There was indeed an “attempted coup” in America after the 2020 election of the current U.S. president, Joe Biden—according to the investigations of the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol, conducted over the past year—and the former U.S. president Donald Trump was responsible for it. Last Thursday, the committee began a series of hearings to lay out its evidence to the public. This presentation is already a major media event—at least 20 million people watched the first hearing last week, if only about half as many tuned in to the second—and even the pro-Trump Fox News Channel, which refused to air the initial proceedings, is now showing them. The committee has demonstrated that Trump’s authorities and advisers repeatedly told him the election wasn’t stolen, that they informed him his plan to overturn election results in Congress was illegal, and that he and his campaign may have engaged in fundraising fraud by raising hundreds of millions of dollars for a non-existent “election defense fund.” How unusual is this committee, and how consequential could its findings end up being?
Casey Burgat is the director of the legislative affairs program at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management. As Burgat explains, the January 6th panel is the latest in a long history of “select committees” in the U.S. Congress, many of which have investigated wrongdoing by the American government’s executive branch, including the presidency. He notes that the partisan makeup of this committee’s membership is unusual—Representatives Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger are its only Republicans—and the polarized media coverage of the hearings may yet render them irrelevant to the outcome of November’s midterm elections. Nevertheless, Burgat says, the committee’s non-partisan approach—presenting a sober-but-damning account of how Trump and his allies behaved before, during, and after the Capitol violence—could end up having a great influence on how Americans understand the arc of their history for years or decades to come.
Graham Vyse: What’s precedent is there for this kind of committee in the U.S. Congress?
Casey Burgat: The rationale for it begins with a fundamental role of the Congress—providing oversight of the other branches of the U.S. government. It’s a key part of the American system of checks and balances. Typically, congressional committees have authority over specific government agencies, but when there are special issues—often highly important, highly controversial, highly partisan issues that lawmakers want to address more deeply—Congress will form special committees to address them. The most famous example is probably the Senate Watergate Committee investigating President Richard Nixon’s role in the 1972 break-in and cover-up. The Iran-Contra scandal in the 1980s prompted Congress to investigate President Ronald Reagan’s role in selling arms. Another special committee investigated the 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi.
This type of committee devotes resources to hiring staffers to find information. The January 6th panel was looking to chase down documents, testimony, and other evidence about President Donald Trump’s role in the insurrection. The committee only has two Republican members, Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, both of whom volunteered to serve on the panel. Democrats wanted more Republicans to serve, because having Republicans take part adds legitimacy to the investigation, but the Democratic Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, also wanted good-faith investigators—Republicans who would be willing to put their names to what might be seen as anti-Republican findings if the evidence supported those findings.
Republicans nominated their most hardened partisans to serve on the committee. They were going to be Trump defenders no matter what the committee found, so Pelosi and her Democratic colleagues agreed this would’ve disrupted the investigation, especially since the commission was going to require all parties to agree on setting hearing schedules and determining who was going to be subpoenaed. A few of the members of Congress who Republicans suggested for the committee actually ended up being potential targets of the investigation.
Vyse: What kind of powers and resources does the committee have?