Questions Left on the Table in Jan. 6th Investigation


“I am still recovering from those hugs and kisses that day”
Capitol Police Sergeant Aquilino Gonell, July 27, 2021

It is one of the more memorable and widely-reported quotations to come out of the first and so far only scheduled hearing of the House Select Committee to Investigate the Jan. 6 Attack on the United States Capitol.

It was in a response to Rep. Liz Cheney, who asked Sergeant Gonell about former President Donald Trump’s assessment that the crowd that marched on the US Capitol on Jan. 6 was, he said, “a loving crowd. There was a lot of love in the crowd.”

Gonell was one of an estimated 140 people injured that day, mostly police officers who will be recovering long after the public’s memory of that day fades.

The cops were badly outnumbered. They were beaten, gassed, stabbed, jabbed, and crushed against walls and doors in a vain attempt to hold back an angry mob whose aim was preventing the formal certification of Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory. Some declared themselves intent upon killing or kidnapping the Vice President and elected Members of Congress, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

For many of us, the testimony of those four police officers was a stark and grueling recounting of the videos as those events unfolded on Jan. 6.

Sergeant Gonell’s response to Cheney summed it all up simply and succinctly, as did Metropolitan Police Officer Michael Fanone who slammed his open palm on the table, angered at the members of Congress who have dismissed the insurrection as a peaceful patriotic protest. They remind me of those who claimed that Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon was staged in a Hollywood sound studio.

The American people and those police officers who defended the Capitol and everything it stands for deserve to know all there is to know about that day. It was an attack of historical consequence. That day, there was a “violent uprising against an authority of government,” which is how the dictionary describes insurrection. So we can call it what it was, a violent assault on the constitutional function of government. Try as one might, you just can’t escape that conclusion.

Closure is what the public deserves, but unfortunately, it is not what the public is going to get, the riveting testimony of those four officers notwithstanding.

Some progress has been made. There have been several reviews of the Capitol incursion and a number of recommendations have come out of them for better cooperation among federal and local enforcement agencies, greater intelligence gathering by the Capitol Police, review of the Capitol Police mission, and the deployment of officers and managers, including the creation of a quick-strike force, modern equipment, and more personnel.

But in the seven months since the attack, little progress has been made. The public has been treated to one partisan-charged cage match after another as Democrats drain their public trust trying to bury Trump, and Republicans drain theirs trying to resurrect him. So far, Congress has blown any chance for a comprehensive fact-finding investigation.

The opportunities to create an independent, bipartisan, national commission similar to the 9/11 commission with the stature and public trust needed have been squandered, mostly by the Republican leadership in both bodies.

There is no more effective way to get critical questions answered, such as:

  1. What led up to the invasion of the Capitol, over the course of the preceding months and years? How did we reach this point in our politics and social behavior? What are the root causes?
  2. What was the extent of the threat to the government and the peaceful transition of power? What was the degree of threat to the Vice President and Members of Congress? What caused the breakdown in security and the lapses in reinforcement? Why was law enforcement not more prepared?
  3. Who or what groups were responsible for instigating the assault on the Capitol. How many participated in the actual insurrection? What about those tens of thousands of people who came to Washington for a peaceful protest? Who were they and what separated them from the insurrectionists?
  4. Before, during, or after, was there complicity on the part of the President? Members of Congress? Did the President, by word and deed, put the Vice President, Members of Congress, or law enforcement officers in harm’s way?
  5. Was their complicity on the part of members of the Capitol Police or other local, state, or federal law enforcement agencies? Outside advocacy and protest groups?
  6. When we’ve answered question 1, where do we go from here as a nation?

The House Select Committee does not have the scope and freedom from partisan exploitation to find the answers. It has fatal flaws built into its design and its intent.

It concentrates too much power in the hands of the Speaker and her handpicked chairman, Rep. Bennie Thompson, MS, chairman of the Homeland Security Committee. There is no co-chairman or vice-chairman or ranking Republican member, even though there are two Republicans serving on the Committee, Rep. Cheney and Rep. Adam Kinzinger, both chosen by the Speaker, not the Minority Leader as is the normal procedure, one Cheney and Kinzinger should have respected.

