It’s the latest twist of a drama stretching from Washington to a sham election audit in Arizona, and in state legislatures passing bills making it tougher to vote.
Republicans everywhere are making the same choice, and almost all of them are siding with former President Donald Trump, his false claims of election fraud and his unchecked assault on US democracy.
Only a few, brave holdouts are standing firm against the tide — and risk sacrificing their careers to stand with their consciences and American democratic values.
The split will play out again on the House floor as the crucial vote takes place.
On the other side of the truth/Trump divide is Rep. Liz Cheney, the former House Republican conference chairwoman. The Wyoming lawmaker contradicted the former President’s lies and lost her leadership post to Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, whose ambition leaves her with fewer scruples about the truth. Cheney has company with a handful of Republicans in the House and Senate who voted to impeach and convict Trump after he told supporters to “fight like hell” to halt the certification of his election defeat.
The House bill on setting up the commission is still likely to pass, given the Democratic majority, and may garner some GOP votes since it is the product of a painfully reached bipartisan deal on the makeup of the panel and a mandate.
But the familiar choice between truth and lies, the Constitution and Trump, will just move to the Senate, on the other side of the citadel of US democracy that was defiled by Trump supporters on January 6.
McCarthy’s move prompted Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, to say he’d pressed “pause” on whether to support the commission, a day after it appeared there could be sufficient GOP support to enact the bill. His move set up a cliffhanger search by Democrats for the 10 Republican voters they need to make the commission a reality.
In a sign of the hidden hand seeking to impose his will on his party even while he is out of office, Trump issued a statement on Tuesday evening telling Republicans not to fall into a Democratic “trap.”
“Hopefully, Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy are listening!” Trump wrote.
It is not just in Washington that the big question about the Big Lie is dividing Republicans. State GOP lawmakers are answering it by using Trump’s lies about election fraud to pass multiple laws that make it harder to vote, some of which give state officials more power to interfere in local precincts.
The most flagrant example of Republicans seizing on Trump’s authoritarian attempt to undermine American democracy is in Arizona, where GOP state senators have launched a bogus audit of Maricopa County’s results.
The recount has been plagued by wild claims that massive amounts of votes were flown in from South Korea — or even a bizarre conspiracy theory that chickens had eaten some of the ballots and were then incinerated. Trump has added his own blatantly false allegations to the mix.
But some Republicans in Arizona are standing with their own consciences and the political freedoms that have underwritten the US way of life for generations.
“I think there’s a lot of fear that if you stand out against this, you will lose your career as a Republican politician,” said Stephen Richer, a Republican who serves as Maricopa County recorder, on CNN’s “New Day” on Tuesday.
“I have certainly decided that that’s not as important to me as speaking the truth.”
An accounting for history
Bipartisan, congressional or presidential commissions have traditionally been set up to investigate some of the most traumatic and consequential events in American history. President Lyndon Johnson tasked the Warren Commission to investigate the assassination of his predecessor John Kennedy. The 9/11 Commission was established by Congress to investigate al Qaeda’s attacks on New York and Washington in 2001.
Not only do such panels serve a valuable role in establishing the facts of an incident, they also elevate investigations above day-to-day partisan politics and can produce reports that contribute to national unity. Such probes often identify weaknesses in US defenses that enemies were able to exploit — for instance, in aviation security and poor cooperation between intelligence agencies in 2001.
Commissions also provide a moment of national accounting for history and an agreed-upon version of the facts and help to debunk conspiracy theories — one reason Republicans who are whitewashing Trump’s assault on the US democratic system itself may oppose such a panel now.
The top House Republican said in a statement Tuesday that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, had politicized the commission and that it was superfluous since the justice system was dealing with the perpetrators of the insurrection. He complained it wouldn’t examine the full scope of political violence, including a shooting at a congressional baseball practice in 2017.
“I recognize there are differing views on this issue, which is an inherent part of the legislative process and not something I take personally,” Katko said in a statement on Tuesday. “However, as the Republican Leader of the Homeland Security Committee, I feel a deep obligation to get the answers U.S. Capitol Police and Americans deserve and (to) ensure an attack on the heart of our democracy never happens again.”
But despite Katko’s commitment, House Republican leaders began to lobby their members to oppose the commission bill on Tuesday afternoon, led by Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana — the House Republican whip, who was seriously injured in the congressional baseball shooting. The gunman, who identified as a supporter of independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and his 2016 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, was shot dead in the assault. The incident, however, differed from the January 6 events, since it was in no way incited by Sanders or any Democrats.
Democrats accuse Republicans of ‘cowardice’
The measure that the House will consider on Wednesday doesn’t mention Trump by name. But it stipulates the probe will seek “the facts and causes relating to the January 6, 2021 domestic terrorist attack upon the United States Capitol Complex and relating to the interference with the peaceful transfer of power.”
Given such a mandate, it is likely Trump will come in for criticism given his documented spreading of lies about his election defeat, his refusal to guarantee a peaceful transfer of power and his fiery rhetoric at a rally immediately before the Capitol invasion.
Since McCarthy has put Trump supporters at the center of his midterm election campaign, his political choice on the commission is hardly surprising. The House minority leader may also have personal exposure in a probe likely to examine his own role on January 6, when he had a heated phone conversation with Trump as the riot was unfolding.
Testimony would force McCarthy to confront a familiar choice between telling the truth — under oath this time — and a version of events preferable to the Republican Party’s de facto leader: Trump.
McCarthy did not answer on Tuesday when asked by a CNN reporter whether he would testify before a commission into the January 6 attack.
A Senate battle
Several Senate Republicans have said they would vote for the bill, but it is far from clear that there will be sufficient votes for passage.
Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, one of the Republican senators who voted to convict Trump in his second impeachment trial, after he had left office, said such a commission with a limited mandate “makes sense.”
“I think the area of inquiry that is most critical relates to the attack on the Capitol,” Romney said when asked about McCarthy’s push.
McConnell, who harshly criticized Trump’s behavior on January 6 but did not vote to convict him, on Tuesday did not close off the possibility that his caucus could support the panel.
“I think I’m safe in characterizing our conference as willing to listen to the arguments about whether such a commission is needed,” he said. But the Kentuckian also questioned whether staffing for the investigation was bipartisan and said it shouldn’t interfere with criminal probes.
Democrats are already seeking to increase the price Republicans might pay with the public for derailing the commission. Pelosi accused House Republican holdouts of “cowardice.” And Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, twisted the knife on Tuesday:
“Republicans can let their constituents know are they on the side of truth or do they want to cover up for the insurrections and for Donald Trump?”
CNN’s Manu Raju, Jeremy Herb and Morgan Rimmer contributed to this report.