Days before the Senate voted down the creation of a 9/11-style commission to investigate the Capitol attack, the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, was adamant: he would oppose the bill, regardless of any amendments – and he expected his colleagues to follow suit.
The commission that would have likely found Donald Trump and some Republicans responsible for the insurrection posed an existential threat to the GOP ahead of the midterms, he said, and would complicate efforts to regain the majority in Congress.
McConnell’s sharp warning at a closed-door meeting had the desired effect on Friday, when Senate Republicans largely opted to stick with the Senate minority leader. All but six of them voted to block the commission and prevent a full accounting into the events of 6 January.
But it also underscored the alarm that gripped McConnell and Senate Republican leadership in the fraught political moments leading up to the vote, and how they exploited fears within the GOP of crossing a mercurial former president to galvanize opposition to the commission.
The story of how Republicans undermined an inquiry into one of the darkest days for American democracy – five people died as a pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol and sought to hang Mike Pence – is informed by eight House aides, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The prospect of a commission unravels
Surrounded by shards of broken glass in the Capitol on the night of 6 January, and as House Democrats drew up draft articles of impeachment against Trump, Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, made her first outreach to canvas the prospect of a commission to investigate the attack.
In the immediate aftermath of the insurrection, Pelosi had reason to be hopeful. Spurred on by the threat felt by many Republicans to their personal safety, a swelling group of lawmakers had started to agitate for an inquiry to reveal how Trump did nothing to stop the riot.
But what was once heralded as a necessary step to “investigate and report” on the attack and interference in election proceedings unravelled soon after, with the commission swiftly reduced to an acrimonious point of partisan contention in a deeply divided Capitol.
The main objection from House and Senate Republicans, at first, centered on the lopsided structure of Pelosi’s initial proposal, that would have seen a majority of members appointed by Democrats, who would have also held unilateral subpoena power.
And only weeks after the riot, the House minority leader, Kevin McCarthy, was already advancing the complaint for his ultimate opposition: that the scope of the commission did not include unrelated far-left violence from last summer, a political priority that stalled talks.
With little progress three months after the Capitol attack, Pelosi made a renewed effort to establish a commission on 16 April, floating a revised proposal that mirrored the original 9/11 commission with the panel evenly split between Democrats and Republicans.
Pelosi briefed her leadership team that included the House majority leader, Steny Hoyer, the House majority whip, Jim Clyburn, the assistant speaker, Katherine Clark, and notably, the chair of the House homeland security committee, Bennie Thompson, about the proposal the following Monday.
During that meeting, Hoyer first raised the prospect of also extending equal subpoena power to Republicans – a concession that would allow Democrats to meet all of Republicans’ demands about the structure of the commission – which Pelosi adopted a few days later.
By the penultimate week of April, Pelosi had deputized Thompson to lead talks as she felt the homeland security committee was an appropriate venue, and because the top Republican on the committee, John Katko, was one of only three House GOP members to impeach Trump.
With the House on recess, Thompson made enough progress in negotiations to brief Pelosi and her leadership team on 8 May that he secured a tentative deal on the commission, though Katko wanted to wait on an announcement until Liz Cheney was ousted as GOP conference chair.
Tensions within the House Republican conference had reached new highs the previous week after Cheney continued her months-long criticism of Trump’s lies about a stolen election at a party retreat in Florida, and Katko was wary of injecting the commission into the charged moment.
“As soon as the vote on Liz Cheney is taken, he will be prepared to do a joint statement,” Thompson said in remarks first reported by CNN.
Minutes after House Republicans elevated Elise Stefanik to become the new GOP conference chair on 14 May, Thompson and Katko unveiled their proposal for a bipartisan 9/11-style commission.
McConnell cracks down on the bill
The ouster of Cheney solidified Tump’s outsize influence on the Republican party, and set the scene for the weeks to come.
McCarthy almost immediately sought to distance himself from the commission and was non-committal about offering his endorsement. Asked whether he had signed off on the deal, McCarthy was direct: “No, no, no,” he told reporters in the basement of the Capitol.
By the following Tuesday, top House Republicans were urging their colleagues to oppose the commission bill, with McCarthy positioned against an inquiry on the basis that its scope focused narrowly on the Capitol attack.
As Hoyer had anticipated when he suggested that Pelosi also offer equal subpoena power to Republicans, McCarthy struggled to demonize the commission, and several House Republicans told the Guardian that they found his complaints about the scope unconvincing.
The Senate minority leader, meanwhile, had until then denounced Trump, who he faulted for inciting the insurrection, and publicly seemed open to a commission. But as it became clear the scores of House Republicans would vote for the bill, his calculus quickly changed.
Two days after the Senate returned for votes on 17 May McConnell informed Senate Republicans at a private breakfast event that he was opposed to the commission as envisioned by the House, and made clear that he would embark on a concerted campaign to sink the bill.
Underpinning McConnell’s alarm was the fact that Democrats needed 10 Senate Republicans to vote in favor of the commission, and seven had already voted to impeach Trump during his second Senate trial – a far more controversial vote than supporting an inquiry into 6 January.
Cognizant that Senate Democrats may find three or four more allies in uncertain Republicans, McConnell cracked down.
After announcing at the breakfast event that he would oppose the commission, McConnell railed against the bill as being “slanted and unbalanced” on the Senate floor, in biting remarks that represented a clear warning as to his expectations.
He kept up the pressure all afternoon on that Wednesday, so that by the evening, McConnell had a major victory when Senator Richard Burr, who voted to impeach Trump only four months before, abruptly reversed course to say that he would reject the commission.
In the end, only six Senate Republicans – Mitt Romney, Susan Collins, Bill Cassidy, Rob Portman, Lisa Murkowski and Ben Sasse – voted to move forward on the commission.
As the final vote hurtled towards its expected finale, the Senate minority whip, John Thune, who also switched his position to side with McConnell, acknowledged McConnell’s arguments about a commission jeopardising Republican chances to retake majorities in the House and Senate.
Summarising his concerns, Thune said: “Anything that gets us rehashing the 2020 elections I think is a day lost on being able to draw a contrast between us and the Democrats’ very radical leftwing agenda.”