It’s obvious what happened on Jan. 6: Supporters of outgoing President Donald Trump attacked the Capitol because he told them the 2020 election had been stolen from him.
But there are some questions that could use authoritative answers. What did the president do before and during the Capitol attack? Why didn’t the National Guard show up until several hours after the riot started? And what needs to be done to prevent another insurrection?
Senate Republicans blocked an attempt to find answers, filibustering debate on a bill to create a bipartisan commission that would dig into the Jan. 6 attack. The commission, approved by House Democrats and 35 Republicans last week, was to be modeled after one that investigated 9/11 and made several recommendations, including the creation of a new director of national intelligence post to oversee federal intelligence agencies.
Forming commissions isn’t unusual for Congress ― lawmakers have created more than 150 commissions since 1989, according to the Congressional Research Service. They’re usually staffed by well-known policy experts rather than lawmakers themselves.
In addition to recommendations, commissions can provide authoritative accounts of major events in a way that lawmakers themselves can’t, both because most people don’t like Congress and also because lawmakers may have shortsighted political goals that make the truth inconvenient.
“The deeper value to society is going to transcend whatever partisan values might seem important in the moment,” said Scott Knowles, a historian of disasters and their aftermaths.
Even though this particular commission is meant to investigate an attack on members themselves, in their own place of work, most Republicans oppose it. They insist it’s partisan and meant to hurt Trump, who is still a major influence on the party despite his scandal-plagued, single-term presidency.
Plus, they argue, who needs it? The Capitol attack is already under investigation by law enforcement, which is prosecuting people who breached the building, and Congress has held hearings on it. The same was true of past commissions, however. The 9/11 terrorist attacks were under investigation from law enforcement and congressional committees; that didn’t stop Congress from creating its commission, which uncovered material that committees missed.
It’s impossible to know for sure what a commission could learn, as Knowles noted. “You can’t always predict what they’re going to find, like any kind of investigation,” he said.
But there are major unanswered questions about the attack that deserve a closer look.
What did, or didn’t, Trump do to stop the riot?
Trump told House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) during a phone call that the rioters were left-wing agitators, and when McCarthy pointed out that they were Trump supporters, the president reportedly said, “Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are.”
That’s according to Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-Wash.), who spoke with McCarthy shortly after Trump did.
“To the patriots who were standing next to the former president as these conversations were happening, or even to the former vice president: if you have something to add here, now would be the time,” Herrera Beutler said in a February statement. (She voted in favor of forming the commission last week.)
McCarthy hasn’t spoken in detail about the conversation, but he said Thursday he would testify about it if a commission asked him.
Other Republicans, like Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio), said that they spoke to Trump that day as well. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said he spoke to Ivanka Trump, Trump’s daughter and adviser, in order to get the president to call off his supporters attacking the Capitol. An unknown number of Republicans spoke to White House chief of staff Mark Meadows as the attack unfolded.
What did these Republicans say to Trump and his advisers? What did he and his advisers say to them?
Trump also reportedly attempted to call Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) during the insurrection, but misdialed and reached Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah). Lee handed the phone to Tuberville, who says he quickly ended the call.
Why was Trump trying to reach Tuberville? What was his state of mind?
How did Republicans respond?
One reason to establish a commission is that many members of Congress were closely involved in the events leading up to and on that day.
For example, Tuberville, whom Trump called during the insurrection, attended a Trump fundraiser at the president’s hotel on the eve of the insurrection. Photographs and reports by attendees placed Tuberville in the same rooms as many insurrection backers, including Donald Trump Jr., former national security adviser Michael Flynn, and My Pillow CEO Mike Lindell.
Other Republicans have been implicated in the day’s events by insurrection planners themselves. Ali Alexander, a lead planner of the “Save America” rally that preceded the siege who has been in hiding to evade potential criminal charges, claimed that GOP Reps. Andy Biggs (Ariz.), Paul Gosar (Ariz.) and Mo Brooks (Ala.) helped him plan it. Speaking at the rally, Brooks called for attendees to “start taking down names and kicking ass.”
“We four schemed up of putting maximum pressure on Congress while they were voting,” Alexander said in a since-deleted video posted after the insurrection.
Gosar attended the Jan. 6 rally, and tweeted pictures of the crowd, tagging Alexander. He had previously spoken at a “Stop The Steal” rally hosted by Alexander in December in Arizona. That rally also included a video featuring Biggs.
Biggs and Gosar reportedly requested preemptive pardons from Trump at the end of his term for any possible crimes they committed related to the insurrection, according to CNN.
What involvement did these congressmen have with Alexander and other rally planners? What crimes did they think they committed for which they needed pardons?
