By Jules Witcover
Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s idea of an independent House commission re-examining the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol is a useful way of diverting the public debate over the conduct of former President Donald Trump from our daily political discourse.
Such a commission, composed of citizens outside of Congress or party affiliation, can drain off much of the partisan and ideological venom from any public dialogue involving the combustible Trump. As the commission goes forward under an even-handed chair yet to be named, President Joe Biden and his new administration will more easily be able to concentrate on his agenda of coping with the coronavirus pandemic and its economic ramifications.
Pelosi in her proposal referred to the insurrection as a “domestic terrorist attack on the U.S. Capitol,” which calls to mind the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Indeed, Pelosi’s idea for the commission is patterned after the bipartisan National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, aka the 9/11 Commission, that reviewed in detail the al-Qaida assault on New York City’s World Trade Center and on the Pentagon in Washington. That commission, chaired by former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, recommended various improvements in national defense. President Biden has already endorsed the idea.
Such a new body would obviously focus on the unpreparedness at the Capitol on Jan. 6, when National Guard forces belatedly had to be called in to supplement the overwhelmed U.S. Capitol Police and five individuals were killed in the mob melee.
Trump was widely criticized for inciting the rioters with speech from outside the White House, calling on them to march to the Capitol and “fight like hell” against an imminent Electoral College confirmation of Joe Biden’s victory in the Nov. 3 election. Trump told the crowd he would march with them but instead went back to the White House and watched the violence unfold on television.
Pelosi, in calling for the commission, asked House Democratic members to consider enabling legislation that would investigate and report on the assault and provide funds for improved security at the Capitol. She appointed retired Army Gen. Russel Honore to recommend new measures because it was already “clear from his findings and from the impeachment trial that we most get to the truth of how this happened.”
From that comment, it also seems clear that Pelosi looks to the commission as a further vehicle to keep heat on the former president as he strives to remain a political force in the Republican Party and the country in the wake of his defeat.
Somewhat surprisingly, one of Trump’s staunchest GOP supporters, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, said on Fox News earlier, “We need a 9/11 commission find out what happened and make sure it never happens again.” Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, one of the few Republicans who voted to impeach Trump, told ABC News: “I think there should be a complete investigation about what happened on Jan. 6. Why was there not more law enforcement, National Guard already mobilized, what was known, who knew it, and when they knew it? All that, because that builds the basis so this never happens again in the future.”
One of the House Democratic managers in the impeachment trial, Rep. Madeleine Dean of Pennsylvania, said: “Of course there must be a full commission, not guided by politics, but filled with people who would stand up to the courage of their conviction, like (Sen.) Cassidy.”
Thus must Donald Trump endure another round of close inspection into the last days of his presidency, wherein once again he demonstrated why he was impeached a second time, yet managed to survive and look to the possibility of a return to power down the road.
Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at juleswitcovercomcast.net.