WASHINGTON – The public inquest into the deadly Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol begins a new phase Tuesday when four law enforcement officials – three of whom resigned their posts and some of whom have never before spoken publicly about the attack – face lawmakers aiming to uncover what led to the violence and prevent future unrest.
But Tuesday’s hearing before members of two Senate committees could also become a battleground for competing narratives over what prompted the riot and who was responsible for it – a question that has become even more pointed following former president Donald Trump’s acquittal on impeachment changes earlier this month.
Trump’s allies in Congress and beyond have sought to downplay the former president’s role in gathering his supporters in Washington and spreading the false claim that he, not President Joe Biden, won the November election – facts that led to bipartisan impeachment proceedings. Instead, they have sought to blame lapses by Capitol security officials – and the congressional leaders they report to – for the building’s invasion.
That has heightened the drama surrounding the expected testimony of former House sergeant-at-arms Paul Irving and former Senate sergeant-at-arms Michael Stenger, who resigned quickly after the riot was suppressed. Neither man has spoken publicly about their experiences and decision-making before and during the riot.
Also expected to appear Tuesday are former Capitol Police chief Steven Sund, who has spoken to media outlets about his frustrations requesting assistance from Irving and Stenger ahead of the riot, and acting D.C. police chief Robert Contee III, whose officers engaged in some of the most brutal clashes with rioters at the Capitol’s doors. The riot resulted in the deaths of one Capitol Police officer and four others.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., chair of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, said in an interview that preparations for the hearing have been strictly bipartisan and that she expected a “constructive tone” to prevail.
“This is a moment to get the actual facts about what happened at the Capitol,” she said. “The issues we identify and the answers we get are part of the solution, so this isn’t just about throwing popcorn at a movie screen to try to get sound bites. We actually have to make decisions in the coming months.”
But she acknowledged that other senators may focus on contested aspects of the narrative surrounding the riot. Those questions are likely to include what role House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., played in reviewing or approving plans for Capitol security ahead of the attack.
Irving reported to Pelosi, and Stenger reported to McConnell, who was majority leader at the time of the riot. Both men sit on the Capitol Police Board, a secretive four-member body overseeing congressional security matters that also includes the chief of the Capitol Police and the presidentially appointed architect of the Capitol.
While neither Irving nor Stenger has addressed the matter directly, a former Capitol security official who spoke to The Washington Post last month at Irving’s request relayed that Irving dismissed Sund’s request to place National Guard troops on call, citing the “optics” of stationing uniformed military personnel at the seat of federal government.
Irving did not consult with Pelosi on the decision to reject the request, said the official, former Senate sergeant-at-arms Bill Pickle, but Irving believed he was reflecting her wishes.
That has not stopped several high-ranking House Republicans from seeking to add Pelosi to the list of those responsible for the events of Jan. 6. The top GOP members of four House committees last week demanded Pelosi answer questions about her knowledge of the security preparations, contending that “many important questions about your responsibility for the security of the Capitol remain unanswered.”
“The Speaker is responsible for all operational decisions made within the House,” they wrote.
Other GOP allies are also joining in, including conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch, which has gone to court with a demand for emails among members of the Capitol security apparatus as well as a blanket demand for security video at the Capitol.
“We don’t trust Nancy Pelosi (or, frankly, any other politician) to honestly examine the many controversies surrounding January 6, and so we want a closer look,” the group said in an email last week.
Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill said that the GOP letter reflected an attempt to “deflect responsibility for the Capitol attack from Donald Trump” and noted that Irving and Sund briefed House lawmakers a day before the riot and assured them that all necessary precautions had been taken.
“As the target of an assassination attempt, the Speaker knows all too well the importance of security at the Capitol and is focused on getting to the bottom of all issues facing the Capitol Complex and the events that led up to the insurrection,” Hammill said.
Republican senators have not made a similar demand for transparency from McConnell, who oversaw Stenger’s hiring in 2018 and requested his resignation in the immediate aftermath of the riot.
But at least one senator who will ask questions Tuesday has shown a willingness to challenge the prevailing evidence showing that the Capitol attack was conducted by Trump supporters, at least some of whom saw the infiltration of the Capitol as a way to obstruct the counting of electoral votes that was underway that the time and prevent Biden’s inauguration.
Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., has publicly suggested that Pelosi is to blame for the riot and last week questioned whether the events of Jan. 6 could be fairly considered an “armed insurrection,” despite the fact that several rioters were carrying weapons and a cache of weapons was found near the Capitol grounds.
A spokesman for Johnson did not return a request for comment Monday.
Three other senators who will participate in Tuesday’s questioning – Sens. Josh Hawley, R-Mo.; Ted Cruz, R-Texas; and Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss. – voted to discount at least one state’s electoral votes after the riot took place.
Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Gary Peters, D-Mich., said in an interview Monday that he expects Tuesday’s hearings to “lead to even more questions” about what contributed to the security failures on Jan. 6. Both he and Klobuchar said that at least one additional hearing will be called featuring senior officials of the federal agencies who were involved in the preparations and response to the insurrection.
“We need to know more about what happened prior to Jan. 6, and that’s certainly something I will be focused on as chairman,” Peters said, noting that “it certainly seems there was a major failure of leadership.”
But he sidestepped questions about whether the expected grilling of Irving and Stenger might yield to a more partisan and acrimonious debate over whether Pelosi or other elected officials bear responsibility for the lack of preparedness.
Klobuchar and Peters stressed that they are working in close coordination with the top Republicans on their panels, Sens. Roy Blunt of Missouri and Rob Portman of Ohio, and expect to continue the investigation on a “nonpartisan” basis.
“We need to know: was there credible intelligence about potential violence; when was it known; and who knew it,” Portman is expected to say, according to a copy of his prepared statement obtained by The Post. “We need to know what happened and how to ensure that this never happens again.”
Peters would not speculate about what the final product of the panel’s investigations would be – except to say that after “a number of hearings,” there were likely to be “a series of policy decisions.” Klobuchar said the hearing may result in improvements on the gathering and analysis of intelligence on threats to the Capitol, as well as a possible restructuring of the Capitol Police Board.
In additional to the congressional probe, federal prosecutors are continuing to file cases against rioters, the Government Accountability Office is probing security preparations, and top congressional leaders continue to discuss creating an outside commission to investigate the attack, one modeled on the bipartisan 9/11 Commission. That effort, however, appeared to be on hold Monday amid a partisan dispute about its structure.