The Jan. 6 Committee Can't Save Democracy

The select committee to investigate the attack on the U.S. Capitol has released explosive information. But it won't save us from what's to come.

Imagine your dad is egging on a massive crowd of rabid right-wingers bent on storming the U.S. Capitol and overturning the presidential election, and the only way to get him to tell the group to go home is to text his lackey.

That’s the predicament Donald Trump Jr., son of the former president, found himself in early on Jan. 6.

This week, the American public found that Trump Jr. was blowing up Mark Meadows’ cell phone to get his father to call off the violence that unfolded at the Capitol that day.

The texts, which the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol released this week, revealed that there’s a decent chance the former president doesn’t take calls from his eldest child.

After Donald Trump was impeached for a second time earlier this year and Congress failed to convict yet again, it was clear where any future investigations would end up. First, Democrats proposed a 9/11-style commission, but Republicans shot that idea down. Instead, the House formed the select committee made up of seven Democrats and two Republicans, who have been all but excommunicated from their party for their willingness to investigate the attack on the Capitol.

Since the committee formed in July, the American people have heard damning information from members of law enforcement who battled rioters at the Capitol. They have watched as the select committee issued a cascade of subpoenas for the right-wing activists and even Trump White House employees who are suspected to be involved.

The trove of text messages the committee released this week includes messages from unnamed lawmakers and Fox News television hosts to Meadows himself; while some of them were privately freaking out on Jan. 6, others were straightforward about their desire to topple the U.S. government.

If America were a prestigious television drama, the current political climate suggests we’re approaching the mid-season cliffhanger.

But while the cache of texts offers a little bit more insight into just how close Trump came to overturning the 2020 election, what’s more worrisome is how little this committee can really do about it.

“If the most Congress can do is hold the coup plotters in contempt, well, I’ve got bad news for you.”

Steve Bannon was held in criminal contempt of Congress in October for ignoring the committee’s subpoena, and last month, the Department of Justice formally indicted him. He was released without bail and seemed unfazed by the charge. If anything, it has energized members of the Republican base who see the entire probe as some kind of political persecution.

“This is going to be the misdemeanor from hell,” Bannon said last month.

Others in Trump circles have compared the committee to “political games.”

The January 6th Select Committee is nothing more than a political witch hunt aimed to attack Donald J. Trump and his supporters,” Rep. Barry Moore (R-Ala.) said in a statement earlier this week.

This week, the committee voted to hold Meadows in contempt as well. What harm does that do to a man who willingly called his book about his time in the White House “fake news” to appease his former boss? If the most Congress can do is hold the coup plotters in contempt, well, I’ve got bad news for you.

Let’s consider what actually happens when Congress doles out this punishment.

In 2020, Congress voted to hold Chad Wolf, who was then the head of the Department of Homeland Security, in contempt after he skipped a hearing on allegations he had altered national security intelligence and ignored a subpoena.

Where is Wolf now? He’s doing what every former member of a Republican administration is doing: He’s leading a right-wing think tank, the America First Policy Institute, is a visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation, and has been busy tweeting about President Joe Biden’s supposed socialist tendencies.

Of course, the Trump administration was in power then, and so it came as no surprise when the Department of Justice declined to act. But now, with Biden at the helm, liberals and anti-Trumpers may be hoping for some stiff punishments. Unfortunately for them, however, criminal contempt of Congress is an exceedingly hard case for the DOJ to prove. The last time it happened was in 1982, during the Ronald Reagan administration.

After Donald Trump was impeached for a second time earlier this year and Congress failed to convict yet again, it was clear where any future investigations would end up.
After Donald Trump was impeached for a second time earlier this year and Congress failed to convict yet again, it was clear where any future investigations would end up.
Photo by Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

A real hindrance for the Democrats and the two Republicans on the select committee is that the GOP has proven, time and time again, that the party is united at any cost. And not just Republican lawmakers, but the talking heads on TV who spread the GOP agenda and the prominent right-wing figureheads who will do whatever it takes to advance the conservative ideology. Nearly a year after the insurrection, the Big Lie about the “stolen” 2020 election is canon, and one would be hard-pressed to find a Republican who speaks ill of Trump, while many are still actively promoting him.

Meanwhile, Democrats control two branches of government but are still struggling to push Biden’s agenda. It’s hard to imagine that a party that can’t even pass politically popular legislation will be able to do something substantial about the massive threat to democracy the country faces.

In February, Democrats extended Trump’s second impeachment trial with a vote on whether or not the Senate should call witnesses to the stand, which surprised everyone when it passed with five Republicans. They could have used that to hear from more people involved in the insurrection. But then, Democrats balked. They didn’t want the trial to go on too long, and there was a planned break that was clearly more important to them than consequences for Trump.

The same Democrats who squandered that opportunity just can’t be expected to do anything groundbreaking this time around.

I’m sure in the coming months, the public will find out even more harrowing and insidious details about what happened on Jan. 6. But millions of people watched live as Trump supporters stormed the Capitol, and so far, most of the people who have been punished are not those who were in power at the time.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy certainly won’t be interested in investigating the insurrection should the GOP take the House next year ― and it has a pretty good chance.

Ultimately, Jan. 6 was about overthrowing a free and fair election. The people who failed to do it the first time around are figuring out where they went wrong and planning to try again. And there’s no committee that can stop them.

CORRECTION: This story has been amended to note that Democrats control two, not three, branches of government.