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Questions Linger About Jan. 6 Capitol Riot

Capitol police officers in riot gear push back demonstrators who try to break a door of the US Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington.
Capitol police officers in riot gear push back demonstrators who try to break a door of the US Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington.

On the last Friday in May, a vote to establish a bipartisan commission to investigate the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol fell six votes short. The vote came in the same U.S. Senate chamber that had been overrun by rioters just minutes after then-Vice President Mike Pence was rushed to safety.

The protesters sought to keep then-President Donald Trump in the presidency, overturning the election of Democrat Joe Biden.

With Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and other Republicans adamantly opposed to another investigation of the attack, prospects for a thorough and bipartisan investigation now appear dim.

But for many, questions linger four months after the deadly incident that astounded the nation and much of the world.

“As an American this bothers me,” said Colin P. Clarke, director of policy and research at the global intelligence firm The Soufan Group, headquartered in New York City.

Clarke says he understands that partisan divides have deepened since the January insurrection but maintains that the Senate’s failure to approve a congressional investigative commission “looks like people have things to hide.”

After initially blaming Trump for helping to instigate the riot, McConnell urged fellow Republicans to vote against the bipartisan commission, noting that other probes are well under way.

“There is no new fact about that day that we need the Democrats’ extraneous ‘commission’ to uncover. … I’ll continue to support the real, serious work of our criminal justice system and our own Senate committees,” McConnell said ahead of the procedural vote.

On May 18, 10 days before the Senate vote that stopped the bill, Trump issued a statement advising Senate and House Republicans to vote down the proposed congressional commission, calling it a “Democrat trap” with “just more partisan unfairness.” He also implored Republicans to “get much tougher and much smarter, and stop being used by the Radical Left.”

Committees, FBI already investigating

Various Senate and House committees — Homeland Security, Oversight, Judiciary — are conducting hearings. But the scope of committee probes is restricted to their specific jurisdictions and purviews, making a comprehensive congressional review all but impossible absent a commission with a broad mandate and subpoena power.

Similarly, the U.S. Justice Department is investigating the Capitol riot and the FBI has made exhaustive efforts to identify, track down and bring charges against perpetrators and participants. Analysts note, however, that the root causes of what took place Jan. 6 and critical decisions made by key players in Washington at the time extend beyond law-and-order matters.

President Biden could sign an executive order to appoint a presidential commission to investigate the events of Jan. 6, an approach opposed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. That option has drawbacks, too, according to Seamus Hughes, a former staffer at the National Counterterrorism Center. Hughes noted the FBI would refuse to share sensitive information if commission members lacked security clearances, adding that an FBI classification review “is a monthlong slog.”

Questions about chatter

Hughes is deputy director of George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, which is tracking 455 people arrested in relation to the Capitol riot and has compiled thousands of pages of legal documents and demographics about the individuals. Of particular interest to him are communications between U.S. law enforcement entities ahead of Jan. 6.

Hughes points to an FBI memo originating in Norfolk, Virginia, the day before the insurrection that warned of online chatter about violence and a “war” at the U.S. Capitol. He wants to know if any other memos existed that foretold of violence on Jan. 6.

“Everything was blinking red [warning signs abounded] leading up to January 6,” Hughes told VOA, adding that “a whole host of intelligence products” should have warned law enforcement that serious trouble was brewing. Hughes also notes that the FBI warned certain extremist group leaders against gathering in Washington on Jan. 6.

“If it raised to that level where FBI agents knock on the door of some random person in Wisconsin and tell them not to travel January 6,” Hughes said, “that tells me there were concerns within the bureau.”

President Trump’s words, actions

At noon on Jan. 6, Trump told an outdoor rally of ardent supporters that the 2020 election had been “stolen” from him, adding: “if you don't fight like hell, you're not going to have a country anymore." The crowd subsequently flocked to the Capitol while Trump returned to the White House where he reportedly saw alerts on television about the breach.

What Trump did and didn’t do while mobs roamed the Capitol is a focus for California Democratic Representative Ted Lieu of California, one of nine House managers for President Trump’s second impeachment trial. Lieu wants to know what transpired in the White House once the riot began and multiple lawmakers attempted to reach Trump by phone begging for help to quell the situation. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy reportedly got into a heated conversation with Trump while urging him to call off his supporters.

“Who’d he [Trump] talk to? What were those conversations like?” Lieu said in a VOA interview, adding that U.S. Capitol Police should have been “better informed, better armed, and better equipped to deal with the massive mob.”

Foreign actors

While the Jan. 6 rioters did not succeed in preventing Congress from certifying Biden’s electoral college victory, some observers have questions about future elections in light of what took place.

David Levine is an elections integrity fellow with the Alliance for Securing Democracy. He says it is “challenging to move forward” to the next election without a comprehensive, shared understanding of what happened on Jan. 6.

Levine notes Russian interference injected chaos and disinformation into the 2016 election cycle. He wants to know “what, if any, role foreign actors might have played” in the leadup to the Capitol insurrection.

The Soufan Group’s Clarke echoed the concern.

“Were there financial transactions that we are unaware of?” Clark asked, adding that Americans should know if funding from a foreign entity was being funneled to extremist groups. “It’s just amazing to me that there’s no desire to know these things,” he said.

Mosaic picture likely

Some analysts predict a “mosaic” of reports from Congress and independent sources will yield a composite picture of the events of Jan. 6. But Seamus Hughes says America’s understanding of the Capitol riots won’t be as complete as that of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that prompted a special commission and an exhaustive accounting of what transpired.

David Levine still holds out hope for a more comprehensive analysis of what happened Jan. 6, calling it the “penultimate test of our country” because avoiding an investigation on political concerns is “not what good democracies do.” Levine said, “[The] Ultimate [test] would be making sure that attacks on our democratic processes and institutions, like the one we witnessed on January 6th, never happens again.”

VOA National Security Correspondent Jeff Seldin and VOA Capitol Hill Correspondent Katherine Gypson contributed to this report.