speak. So, you know, once it became clear that all the actual policy or textual problems Republicans said they had with it could be solved. Then Mitch McConnell pretty much came out and said last Tuesday. We don’t want to talk about this.

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S4: I think this is a purely political exercise that adds nothing to the sum total of information.

S2: You know, Democrats want to look in the past and relitigate the past and run against Trump in twenty two, all of which is correct. But it doesn’t you know, that’s not a good reason not to go along with it if you don’t have a problem with anything in the bill.

S1: First rule of fight club is you don’t talk about Fight Club.

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S2: Yeah, I think what Mitch McConnell, the bet he was making was. I’ll take bad headlines now, rather than risk having bad headlines over the next year and a half resulting from whatever this commission is working on or are leaking, or I’ll get yelled at now. But we won’t have to deal with this kind of investigation in the background for the next 18 months as we’re trying to win the midterms.

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S1: He’s taken one for the team.

S2: Yeah, I mean, he’s telling his team this is in our political interest. And, you know, I can’t I can’t say he’s wrong about that, but it’s not you know, it’s a it’s dirty. Like I said, maybe it’s a very dirty piece of business.

S1: Yeah, I was going to focus on that. Like you said, this is a dirty piece of business for Mitch McConnell. But I wonder a little bit like, is there any value to what McConnell’s saying? Like one of his points is, OK, well, there are plenty of other investigations going on at the Department of Justice and in Congress. So why would this be different?

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S2: Yeah, so you have some committees looking into it. But, you know, that’s a pretty politicized process and we’ll see if any reports come out of that. You have the Justice Department, you know, doing their four hundred investigations and prosecutions of people who broke into the Capitol and et cetera. But the independent commission is maybe the only chance where you would get, you know, a full comprehensive story outside of the realm of politics, because there are no sitting lawmakers allowed on this commission to have that kind of complete independent record for history I think is important. You know, if you look at the 9/11 Commission. You know, that sold really well copies of that, and it wasn’t that commission was not perfect, by the way, but I’m not quite sure you’re going to get that definitive account on a bipartisan basis with subpoena power behind it. You know that the window may have been missed.

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S1: Yeah, the part that really stood out to me about what Mitch McConnell is saying now versus how he sounded on January 6th, because, of course, on January 6th, he sounded uncharacteristically emotional, talking about how this was the most important vote he was ever going to take in his case to to allow Joe Biden the votes to be certified, the voters.

S2: The courts. And the stage. They’ve all spoken. You do see this shift in McConnell from January six and how he was in the weeks after that to now, I mean, he gave that speech when they’re trying to certify the Electoral College after the January 6th. Right. He ultimately didn’t vote for impeachment, but he gave a really scathing speech about Trump afterwards, which did a lot of harm to him in Republican politics.

S1: Did a lot of harm to McConnell.

S2: Yeah, to McConnell, because then he becomes a question in primary politics. And Republicans, you know, a lot of his candidates then who he wants to win are going to be asked about, you know, their ties to never Trump, Mitch McConnell and all of that. And, you know, had he kept going down that road, maybe it could have endangered his position in the Senate leadership just because you can’t be sort of a liability for your members like that forever. And then, you know, when there was all this other stuff going on, like Liz Cheney, you know, the first time there was a vote on whether to keep Liz Cheney as the conference chair, the House Republican conference chair, he backed her pretty publicly. But then you start to see this shift, you know, the second time when they successfully got rid of Liz Cheney. He didn’t say anything about it, you know, he kept his distance from it and now, you know, this commission, he’s trying to to bury it. And I think McConnell had hoped that after January 6th, this could be the moment where the GOP breaks from Trump. You know, it might be this faction where you have pro Trump and anti Trump within the party. But he was clearly on the side of I want to move on. I’m not going to mention this guy’s name anymore. We need to cure him if we want to be a viable party anymore. Now, it seems like he realizes that he needs Trump like they can’t necessarily afford to anger him like this. You know, any time that Democrats want to prosecute Trump or he prosecutes Trump, that’s going to hurt the overall Republican position in midterms. So it’s almost like he’s come around to just recognizing that they’re not going to be able to purge Trump. And, you know, any efforts to do so would just fail and play into Democrats hands of just keeping Trump front and center.

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S1: After the break, by the January 6th commission, going nowhere might turn out to be good for the Democrats. OK, so we’ve laid out why a commission could be useful and why obstructing a commission makes sense for Republicans politically. I wonder if you think there’s any case to be made that there are advantages for Democrats in getting the January 6th commission idea blown up.

