If it hadn’t been for his decision to deny any GOP participation on the committee, the past few weeks would have been very different. Here’s why:
After Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell torpedoed the idea of a bipartisan independent commission to examine the events of Jan. 6, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi proposed a “select committee,” made up of eight Democrats and five Republicans, the latter being chosen by Leader McCarthy. but subject to Pelosi’s veto. She rejected two: Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan and Indiana’s Jim Banks, both Trump stalwarts who had voted against certifying the 2020 presidential election. (Jordan had previously attacked the whole idea of the committee as a partisan stunt, and Banks had urged the committee to focus on violence during the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests.) Pelosi accepted the other three GOP members, who had all voted against impeaching Trump, and one of them – Troy Nehls of Texas – had also voted against certification of the election results.
At that point, instead of letting three pro-Trump Republicans join the committee, McCarthy pulled the plug. Calling his actions a “flagrant abuse of power,” he said, “Unless Speaker Pelosi reverses course and installs all five Republican nominees, Republicans will not participate in their sham process and instead continue our own investigation into the facts. In the end, the only Republicans who agreed to join the committee were the GOP’s two harshest critics of Trump’s behavior, Cheney and Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of what McCarthy did. The committee is still, technically, “bipartisan”. But that’s entirely in the hands of the members who have (to put it mildly) deep doubts about Donald Trump’s behavior around the Jan. 6 insurrection. This in turn ensured, from the outset, that the committee could frame its case without backtracking, without counter-arguments, without attempting to delay, disrupt, or hijack the case the committee was tirelessly building.
I’ve watched congressional committees for decades, going back to the Army-McCarthy hearings, and in every instance I can think of, there were significant divisions within those committees — partisan, ideological, institutional. The Senate Watergate Committee, for example, included at least one Nixon loyalist and another, Howard Baker, whose original intention was to exonerate Nixon. The House Judiciary Committee that oversaw Bill Clinton’s impeachment has been torn apart by furious partisan exchanges, as has the House Intelligence Committee that investigated Donald Trump’s behavior with Ukraine. Every recent Supreme Court confirmation hearing has been a tedious back and forth between members embracing or rejecting the nominee.
That’s what made the January 6 hearings so different: it was the equivalent of a grand jury presentation, where the prosecutor lays out a case without rebuttal from a potential defendant.
(Note: those of us who welcome the powerful arguments presented by the committee might want to ask what Republicans have learned about using such a select committee, should they take control of the House this fall. .)
Now imagine what the Jan. 6 committee would have looked like with five Republicans on the panel, including three Trump loyalists chosen by McCarthy. How many times would there have been objections to playing extracts recorded testimonies, rather than broadcasting the whole testimony? Why not bring in witnesses for live questioning, with skeptical questioning from the minority? How many times has a member objected to the tapings for hearsay reasons, resulting in lengthy arguments? How many GOP members would have demanded testimony from the FBI, the National Guard, and the Capitol Hill police, to prove that the riots were partly the fault of those bodies? Would there have been an effort to prove that there had been irregularities in the election – if not the madness of the Venezuelan-Italian satellite-Chinese bamboo ballot papers, then in the case more “respectable” than the courts and had state election officials overstepped their authority in making voting more accessible? Would GOP members have echoed Jim Banks’ request that the committee look into the violence that accompanied some of the protests in those over the murder of George Floyd?
To be clear, the evidence provided so far by the committee has been powerful enough, even shocking, that its impact would likely have survived any attempt to undermine it. But what made it all the more powerful and shocking was the uninterrupted narrative flow, skillful wrapping of text and testimonials (under the direction of TV news director James Goldston). It is simply impossible that five GOP members of the committee sat in silence while this narrative unfolded.
But thanks to Kevin McCarthy, those seats remained vacant. For this, the country owes him a deep, if totally hypocritical, debt of gratitude.