The FBI claims that it is investigating communications between sitting lawmakers and insurrectionists around Jan. 6. The commission could similarly examine ties and communications, whether intentional or not, between Republican lawmakers and insurrectionists.
The commission could probe Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s (R-Ga.) relationship with her close ally Anthony Aguero, who stormed the Capitol. It could also examine Rep. Lauren Boebert’s (R-Colo.) claims to have given tours to people in town for the Jan. 6 rally in the days leading up to it. Boebert also tweeted the location of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) as the attack unfolded.
Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), a senior House Democrat, told HuffPost he was the last person off the House floor during the riot, and that he saw the rioters trying to smash into the Speaker’s Lobby as he left.
“What I’m concerned about ― especially the behavior of the Minority Leader here in the House, and his embrace of some of the more extreme and QAnon elements of his party ― is they’re paving the way for this to happen again,” McGovern said.
Beyond Congress, the commission could probe the role of state and local elected officials in aiding the insurrection. At least 57 such officials were at the insurrection, according to a HuffPost report.
How did the attack come together, and who planned it?
Although law enforcement investigations have revealed more about the insurrectionists, there are still plenty of questions about how the attack on the Capitol was planned. Was it, as some suggest, a protest that went off the rails for most of the participants, who showed up planning to rally and then stormed a building? Or did organizers always plan for something bigger?
Such an inquiry will need to examine who planned the rally and who funded it. Which of the organizers and funders knew of plans to march on the Capitol when they paid for the rally and buses bringing people from all across the country? What discussions took place aimed at subverting the peaceful transfer of power underway in Congress when the insurrection began?
Some donors are known. Publix Super Market heir Julie Jenkins Fancelli reportedly gave $300,000 to fund the rally, at the urging of right-wing conspiracist Alex Jones, who delivered a speech to the mob on the Capitol steps.
It may also be important to determine whether certain notable figures were engaged in the planning. What role did former Trump adviser Roger Stone, whom Trump pardoned days before the insurrection, play in the events around Jan. 6? The same goes for Flynn, whom Trump also pardoned.
There are also questions about the extent to which members of the military and law enforcement were involved in the rally. Many have been arrested, but a comprehensive look could answer important questions about extremist elements within the military and law enforcement.
What did Capitol police and the National Guard do to prepare?
Another major question is what the Capitol Police did to prepare. Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser requested National Guard support for Jan. 6 as of Dec. 31, and troops were approved to be stationed around the city.
The request did not apply to the Capitol itself, which is under federal jurisdiction. Christopher Miller, Trump’s acting defense secretary at the time, told Congress he was concerned ahead of Jan. 6 that sending troops to the Capitol building that day would spark fears of a military coup.
Steven Sund, the Capitol Police chief at the time, said he asked congressional security officials for permission to request that the D.C. National Guard be on standby. However, they turned him down, Sund told The Washington Post. Sund, who resigned after the attack, said that House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving told him he was uncomfortable with the “optics” of formally declaring an emergency before the protest.
On the day of the attack, Capitol police staffing was like any other day ― in spite of the widespread knowledge of the protests. Officers told The Associated Press that police leaders gave them little info the morning of Jan. 6 about what to expect, and no instructions on what to do when the attack started.
Capitol police were ultimately overwhelmed when protesters began to push up against them after 1 p.m. The police chief reached out to request National Guard help at 1:49 p.m. It took more than three hours for the Pentagon to respond, according to Maj. Gen. William Walker, the commanding general of the D.C. National Guard. Walker told Congress that “Army Senior Leaders did not think it would look good ― be a good optic ― to incite the crowd.”
Finally, at 5:08 p.m., Walker said he received word that troops could deploy to the Capitol. National Guard troops arrived at the Capitol building at 5:20 p.m.
Current and former leaders have given some answers about why there was a delay, but there’s still plenty of detail to uncover and changes to make to prevent a similar response in the future.
Republicans have questions, too.
Although most Republicans are framing the investigation as a partisan witch hunt, GOP Rep. Stephanie Bice (Okla.), who voted for the commission, noted that it could also go after Democrats.
“There are important questions that must be answered about Nancy Pelosi’s involvement in the decision to deny an activation request for the D.C. National Guard to attack the Capitol,” she said in a video posted to Twitter on Friday.
Bice added that the commission should investigate the fatal police shooting of Ashli Babbitt, a rioter inside the Capitol, and why some of those arrested for their participation are being held in solitary confinement.
In other words, Republicans still have questions about what happened, just like Democrats do.
“I believe we deserve answers to these important questions,” Bice said.
This article has been updated to reflect the Senate’s vote on the Jan. 6 commission bill.