Does The Jan. 6 Committee Have What It Takes To Investigate The Big Lie?

BEDMINSTER TOWNSHIP, NJ - NOVEMBER 20: President-elect Donald Trump greets Rudy Giuliani at the clubhouse at Trump National Golf Club Bedminster in Bedminster Township, N.J. on Sunday, Nov. 20, 2016. (Photo by Jabin ... BEDMINSTER TOWNSHIP, NJ - NOVEMBER 20: President-elect Donald Trump greets Rudy Giuliani at the clubhouse at Trump National Golf Club Bedminster in Bedminster Township, N.J. on Sunday, Nov. 20, 2016. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images) MORE LESS
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July 27, 2021 7:00 a.m.

As the Jan. 6 committee holds its first hearing Tuesday, lawmakers’ primary focus will be the storming of the Capitol. Law enforcement witnesses will discuss how that day unfolded, and what they saw as they defended the building against the rioters who flooded in, seeking to confront members of Congress.

But as it digs into the effort to overturn the election, the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol risks being limited by too literal an interpretation of its name.

The attack didn’t start on Jan. 6, and the crime scene extends far beyond the Capitol. 

Congressional observers stressed to TPM that unless the committee takes a broad view of the conspiracy to undermine democracy in 2020 and beyond, Congress may be unintentionally laying the groundwork for more violence.

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“Not having that public reckoning greatly increases the risk of a repeat occurrence that I’m not sure we come back from,” said Ted Kalo, a former general counsel on the House Judiciary Committee.

Kalo and others with whom TPM spoke said such a reckoning would need to go back to at least last year, when Trump and his allies, surrogates and attorneys began sowing the seeds for a contested election.

A spokesperson for the committee declined TPM’s request for comment on the committee’s intended scope. 

A Year Of Sowing Doubt

“The only way we’re going to lose this election is if the election is rigged,” Trump declared nearly a year ago, in August 2020. 

On Saturday, he repeated his line nearly word-for-word: “There is no way they win elections without cheating.” 

That untruth underlay every other. Beginning months before Election Day and continuing this month through new voting restrictions and baseless “audits” of last year’s vote, Trump’s “Big Lie” was expressed physically at the Capitol doors on Jan. 6. But limiting investigation to that day alone would amount to examining a movie still under a microscope. 

“It’s critical to recognize that the attack on the Capitol building was not an organic event,” said Austin Evers, executive director of American Oversight.

The committee’s chair, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS), has said “nothing’s off limits” for the investigation. But the panel’s authorizing language spends much of its time on the Capitol’s physical security apparatus’ and its intelligence failures, and warnings about domestic violent extremism. 

“There could well be a school of thought that Donald Trump sucks up all the oxygen in the media environment when he’s the focus,” Kalo said.

One of the Democrats on the committee, Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD), echoed that focus in comments to the Washington Post, saying the committee will look at security questions and “what groups and political forces came together to do this, how did they operate and why did they do this, what was the purpose of it?”

But those factors, too, can best be understood within the context of the months-long conspiracy perpetrated by Trump. Experts in the latter topic told TPM just days after the attack that the Jan. 6 rioters didn’t fit the neat categories of white supremacist scholarship typically used to address racially-motivated terrorists. 

Rather, said Mark Pitcavage of the Anti-Defamation League, they marked “the culmination of something that has been developing for some time: a new extremist movement, centered around the cult of personality of Trump.” 

The Conspiracy To Steal A Second Term

If Trump led a cult, his was a gospel of the persecuted. The administration of the 2020 election became another chapter in that story. 

Beginning in tandem with the spread of the pandemic, Trump and key supporters, surrogates and attorneys spent months spreading lies about pandemic voting measures: Widespread use of mail-in ballots, they said, would lead to massive fraud. Attorney General Bill Barr said it was common sense that foreign countries “could easily make counterfeit ballots,” only to admit that he’d simply imagined the possibility. 

In June, positing that mail-in voting (as opposed to its identical twin, absentee voting) would lead to the “the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history,” the President proposed simply delaying the election. 

By the time votes were being counted, the campaign had already mounted lawsuits alleging that millions of votes in several states would be hopelessly tarred by fraud. A few hours after polls closed, Trump declared a premature victory, claiming that any future indications to the contrary were fraudulent. 

