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The Resilience of Evidence

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Proving Ground
What is the January 6th committee, exactly? Casey Burgat on the power and proceedings of a Capitol Hill investigation.
Andy Feliciotti, The Signal
Andy Feliciotti, The Signal
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?
Burgat: The committee received a sizable amount of funding to hire professionals to help with the investigation. They also hired a former ABC News president to help them with the optics of their presentation. The committee had the ability to subpoena people, though subpoenas have limited enforcement mechanisms within Congress.
Vyse: What was the committee doing during the year in between its formation and these hearings?
Burgat: It’s been investigating—identifying people who know or might potentially know things about the events of January 6th, interviewing people, subpoenaing people, following the documents, getting their presentation together. I suspect that the scope of their investigation got a lot bigger than they anticipated. They interviewed more than 1,000 witnesses.
Vyse: Has the committee uncovered anything that wasn’t already public knowledge?
Burgat: Well, more than anything, the effectiveness of the committee has been in getting so many folks from Trump’s inner circle—including his family members—basically to admit that they knew on or shortly after Election Night 2020 that he had lost the election. Members of this inner circle were telling him directly that what he was saying about the election being stolen from him wasn’t true. The committee is very effectively showing those people speaking in their own words.
Another subject that the committee has focused on is fundraising, saying that Trump and his allies raised $250 million he said would go to an “Election Defense Fund” but it was essentially a campaign fundraising appeal. Some of that money was directed to political groups and the company that orchestrated Trump’s rally on January 6th, which led to the insurrection. In addition, the committee said that multiple Republican members of Congress asked Trump for pardons over their roles in January 6th, so everyone’s wondering who those members are and why they were asking for pardons.
Andy Feliciotti, The Signal
Andy Feliciotti, The Signal
More from Casey Burgat at The Signal:
The committee hasn’t said whether it will make a criminal recommendation about Trump or anyone else. In fact, we’ve seen conflicting messages from committee members. Bennie Thompson, the Democratic chairman of the committee, said this week that they’re not going to make a criminal referral. [Liz Cheney later tweeted that the committee “has not issued a conclusion regarding potential criminal referrals” and that it would ‘announce a decision on that at an appropriate time.‘] They might be seeing how the evidence plays in the court of public opinion. Any committee, including investigatory committees, ultimately issues a report—a document detailing its findings in narrative form—and that could include a criminal recommendation. It could include recommendations about how to avoid something like January 6th in the future—recommendations related to security, to the Capitol complex—or it could include the recommendation that the Justice Department expand its investigation to include President Trump. It could be as explicit as recommending Trump be charged and what those charges ought to be.”
The work of the committee does serve some political interests for Democrats, as the findings will make them look better than Republicans, especially those who’ve defended Trump’s role in January 6th. When Americans are talking about this event, we’re not talking as much about inflation or Joe Biden’s low approval rating. Will it have an effect on the midterm elections? I’m skeptical. There doesn’t seem to be much that will change American voters’ hardened partisan stances. A lot of this information gets filtered through partisan lenses.”
This committee has done an excellent job of presenting the facts in about as nonpartisan a way as you could, including through very conservative members of the Republican Party. Liz Cheney was part of the Republican leadership in Congress; she’s tremendously conservative; and she’s been remarkable in presenting her case. At the same time, certain Democratic members who are used to being in front of the cameras have stepped back and let the presentation speak for itself, which is hard for politicians to do.”
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