sarah (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): Initially, both Republican and Democratic lawmakers condemned the mob of Trump supporters that attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6.
But those days are long gone.
A House-led investigation into what happened that day is currently underway in the form of a select committee, but it is for all intents and purposes a Democratic-led effort. (In May, Senate Republicans blocked the creation of a bipartisan, independent commission to investigate what happened, and although the select committee does have two Republicans on it, House Republicans have otherwise refused to cooperate following House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s rejection of two of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s picks for the committee, Reps. Jim Jordan of Ohio and Jim Banks of Indiana.)
Understanding what happened on Jan. 6 and making sure that it doesn’t happen again — the guiding principle behind the 9/11 Commission, which this investigation was originally modeled on — is unlikely. Let’s unpack what this says about the health of our democracy and the power of political investigations in our deeply politicized era.
First, let’s talk about democracy. The Republican Party has increasingly moved in an anti-democratic, illiberal direction. Take this 2020 report from the Democracy Fund’s Voter Study Group. It found that a third of Americans had supported authoritarian ideas at some point in the previous three years, but as the chart below shows, Republicans were more likely than Democrats and independents to support unilateral action on every scenario asked about.
How does this growing disconnect between Democrats and Republicans factor into investigating an attack on democracy?
kaleigh (Kaleigh Rogers, tech and politics reporter): The issue here is that you cannot divorce the insurrection from politics.
Individuals who have been charged for participating in the attack have repeatedly stated that they did so because former President Donald Trump encouraged them. Trump’s role in this is hard to deny, so naturally any attempt to peel back the layers may result in the former leader of the Republican Party looking not so great. As such, many Republican lawmakers aren’t interested in taking on this investigation.
nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, elections analyst): +1 to that, Kaleigh.
Republican voters also don’t really want to investigate what happened. According to a recent Quinnipiac poll, 74 percent of Republicans believed “too much is being made of the storming of the U.S. Capitol on January 6th and it is time to move on”; only 18 percent thought it “was an attack on democracy that should never be forgotten.”
alex (Alex Samuels, politics reporter): And no matter what Pelosi does, most Republicans are going to view any probe into Jan. 6 as inherently partisan — despite Republican Reps. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois and Liz Cheney of Wyoming also being part of the committee. (They’re unlikely to sway pro-Trump Republicans to believe the committee’s findings, given that they’ve been so outspoken in their criticism of Trump.)
It’s important to remember, though, that Democrats are in a difficult position here. Their initial attempt to create a bipartisan, independent commission to investigate what happened was shot down by Senate Republicans — many of whom claimed that even that investigation would be too politically motivated.
kaleigh: Republicans seem to have been strategic in their opposition to a 9/11 Commission-type investigation. Now, they can chalk the whole thing up to a partisan witch hunt and discredit it. Had they agreed to an independent commission, that would’ve been a lot harder to do.
sarah: The space that investigations have come to occupy in Congress is interesting. NPR published a piece in May that argued that even an independent commission was always going to be a hard sell for Republicans given that even the independent 9/11 Commission carried a lot of political risk for Republicans. That commission, held just months before the 2004 presidential election, charged that the Bush administration had been underprepared for the terrorist attacks.
It goes back to the point Kaleigh made earlier — you can’t separate the politics from this, and Republican lawmakers and voters just don’t seem interested in engaging with what happened on Jan. 6. They’re either convinced it wasn’t a big deal and/or are more interested in the 2022 midterm elections.
Is not participating in the investigation a risky move for Republicans, though?
alex: I don’t think non-participation will impact Republicans politically. And that’s largely because most Republican voters want to move on.
A Morning Consult poll from June found that a majority of Republicans (68 percent) believed the attack on Jan. 6 has received too much attention. This compares to just 23 percent of Democrats who felt the same way. Republicans were also far less likely than all voters (17 percent versus 47 percent) to think the rioters were representative of the GOP.
On the flip side, I have seen the argument that Republicans benefit by participating in the commission — even if they’re 100 percent loyal to Trump — because it gives the GOP a means to act as Trump’s defense counsel. It also would allow members to ask witnesses their own questions and make their own requests for lines of questioning.
kaleigh: I wonder if that’s a risk Republicans were worried about, Sarah, given how they’ve responded to the investigation. I expected them to largely ignore it, but they’ve aggressively criticized it, and so have right-wing news pundits. Fox News personalities Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity have all gone hard against the testimony of Capitol Police officers and have made a concerted effort to frame these hearings in a particular way, rather than just brushing them off.
sarah: There’s also the way they’ve tried to shift the blame for what happened on Jan. 6 to Democrats. I’m thinking of a popular line of attack among Republicans: the false claim that Pelosi didn’t do enough to secure the Capitol.
kaleigh: There’s also been a lot of false equivalence and whataboutism, saying this kind of investigation should have happened for some of the vandalism that occurred after and surrounding Black Lives Matter demonstrations last summer.