His surrogates fanned across the county, pressuring elections officials to stop counting votes. Attorneys packed courtrooms, arguing for one reason or another — alleged poll watcher violations, supposedly illegal voters, suspicions about Sharpie markers — that millions of ballots in swing states ought to be discarded. At a news conference at Four Seasons Total Landscaping four days after Election Day, Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani bellowed that the news networks tallying Biden’s win were false gods, and further that “at least 600,000 ballots are in question” in Pennsylvania.

When the individual arguments failed, the lawyers said the whole election had been rotten and pressured state lawmakers to step in on Trump’s behalf. Sidney Powell, on Nov. 17, said voting machines had added votes to Biden’s tally and taken them from Trump’s, the inevitable result of the machines’ supposedly Communist DNA. “These are serious federal offenses that I am confident the DOJ will be in pursuit of in very short order, if they aren’t already,” she assured Trump supporters. But the DOJ never came to Trump’s rescue. 

Behind the scenes, Trump turned the screws on state and local officials, pressuring Georgia’s secretary of state to simply “find” the votes necessary for him to win. County supervisors in Maricopa County, Arizona were told by the state’s GOP chair to stop counting ballots and then, when the count continued, to expect a call from Trump.

All the while, out on the street, Trump cultivated a mob, and where his conspiracy theory-peddling attorneys failed to deliver, the mob would not. Pro-Trump protesters packed Washington D.C. in November and December, and the President rewarded them with a motorcade drive-by, then a flyover in Marine One. A crowd appeared outside one state election chief’s home. Election workers targeted by videos claiming to show fraudulent practices faced threats, slurs, and at least one attempt at a citizen’s arrest. Trump retweeted a lawyer, Lin Wood, who’d called for the jailing of Georgia’s governor and the institution of martial law. 

As Jan. 6 drew close, Trump promoted the gathering, promising that it would get “wild.” He confirmed that he’d be speaking at the event far enough in advance for supporters to get to town. 

“If you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore,” he said that day, instructing the crowd as he concluded: “Let’s walk down Pennsylvania Avenue.” 

What Would A Broad Investigation Look Like? 

The universe of what we still don’t know about the events that led to Jan. 6 is expansive, and the makeup of the committee means it has a better chance of finding answers than earlier congressional efforts. 

Though there are two Republicans on the panel, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) announced that his caucus would shun the committee after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) rejected two of his picks for the committee who’d pledged to disrupt it with unrelated issues. As a result, the committee won’t have to navigate the trade-offs of a formally “bipartisan” body. It won’t be burdened in the same way as an earlier Senate investigation, which released a report in June that mostly skimmed over Trump’s months-long effort to rally his troops. 

The change in administration could also help the committee. The former President’s records are now in the custody of the National Archives and subject access rules governed by the Presidential Records Act. That law puts the onus on Trump to try and prevent the release of materials, rather than on the committee to sue for them, Evers said.

What information should the committee seek this time? Experts TPM spoke with suggested the executive branch was a fine place to start — and that investigators should be aggressive. “That can include questions to the FBI, to the Department of Justice, to the military,” Evers said. There’s a major factual gap in our understanding of the road to Jan. 6 that includes Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, Rudy Giuliani and Roger Stone, he added. 

The probe could also include efforts within the Department of Justice to aid the legal efforts around the country to throw out millions of ballots, as evidenced in the reported behavior of senior DOJ officials like Jeffrey Clark, who was reportedly at the center of a plot to oust the acting attorney general and throw the DOJ’s weight behind Trump’s grievances in Georgia.

It could look at why General Mark Milley was reportedly so worried about a coup, or why all 10 living defense secretaries felt the need to write an op-ed observing that “Efforts to involve the U.S. armed forces in resolving election disputes would take us into dangerous, unlawful and unconstitutional territory.” It could look at last-minute leadership changes at the Defense Department and CIA, including some that installed outspoken Trump loyalists in key roles. 

There also remain unanswered questions about the extent of the Trump campaign and White House’s relationship with activists who rode around the country, preaching Trump’s gospel with increasingly violent rhetoric. That extends to the day of the attack, when details from inside the White House remain sparse. 

There is, in short, a lot that we still don’t know about the months-long story of which Jan. 6 was just the culmination. 

“The sixth didn’t happen in a vacuum,” said Grant Tudor, policy advocate at Protect Democracy. “This wasn’t an aberrant event. It was the confluence of long-simmering factors that have been at play — sometimes below the surface, sometimes not — for a very, very long time.”

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