S2: You know, Republicans are not wrong. The Democrats like the politics of this like and this this set up pretty well for them, like either we get the commission and, you know, great like we can have it or Republicans for no good reason, really no good policy reason, filibuster it. And then that’s, you know, horrible headlines for them. And I’m sure this will come up in some some midterm campaigns. I you know, I don’t know how effective it will be, but it will. And it fits this overall story that Republicans are trying to bury an effort to overturn the election, which still has a lot of people seething with rage and, you know, internally as well. In the next couple of months, Democrats are going to this issue of whether to get rid of the filibuster or not is coming to a head. Chuck Schumer, the majority leader, says he’s going to put. A bunch of issues on the floor in June that, you know, probably Republicans are going to filibuster stuff

S1: like voting rights.

S2: Yes, stuff like voting rights or Paycheck Fairness Act, things that, you know, are going to make Republicans look pretty bad for for blocking. And I think he is trying to build the case. You know, a Republican obstructionism, and that would make it easier to get rid of the filibuster.

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S1: Yeah, when I thought about the advantages of this commission blowing up, I thought about Joe Manchin, who released a video after it was voted down.

S5: You deserve better. And I am sorry that my Republican colleagues and friends, the political fear, prevent them from doing what they know in their hearts to be right.

S1: And he seemed pissed, like usually he’s pretty even keel in my experience. But he seemed angry about this.

S2: I mean, this is like one of the ugliest examples of filibuster use. I can listen to Republican complaints about, you know, the Biden infrastructure proposal or even elements of of the further people act and see that it’s you know, they just object. It’s not what they believe. They have no interest in it. But this is one where they didn’t actually have a real policy complaint. And so for them to just filibuster it, that’s a very bad look and that’s, you know, obviously that is going to piss off Joe Manchin because he’s kind of staked his reputation on the Senate can work if you let it. It can work in a bipartisan way. The filibuster promotes compromise. And here it showed the opposite argument. The filibuster doesn’t encourage compromise. It just stops things dead in the water.

S1: But one of our colleagues, Jeremy Stahl, made the point that. If you’re a Democrat, this may be the best you can do, which is to keep bringing bills that will get blocked and basically keep clubbing senators like Joe Manchin over the head with them and showing nothing will get done unless we abolish this rule that we need 60 people to vote in favor of legislation.

S2: Yeah, I think it’s the only option, really.

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S1: Can you explain where the idea of a January 6th commission goes from here? Like, what are the alternatives under consideration at this point?

S2: I mean, Schumer has said that he you know, he might bring it up for a vote again, but I see no reason to believe that would go differently. The next option that a lot of people are talking about, and I think she’s considering it is. Whether Speaker Pelosi wants to have a vote to set up a select commission to basically do the same work,

S1: what is a select committee?

S2: A select committee is just a temporary committee set up for a specific purpose in the House. Republicans did one during the Obama years to investigate the Benghazi attacks and a lot of Democrats who treated it as a joke. But that investigation led to the discovery of Hillary Clinton’s private email server, which then became this whole big headache for her throughout 2016 and. You know, eventually led to emails of hers being found on Anthony Weiner’s child porn computer and, you know, and then that led to the Comey letter, which affected the election result.

S1: So what you’re saying is the select committee can really make a mess.

S2: It can make of this. That’s something where if Pelosi did set up, then it would look, you know, the much more stacked towards Democrats, the Democratic chair would get all the subpoena power. We’ll see if Pelosi and Democrats decide to go that route. I think it’s.

S1: Likely, can I ask a sort of annoying question, which is like, let’s say the commission had been approved. Do you think it would have made a real difference?

S2: Would it real difference in what?

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S1: In terms of, I guess, our shared understanding of exactly what took place on January 6th,

S2: I do I you know, in my opinion, there was a. Three month effort. I guess like two and a half month effort to overturn the election by the president. And it culminated in January 6th. You know, I’m not sure that’s been fully grappled with. I think Republicans would like it to disappear, you know, from the public consciousness and I think having a definitive report and maybe they would have come to a different conclusion, I don’t know. But I think having a definitive report for history to show what happened here was I mean, it’s very important. So I think it’s disappointing now that it’s just, you know, when Mitch McConnell says, well, Democrats want to focus on things in the past. Sure they do. But this was a I mean, certainly the worst thing I’ve ever seen, you know, about the functioning of the country in my lifetime. I would always watch inaugurations. And you have kind of Brian Williams or whoever the anchor is announcing it. And they’d be sort of cheesy, like, oh, there’s the peaceful transfer of power. We must never take it for granted. And I kind of roll my eyes. But this time, like, yeah, we really can’t take for granted. I mean, a guy tried to to stop it. The president tried to stop it. And, you know, there that’s a new president now. You know, someone might try to stop it again.

S1: Jim Newell, thank you so much for joining me.

S2: All right, thank you.

S1: Jim Newell writes about all things politics for Slate, and that’s the show, What Next is produced by Mary Wilson, Kamal Dilshad, Daniel Hewat, Davis Land and Schwartz were led by Allison Benedict and Alicia Montgomery. I’m Mary Harris. You can go track me down on Twitter. I’m at Mary’s Desk. Thanks for listening. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.