WASHINGTON – The House select committee envisioned to be the ultimate arbiter of what led President Donald Trump’s supporters to invade the U.S. Capitol in January is scheduled to begin its work this week under a cloud of controversy that threatens to compromise the investigation from the outset.
Republican leaders, who declared a boycott after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., last week rejected two of their picks for the panel, have signaled to the GOP’s rank and file that there could be consequences for anyone who participates. As of Sunday, two have agreed to do so anyway, and Pelosi has hinted that there could be others.
It’s unclear when a roster may be finalized, and Democrats running the committee have yet to articulate specific plans or timelines for their investigation.
Nevertheless, on Tuesday, four police officers – two from the Capitol’s protection squad and two from D.C. police – are set to provide the first public testimony before the select committee. They are expected to testify about their experiences of both physical and verbal abuse on Jan. 6, as they tried to protect the Capitol from a swelling horde of demonstrators determined to stop Congress’s efforts to certify the 2020 electoral college results and declare Joe Biden the next president.
Their stories will be familiar to those who have followed the riot’s fallout via related congressional investigations, ongoing federal court cases and Trump’s second impeachment trial. All four have given interviews about their experience. Some were even involved in lobbying members of Congress to create an independent commission to examine the attack – an effort that failed this spring, when the Senate fell shy of a filibuster-proof majority needed to impanel what was supposed to be bipartisan group of outside experts.
Members of the select committee say the officers’ stories, though already documented, are a necessary prologue. Police personnel provide the “moral center of gravity of the whole investigation,” Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland said in an interview last week. He is one of seven Democrats chosen for the select committee.
Another panel member, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said in an interview that the officers’ testimony was “a really important perspective to begin with . . . to put to rest this fictional revisionist history,” a reference to efforts by Trump and other Republicans to characterize the Capitol riot as a “normal tourist visit” from a “loving crowd.”
Authorities have estimated that about 10,000 people descended on the Capitol campus and that about 800 broke inside. To date, about 550 have been charged with crimes; more than 165 individuals are accused of assaulting or impeding law enforcement.
Six months ago, House Democrats brought charges against Trump for inciting the rioters, a trial that ended in his acquittal. At the time, 10 House Republicans supported his impeachment. But only two of those members – Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois – voted to endorse the new select committee and its probe.
Pelosi has selected Cheney and Kinzinger to serve on the panel, naming Kinzinger to its ranks Sunday afternoon. Earlier in the day, she told ABC News’s George Stephanopoulos that other Republicans “have expressed an interest” as well, though she did not specify who did so or how many GOP members are under consideration.
House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy of California has threatened to retaliate against Republican members who participate in the investigation by stripping them of their committee assignments.
In a news conference last week, Cheney promised to ensure that the investigation “holds those accountable who did this and ensures that it never happens again.”
Democrats running the probe have outlined similarly bold top-line goals, but when asked to detail what witnesses and lines of inquiry they intend to pursue, they offered more measured answers.
Raskin, who led the prosecution in Trump’s second impeachment trial, said the committee will focus on “why we were not prepared for the president to unleash the violence against us and what that means in terms of security.”
Another question the panel hopes to answer, he said, is “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.
“And then looking forward,” Raskin said, “what do we need to do to prevent this from happening again.”
Those issues have been the focus of other congressional inquiries. Last month, a bipartisan investigation conducted by the Senate Rules and Administration and the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committees released a report addressing questions about who participated in the riot and why law enforcement was not prepared to protect the Capitol, while offering a list of recommendations for improvement.
The bipartisan Senate report did not render any judgment on the extent to which Trump was responsible for the mayhem. That was a deliberate decision intended to prevent the sort of political distraction that now overshadows the House Democrats’ investigation.
When asked whether the select committee would seek to call witnesses from the Trump administration, Raskin demurred, saying: “Let the chips fall where they may. Nobody is setting out with the idea of trying to get particular individuals to come.”
Yet names of potential witnesses – including those of lawmakers who were in communication with Trump during the hours and days before and after the Capitol attack – are already being bandied about the halls of the House.
Several members of the select panel have noted that McCarthy and Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio – one of the two members whose participation Pelosi rejected last week, initiating the GOP boycott – are fair game for the witness bench.
Spokespeople for Jordan and McCarthy did not immediately respond when asked whether they would agree to appear as witnesses in the select committee probe, if summoned.
Earlier this month, the select committee’s chairman, Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., told PBS that he “will not hesitate” to subpoena witnesses whom “the facts themselves lead us to” – including Trump, he said.
But Democrats have a weak track record when seeking to compel testimony from those loyal to Trump, even under subpoena. The House only recently reached a deal to hear from former White House counsel Donald McGahn, a pivotal witness in Robert Mueller’s investigation of the former president, after battling in court for more than two years.
The select committee probably does not have such time at its disposal. Though Pelosi, Cheney and other members have argued that the panel is “nonpartisan,” many in Congress expect that the panel will have to wrap up its work in advance of the 2022 midterm elections, in which Trump’s continued popularity among conservatives and the Jan. 6 riot are expected to be factors.
In the meantime, the GOP’s refusal to participate in the select committee’s investigation could influence how its work progresses and is perceived, despite the efforts of members such as Schiff to dismiss it as an “inconsequential sideshow.”
Last week, after Pelosi rejected Jordan and Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., as members of the panel, McCarthy promised that the GOP would “pursue our own investigation of the facts.” He has not elaborated on how.
For the time being, Republicans continue to lob preliminary potshots at the committee, saying its members are too biased to conduct a legitimate probe. Banks, Speaking on “Fox News Sunday,” dismissed the endeavor, saying Pelosi had “already predetermined a narrative about Donald Trump, about Republicans.”
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The Washington Post’s Spencer S. Hsu contributed to this report.