Last February, the uncontroversial position of Trump-friendly Republicans was that Congress needed to establish a commission to investigate the insurrection that had stormed the Capitol the month before. “We need a 9/11 commission to find out what happened and make sure it never happens again,” said Lindsey Graham. “I agree w/Speaker Pelosi – a 911-type investigation is called for to help prevent this from happening again,” tweeted John Cornyn.
The two parties set out to create such a commission. The rules they devised literally copied the rules of the 9/11 Commission. But the party’s leaders — Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell, and Kevin McCarthy — have turned swiftly against it.
The most interesting thing about this reversal is the unconcealed cynicism of its rationale. Republicans seem to have hoped to bog down the negotiations over the commission in some inscrutable point of committee architecture. Instead, Democrats satisfied the Republican negotiator, John Katko, forcing Republicans to confess that they now found the broader objective of a commission pointless, so that no concessions could placate them.
The Republican party is split, roughly, three ways. On the right is a cult faction that treats Trump like a president-in-exile. On the left is a smaller wing of pro-democracy Republicans like Liz Cheney, who oppose their party’s authoritarian slide as a mortal danger to the republic. The balance of power rests with the Establishment wing that lies between them. Many of these Republicans harbor personal disdain for Trump or consider him a liability, and would like to dissociate the party from him as long as doing so does not threaten the party’s agenda.
The trouble is that, time and again, they discover that Trump commands too much loyalty from their supporters. The price of abandoning him is always too high. And so the pattern keeps repeating itself. They toy with the notion of breaking with Trump, and perhaps even promise to do so publicly. But again and again they return to his side: first for his election, then his impeachment, then his reelection, then his second impeachment, and now the January 6 commission.
Their pretexts have grown increasingly threadbare. Josh Holmes, a lobbyist, close adviser to Mitch McConnell, and ubiquitous media source, explained on his podcast earlier this week that the party had no room to discuss trivial questions like which leaders do or do not support the peaceful transition of power:
We’ve got unbelievable, unbelievable problems out there. There are people waiting in gas lines — literally, that’s happening! This is 1979, we’re watching Jimmy Carter’s America descend on us right now and we’re concerned about whether or not has a conference leadership position? C’mon!
Holmes might be relieved to learn that, since he announced this, the gas shortages have been resolved. So maybe the country can now spare a discussion about preserving the democratic system? Or will Holmes discover some new Biden atrocity that compels complete attention?
Marco Rubio, in an interview with the Dispatch, initially claimed he opposed the commission because it would issue subpoenas on a partisan basis, embarrassing its targets. When the reporter, Haley Byrd Wilt, informed him that rules required at least one Republican to support any subpoena, Rubio explained that he hadn’t actually read the bill:
“Well, I’m still going through all the details of it,” Rubio said when The Dispatch pointed out how the commission would be structured and how subpoenas would be issued. “Honestly, we’ve got so much going on here. This is something the House just passed.”
“I haven’t even read it,” Rubio added. “I mean, it just came over. But just my overarching concern is I can already see the shadow of how this is going to be used for a political purpose, and I’m not interested in formalizing some partisan political weapon by either side.”
It’s as if, in the middle of his answer, Rubio realized he couldn’t hide forever behind his claim not to have read the bill, and needed a more durable rationale. What he arrived at on the fly was relatively honest: He “can already see the shadow of how this is going to be used for a political purpose,” namely, exposing an authoritarian plot directed by his party’s leader.
“It’s a shame to say it,” sighs the Wall Street Journal in an editorial opposing any commission, “but there isn’t enough shared trust in Washington these days to pull off a bipartisan inquiry on so polarized a subject.”
Here we have a bit of circular logic that brings us closer to the point. There was a brief period, after the shock of the riot, that leaders of both parties united in horror at Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the election result and secure an unelected second term. That was the context under which Republicans entertained a commission.
But now they’ve decided they can’t oppose Trump’s coup. Indeed, they have allowed him to continue to undermine the election result and purge the party of officials who stood in his path, clearing the way for a more successful and unified attack on the next election Republicans lose. The 9/11 Commission would never have been established if one of the parties was dominated by Al Qaeda supporters.
If the Republican Party actually believed that a violent effort to pressure Congress to cancel the election result was illegitimate, the commission would be bipartisan. The problem is that they don’t agree on this. The fact that the parties can’t agree on this is exactly why the threat is so terrifying.