Jan. 6 committee, which aims to find out who organized and funded Capitol insurrection, holds first public hearing

Bart Jansen

WASHINGTON – A House committee of seven Democrats and two Republicans will begin delving into the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol on Tuesday, trying to find out who organized and funded a deadly insurrection that threatened to stop the peaceful transition of power.

A mob spurred by former President Donald Trump's false claims of a stolen election breached the Capitol on Jan. 6, when rioters broke down doors and shattered windows, some shouting "Hang Mike Pence!" The attack temporarily halted Congress' counting of Electoral College votes certifying President Joe Biden's victory. 

The hearing on Capitol Hill is the first public hearing of the panel appointed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to investigate the attack that left five people dead. The panel is led by Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., who has the power to subpoena, and includes Republican Reps. Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, both Trump critics who voted to impeach him. 

“It's about seeking the truth, and that's what we owe the American people,” Pelosi said.

Republicans have criticized the committee as partisan and unnecessary after the Senate issued a bipartisan report with recommendations to prevent another attack. The Justice Department has charged 535 people in the first six months after the insurrection and continues to pursue investigations.

“This is a sham committee that's just politically driven by Speaker Pelosi,” said House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.

Susan MacManus, political science professor emeritus at University of South Florida, said the Capitol attack is “far too politicized” for the committee’s work to be viewed as nonpartisan.

“People already have very, very, very definitive perceptions of both parties, and of Trump and Pelosi, no matter how this turns out,” MacManus said.

Paul Rosenzwieg, former Department of Homeland Security official and founder of Red Branch Consulting, said there is much to learn about inadequate intelligence-gathering before the attack, the slow response as it unfolded and who organized and funded it.

“I am 100% sure there are people who have already made up their minds, and nothing this committee says will change that," he said. "But if they do their job seriously, there will be lots of things that well-meaning people can take from this that would improve the response next time and minimize the chance of it happening again."

Here is what to watch for, as the committee holds its first hearing:

Police will describe Capitol attack

Tuesday's hearing will include testimony from four police officers who were injured as law enforcement, outnumbered by the mob, tried to subdue the insurrectionists. 

About 140 officers were injured. One person was shot to death while trying to enter the Capitol, and four people died from natural causes or a drug overdose, according to the D.C. medical examiner's office. The violence has been revealed in video from security cameras and cameras worn by city police. Four officers will testify:

"Each is a hero, and each will bring powerful testimony about the truth of the day," Pelosi wrote to colleagues Friday.

Rep. Bennie Thompson, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, flanked by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Rep. Pete Aguilar, D-Calif., finishes his remarks as Pelosi announces her appointments to a new select committee to investigate the violent Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

Thompson can issue subpoenas

A question now before committee members: Whom will they compel to testify?

Thompson could issue subpoenas for testimony. He hasn’t said whom he might summon, but political observers have speculated that Trump, former Vice President Mike Pence, McCarthy, Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, and Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., could be subpoenaed.

McCarthy, who spoke to Trump by phone during the attack, and Jordan have said they could testify because they have nothing to hide.

Pence, who was presiding as Senate president during the attack, was the subject of threats of violence.

Trump and Brooks each spoke at a rally near the White House challenging the election results before the riot.

Despite lengthy court fights to subpoena Trump administration officials during the impeachment inquiry, the House has clear legal authority to subpoena its own members, according to legal experts. Michael Stern, a former House senior counsel, said lawmakers are routinely subpoenaed by the Ethics Committee.

If a lawmaker fights a subpoena, the committee could refer the matter to the Justice Department for possible criminal prosecution for contempt, Stern said. The House could also pursue its own disciplinary measures, such as fines levied for refusing to pass through metal detectors to get to the House floor.

“I don’t think there’s any question about their legal authority,” Stern said. “As a legal and practical matter, they have the ability to enforce the subpoenas, but politically, if they want to get into a spat with Jim Jordan or whoever it may be, that’s another question.”

The ability of Democrats to issue subpoenas without Republican support comes in contrast to an independent commission, which was initially proposed, modeled on the panel that investigated the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Under a commission, subpoenas would have required support from at least one member appointed by Republicans.

In the House, 35 Republicans joined Democrats in supporting a commission. Seven Senate Republicans supported the commission, but that fell short of the 10 required to cut off a GOP filibuster to approve the commission, which killed the proposal.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., speaks to reporters during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., on July 22, 2021. Pelosi discussed her reasons for rejecting two Republicans chosen by House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy to be on the committee investigating the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection.

What is the committee's goal?

The attack has already been the subject of a 127-page Senate report from two committees and numerous House hearings.

