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More than 140 military leaders, former national security officials, and elected officials from both parties have asked Congress to establish a commission to investigate what led to the January 6 insurrection, when rioters attacked the U.S. Capitol. The commission would also study how to prevent a similar coup attempt in the future.
Yesterday, Representative Liz Cheney (R-WY) told reporters that the proposed Congressional commission should focus solely on the attack. “What happened on January 6 is unprecedented in our history, and I think that it’s very important that the commission be able to focus on that,” she said. “It’s very important that the January 6 commission focus on what happened on January 6 and what led to that day.”
Cheney is staking out turf apart from that of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), who has said any commission should cover political violence in general, including Black Lives Matter protesters and Antifa protests. And yet, as an investigation by The Guardian established, more than 90% of arrests at Black Lives Matter protests never led to charges. Many of the arrests were apparently made, at least in part, to feed a narrative that BLM protesters were violent.
In a larger sense, Cheney and McCarthy are parting ways over what the future of the Republican Party will be. Cheney voted to convict former president Trump of incitement of insurrection for the events of January 6 and clearly wants to keep herself from the contamination of that crisis.
McCarthy, in contrast, has come back to the Trump fold. Immediately after the January 6 attack, a number of Republicans who had witnessed the events said that McCarthy called Trump to beg him to call off the insurrectionists. Trump said to him, “Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are,” to which McCarthy responded: “Who the F—k do you think you’re talking to?”
Nonetheless, later that night, McCarthy joined the majority of House Republicans in an objection to counting the certified state ballots electing Joe Biden as president. Although he later said that Trump “bears responsibility” for the assault, he voted against impeachment for incitement of insurrection.
None of this is trivial. What is at stake is the future of the Republican Party. What is also at stake is the future of the country.
McCarthy doesn’t want to alienate Trump or his supporters because he sees them as key to future electoral victories. On Fox News Sunday this week, Chris Wallace asked McCarthy whether the story about his angry phone call with Trump on January 6 was true. Despite the fact that there were witnesses to the call, McCarthy refused to answer. Keep Trump voters behind Republican candidates also explains his backroom support for forcing Cheney out of her leadership position in the party.
Trump loyalists are trying to take over the GOP in its entirety. The former president and his supporters have continued to feed the idea that Biden cheated Trump out of his election win: now more than two thirds of Republicans say they believe Biden did not win the election. (He did. This is well established.)
To continue to feed this Big Lie, Republicans in the Arizona state senate have turned to a private company for a vote audit in Arizona’s largest county, Maricopa. The vote has already been audited at least twice, under formal rules, and both audits turned up no fraud. Maricopa County Recorder Helen Purcell, a Republican, said there was no need to review the ballots again.
In contrast to the trained election officials, the company the Republicans tapped is run by a conspiracy theorist. He supports the idea that voter fraud stole the election from Trump, and claims Trump actually won by 200,000 votes. When a judge ordered the company, Cyber Ninjas, to explain publicly how it was conducting the audit, company attorneys refused. A reporter who observed the early process by claiming to be a volunteer noted that the volunteers helping with the audit were using pens that could be picked up by the scanners. The ballots are no longer secure, so whatever this so-called audit produces is automatically suspect.
Tying the Republican Party to the Big Lie that caused the January 6 insurrection is a dangerous game. It is still unclear what will come out about the insurrection, as well as the media lies that supported–and continue to support– the fiction that Trump won.
While officials in the Department of Justice have been quiet about investigations of the insurrection, it does not mean they are ignoring it: it is not appropriate to comment on an ongoing investigation. Indeed, more than four hundred people have already been arrested for their participation in the events of January 6. News broke yesterday that the FBI had at least four informants embedded in the Proud Boys, the right-wing organization that allegedly provided security for Trump adviser Roger Stone in the days surrounding the insurrection. The Department of Justice has announced it expects to charge at least 100 more individuals.
There are also suggestive insurrection-adjacent stories swirling around. A far-right British agitator, Tommy Robinson, who urged Trump supporters to keep fighting after the insurrection and who appeared in right-wing U.S. media, is now affiliating himself with Russia.
If Russian disinformation is indeed involved in the Big Lie, a commission might well reveal this: last year, nine regional military commanders asked the intelligence community to declassify information about how Russia and China are undermining U.S. national security by shaping public opinion. Yesterday, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines announced that the administration will establish a new center to coordinate intelligence about foreign interference in U.S. politics. Haines noted that “[E]fforts by U.S. adversaries seek to exacerbate divisions and undermine confidence in our democratic institutions.”
Lawyers from the Justice Department have been arguing in court lately that Trump’s continued lying about the election, along with the amplification of those lies by right-wing media, remains an ongoing threat.
Heather Cox Richardson is a Professor of History at Boston College. This post originally appeared at her Substack, Letters from an American.