It’s truly bizarre to see people within the right-wing communities I follow online who typically express support for police now mocking these officers.
sarah: Let’s talk about the power of political investigations, given the current polarization of American politics. Historically, political science research has found that investigations can significantly weaken presidencies, namely, by driving down a president’s approval rating. But despite the many investigations against Trump during his presidency, his approval rating didn’t really change. And although Trump’s approval rating plummeted after Jan. 6 — including among Republicans — it has largely bounced back.
What, if anything, can this investigation really change in terms of how people view Trump?
alex: I’m skeptical it’ll do much, largely because Trump still has a pretty strong hold over the Republican base. Back in May, when Senate Republicans rejected an investigation resembling the 9/11 Commission to investigate the attacks, only 41 percent of Republicans said supporters of Trump who congregated at the Capitol on Jan. 6 bear “some” or “a great deal” of the blame for the ensuing riot. Less than a quarter of Republicans (23 percent) blamed Trump himself, and a majority (52 percent) said he was “not at all” to blame.
nrakich: Agreed. I think you saw Trump’s approval drop in January because even a lot of Republicans — for example, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and McCarthy — criticized Trump for his role in the attack. And political science research has shown that elite cues can drive public opinion.
But since then, Republican politicians have had a chance to get their story straight, and maybe reconsider what breaking from Trump meant for their political futures (exhibit A: Cheney), so they have closed ranks again — and their voters have followed suit.
And if you subscribe to that theory, then having some credible Republicans on an independent commission might have lowered Trump’s numbers again. But with just Cheney and Kinzinger, who are perceived as anti-Trump, on a “Pelosi-led” commission, there are no Republican leaders left to sway Republican voters’ opinions against Trump.
kaleigh: Honestly, ever since special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, it has seemed as though even independent investigations have gotten politicized, to the point where it is very hard to convince either side to budge.
Take the Justice Department’s investigation into Hunter Biden’s dealings with China. Republicans think this is a significant investigation and will undoubtedly make hay over whatever the findings are — they went hard on Hunter in 2020 in the lead-up to the election. Democrats think it’s inconsequential since Hunter Biden isn’t an elected official.
There are always independents or swing voters who might be open to seeing what these inquiries turn, but it’s hard to find a significant investigation that remains truly un-politicized.
sarah: I blame the Starr Report, Kaleigh. (That was a four-year, wide-ranging investigation into then-President Bill Clinton, which ultimately resulted in his impeachment.)
kaleigh: Fair! Wayback playback.
sarah: Is there a risk for President Biden or Democrats in this investigation, though? We know from the polls that both Republicans in Congress and Republican voters are ready to move on from the investigation, but what about Democratic voters or independents?
nrakich: Per that Quinnipiac poll I cited earlier, 84 percent of Democrats believed Jan. 6 “was an attack on democracy that should never be forgotten,” compared with just 12 percent who thought “too much is being made of the storming of the U.S. Capitol on January 6th, and it is time to move on”; independents felt the same way, but by a much narrower margin, 54 percent to 42 percent.
alex: Other polls show much of the same thing. Per Morning Consult, support for a congressional investigation into what happened on Jan. 6 dropped 11 percentage points among Republicans in the last month — from 45 percent in June to 34 percent last week. Among independents, there was a 13 percentage point drop, with just 52 percent of independent voters saying they supported a congressional probe versus 65 percent in June. Democrats, though, have always been overwhelmingly in favor of investigating what happened that day, with over 80 percent saying they backed an investigation.
sarah: It’s interesting that support among independents for an investigation is already so tepid. Seems as if many Americans may just want to move on.
Speaking of the Mueller investigation, it’s also noteworthy that when it originally started in 2017, there was actually pretty notable support for it among both Democrats and Republicans.
That, of course, changed over the course of the investigation, but it had more cross-party appeal initially than the current Jan. 6 select committee.
kaleigh: It’s interesting that some Republicans who have said they have questions about the attack and the events leading up to it have also blocked the kind of investigation that may have answered those questions.
sarah: How do Democrats combat the GOP criticism that the commission isn’t bipartisan?
alex: Having Cheney and Kinzinger on the committee, by default, makes it bipartisan. Of course, since the two have taken some pro-democracy stances as of late — like speaking out against the lie that the election was stolen from Trump and voting to impeach Trump — they might be viewed as out of touch with the current GOP. But, if nothing else, their participation forces the media to describe the findings as bipartisan.