The Senate report described intelligence failures and a lack of preparation before the attack. The House Administration Committee has studied facets of the attack such as the emergency response and whether to overhaul the Capitol Police. The House Appropriations Committee is considering how much more to spend on security. The House Homeland Security Committee has studied domestic terrorism.

But Pelosi said the special committee she appointed will investigate the causes of the attack, "to find out how it was organized, who paid for it, who messaged to get those people here for the assault on the Capitol."

"We're here to get the truth, not to get Trump," she said.

Rosenzwieg, a senior counsel in the Whitewater investigation during the Clinton administration, said there is lots to learn to improve a future response.

“There is a legitimate set of questions about why we did a bad job and what we can do to do better," he said.

Left to right, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Rep. Jim Jordan and Rep. Jim Banks on July 21, 2021 in Washington, D.C.

'Pelosi Republicans'

The committee is bipartisan after Pelosi appointed nine members, including Cheney of Wyoming and Kinzinger of Illinois.

But the panel has nobody nominated by Republicans and nobody potentially bringing Trump’s perspective to the proceedings.

McCarthy withdrew his five nominees after Pelosi refused to seat two of them: Jordan and Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana.

Pelosi said the two made statements and took actions that were disqualifying and would have hurt the committee’s integrity.

“This is deadly serious,” Pelosi said. “This is about our Constitution, it's about our country.”

But McCarthy said the move revealed that Democrats are pursuing a political agenda. Cheney and Kinzinger each voted to impeach Trump the second time, on charges of inciting the insurrection.

McCarthy called Cheney and Kinzinger "Pelosi Republicans" while attending a White House event Monday. He has suggested that Republicans could lose their other committee assignments after accepting appointments from the Democratic speaker, but that hasn't happened yet.

"We'll see," McCarthy said Monday when asked about removing them.

Rosenzwieg said Pelosi chose serious lawmakers for the committee, including "rock-ribbed conservatives" such as Cheney and Kinzinger, and avoided "firebrand flame-throwers from the left."

“The Republicans have committed to denigrating and minimizing this no matter what, and it remains to be seen whether they’ll succeed,” Rosenzweig said.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., holds the camera of Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., during an event in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, Monday, July 26, 2021, to highlight the bipartisan roots of the Americans with Disabilities Act and marking the law's 31st anniversary.

GOP plans own investigation

Republicans contend the real questions are why the Capitol wasn’t better prepared and what has been done to better protect the campus.

McCarthy noted that intelligence agencies began receiving word of threats Dec. 14, but that National Guard troops were directing traffic without weapons rather than guarding the campus. Two bombs were found the morning of Jan. 6 at the Democratic and Republican party headquarters. Yet the mob was able to ransack the Capitol.

Jordan and Banks contend that Pelosi refused to appoint them because they were arguing that she is ultimately to blame for security lapses.

“Only one person can answer that question – only one – the speaker of the United States House of Representatives,” Jordan said.

He said his “hunch” is that Democrats don’t want to address the question because they ignored violent protests nationwide last year for racial justice.

“The Democrats normalized anarchy. They normalized rioting and looting,” Jordan said.

Banks said Democrats haven’t asked what left the Capitol so vulnerable on Jan. 6.

“She knew we would fight back against their political games, and that’s why she didn’t want us to participate in this committee,” Banks said. “It just goes to show, this is entirely a political exercise on her part.”

McCarthy said Republicans would run their own investigation.

“We have people from all walks of life,” he said. “They want to know the answer and the American people deserve that. They don’t deserve politics.”

Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, joined from left by Rep. Troy Nehls, R-Texas, and Rep. Kelly Armstrong, R-N.D., speaks at a news conference after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi rejected two of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy's picks for the committee investigating the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, including Jordan and Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., on July 21, 2021.

Bleeding into 2022

The proposed commission was assigned to complete its work by Dec. 31, but the committee’s assignment is open-ended.

“I look forward to coming up with the causes and effect,” Thompson said. “We'll let the facts help determine how long we will meet. But I assure you that the product will be a product based on investigation.”

Republicans have argued the committee’s work will be used to attack Trump and GOP candidates politically during the 2022 campaign.

"It doesn't matter today what she does with her committee because it's not going to change the outcome of what seems like a pre-determined or already written report," McCarthy said.

MacManus, the political science professor, said the committee's report wouldn't change anyone's mind, but it could spur voters to the polls.

“They might see it as a vote mobilizer in the 2022 election cycle,” MacManus said. “It’s going to hard for this to be a big issue pushing people in one way or another. It’s seen as far too politicized.”