Subpoena power rests solely in the hands of the chairman. Normally that authority is divided and the full Committee given some veto power over its use. Speaker Pelosi also took the unusual step of vesting herself with the sole power to name members of the Committee and to organize it with more Democrats than Republicans. It is more traditional to divide power evenly. Provisions for interim and final reports and a deadline for them is vague or nonexistent. Key provisions were contrary to those that Chairman Thompson had agreed to with his ranking Republican member, John Katko of NY, when they wrote legislation creating a 9/11-type commission that the House passed, over the objections of McCarthy, and Senate Republicans shot down.

Little mattered in the end. Speaker Pelosi took the highly unusual step of refusing to seat two members recommended by McCarthy, Jim Jordan of Ohio and Jim Banks of Indiana, because they were aggressively strong Trump supporters, but not so much more aggressive than two anti-Trump Democrats on the Committee, Adam Schiff of CA and Jamie Raskin of MD.

The Select Committee fiasco was just the end of the beginning. A week after order was restored in the Capitol, Pelosi formed a task force on the attack headed by retired Army Lt. General Russel Honore, who had made his feelings well known. He accused Capitol Police and the House and Senate sergeants-at-arms of being complicit in the insurrection, declaring without evidence that 40 percent of the police were ‘Trumpsters.’ “They were either that stupid or ignorant, or they were complicit. I think they were complicit,” he told MSNBC.

The motivation of the Speaker and the Minority Leader seem clear and misdirected.

The Speaker has been the unmatched and unrelenting arch-enemy of Donald Trump. For the past two years, she has diverted much of the attention, resources, and energy of the US House of Representatives to getting rid of him, launching numerous investigations and two impeachments. She has called him, those who support him, and Republicans in general, every name in the book, sometimes slipping under the very low bar that Trump set with his constant stream of lies, insults, and brutal treatment of others.

It seems her only motivation in assembling the Select Committee is to convict Trump, not to seek broader truth about not only what happened but why. That would have to include McCarthy’s insistence on a serious review of what happened to this country as it erupted in violence last summer in cities all across the country from Seattle to Philadelphia. An estimated 48 people died, were buried, and were forgotten.

“The President bears responsibility for Wednesday’s attack on the Congress by mob rioters. He should have immediately denounced the mob when he saw what was unfolding. These facts require immediate action by President Trump, accept his share of responsibility, quell the brewing unrest and ensure President-elect Biden is able to successfully begin his term. The President’s immediate action also deserves congressional action, which is why I think a fact-finding commission and a censure resolution would be prudent.”

Those were the words not of Speaker Pelosi but Leader McCarthy days after the insurrection. They tell us volumes about his motivation. In the intervening months, he has eaten those words, swallowed hard, and licked his fingers of any missed morsels. His actions since then, time after time going toe-to-toe with the Speaker have left little doubt about his motivation, either. I don’t know him and have had little contact with him, so I can’t speak to what is on his mind or in his heart. The same applies to the Speaker, But I see what I see and hear what I hear and have grown comfortable with a few conclusions.

McCarthy has gone completely overboard without a life vest to mollify his vocal right wing and more to the point, to mollify Donald Trump, who wields a Rasputin-like mesmerizing influence over a sufficient number of the Republican faithful to maintain a perceived stranglehold over the 2022 midterm election. Republican leaders have been cowed into submission by Trump, chasing an elusive short-term political gain at the expense of the long-term interests of Republican principles and the country’s values, future unity, and strength.

This moment in history demands more from so many of us. It demands strong leaders willing to distinguish between their partisan instincts and their patriotic obligations, embodied in those oaths of office they are always talking about.

The events of January 6th and many that led up to it, have slapped the nation with the realities of serious political, social, and even spiritual dilapidation. If we don’t face those realities and restore basic civic responsibilities, question 6 will remain blank and so will the future.

Editor’s Note: Mike Johnson is a former journalist, who worked on the Ford White House staff and served as press secretary and chief of staff to House Republican Leader Bob Michel, prior to entering the private sector. He is co-author of a book, Surviving Congress, a guide for congressional staff, co-founder and member of the Board of the Congressional Institute, and a participant in the Congress of Tomorrow congressional reform project. Johnson is retired. He is married to Thalia Assuras and has five children and four grandchildren.