And oddly enough, Pelosi’s rejection of Jordan and Banks may have helped build credibility, too. Not only did both vote in January against certifying Biden’s election victory, but they’re also supporters of the “Big Lie.” Pelosi’s decision not to give them a voice on the commission could help shore up credibility because it saves members from having to deal with bad-faith attacks about the nature of the violence that occurred.
sarah: McCarthy appointing Banks and Jordan definitely put Pelosi in a difficult position for the reasons you cite, Alex. It’s interesting, though, that she only chose to block Jordan and Banks from being included on the committee, while Rep. Troy Nehls of Texas, who also voted against certifying Biden’s election victory, was not barred.
But, of course, this move was unprecedented and angered McCarthy to the point that he yanked the remaining members. It also put Pelosi in the position of having to appoint Republicans to the committee. Hence why McCarthy has derided them as “Pelosi Republicans.”
nrakich: As Alex is getting at, the media plays a big role here, too. I get the instinct to dismiss Cheney and Kinzinger as not “real” Republicans — I’ve done that myself. But it’s also objectively true that the commission is bipartisan and that there is a wide ideological gulf between Cheney/Kinzinger and the committee’s Democrats. That shouldn’t be dismissed.
Of course, what the committee doesn’t have is pro-Trump representation. And I think that’s what people really mean when they say the commission should be “bipartisan.” But as we’ve seen, being pro-Trump is functionally equivalent to acting in bad faith re: Jan. 6.
sarah: One question I want to revisit here — earlier we said there wasn’t much political risk for Republicans in not participating, given that most Republican voters want to move on/aren’t interested in investigating what happened on Jan. 6.
Is it possible that Republicans are overestimating the power of Trump’s influence?
This is one data point, but I’m thinking of the special election in Texas’s 6th Congressional District earlier this week. The Trump-endorsed candidate and widow of the late congressman ended up losing by over 6 points. It’s one election — and you know what we say about a sample size of one — but maybe there is less appetite for some of Trump’s most bald-faced lies?
nrakich: Well, Sarah, I’m not ready to use that election result as evidence for anything just yet. Sure, it could signal a weakening in Trump’s hold over the party now that he’s no longer in office, but we need to wait for more data.
More broadly, though, I do think Republicans overestimate Trump’s influence — but it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. I think if Republicans in Congress adopted a united front in favor of an independent commission, at least some Republican voters would follow their cue. But because congressional Republicans think they need to toe Trump’s line, they do so, and public opinion doesn’t move.
kaleigh: Well, I also don’t know that avoiding a Jan. 6 commission is only about Trump’s influence. He still has a significant hold on the party, to be sure, but there are no absolutes in politics: Eighteen percent of Republicans think Trump shouldn’t have any influence on the direction of the Republican Party, according to a July 27 poll from the Associated Press- NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, and 34 percent think he should have only “a little” influence.
You can imagine that there are some GOP voters who just want to put this all behind us, who worry about it making the party look bad or just think the whole thing was overblown, regardless of whether they particularly like Trump.
nrakich: That could be true, Kaleigh, but a YouGov/Economist poll from early July implied that non-Trump-voting Republicans weren’t ready to put Jan. 6 behind them. Those who voted for Trump in the 2020 election opposed the commission 69 percent to 17 percent, while Republicans overall opposed it 60 percent to 24 percent. That suggests that the small sample of anti-Trump Republicans are still fairly supportive of the commission.
sarah: It goes back to what you said at the outset, Kaleigh. It’s impossible to separate the politics from the attack at the Capitol.
That means, though, there can both be a contingency of Republicans who don’t believe what happened on Jan. 6 was a big deal and a contingency who just want to move on because they think it’s bad for them politically.
Both things can be true.
But OK, to wrap — what will you be watching as the investigation makes its way forward?
alex: This might be a cop-out answer, but I’m watching how Republicans outside the room react and how Cheney and Kinzinger will work with Democrats.
nrakich: I’ll be watching media coverage of the investigation: how much it receives, and how it is framed (i.e., is it a “bipartisan committee” or is it dismissed from the get-go because it’s not the full-on independent commission?). I’ll also be watching Trump’s favorability ratings, I guess, even though I don’t expect much movement there.
kaleigh: Honestly, I’m most interested in the ongoing court cases and investigation into the attack. I wonder if the testimony and evidence shared in Congress will shed any light on who participated, what their motivations were and what they did exactly.