Power  /  Argument

What the January 6th Report Is Missing

The investigative committee singles out Trump for his role in the attack. As prosecution, the report is thorough. But as historical explanation it’s a mess.

Investigatory committees and commissions began to multiply about a century ago, with the rise of the administrative state and the extension of executive power. Their purpose is chiefly to hold bureaucrats and elected officials and, especially, the executive branch accountable for wrongdoing. It wasn’t clear, at first, whether these commissions were constitutional. That question was resolved in 1927, when, in McGrain v. Daugherty, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a conviction for contempt of the brother of the Attorney General, who had refused to appear before a Senate committee investigating the Teapot Dome scandal. The investigatory commission proliferated during the Progressive Era, and has origins in “race riot” commissions like the Chicago Commission on Race Relations, established in 1919 by the governor of Illinois “to get the facts and interpret them and to find a way out,” or, as Lyndon B. Johnson put it, when charging the Kerner Commission with investigating “civil disorders” half a century later, “What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it from happening again and again?”

These same questions animate the January 6th investigation, and a case can be made that the insurrection was, among other things, a race riot—a white race riot. But the committee has not taken as its model the race-riot report. Instead, the report is indebted to earlier investigations into attacks on the United States, a kinship suggested by the committee’s preference for the word “attack” over the word “insurrection,” as if it came from without. “I don’t know if you want to use the word ‘insurrection,’ ‘coup,’ whatever,” a White House staffer told the committee. The committee knew which word it wanted to use.

Congress ordered the select committee to “investigate and report upon the facts, circumstances, and causes” of the attack on the Capitol. The charge borrows its language from investigations into earlier attacks on the United States. On December 18, 1941, eleven days after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, F.D.R. appointed a commission “to ascertain and report the facts relating to the attack.” In 1963, after John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Lyndon B. Johnson directed the Warren Commission “to evaluate all the facts and circumstances surrounding the assassination,” which, at the time, many suspected to have been a covert operation coordinated by the K.G.B., given that Lee Harvey Oswald had defected to the Soviet Union in 1959. In 2002, Congress charged the 9/11 Commission with determining the “facts and circumstances relating to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.” Each investigated failures within the federal government, especially failures of intelligence, but each looked, too, to foreign actors.

If you’re going to report on the facts, circumstances, and causes of an event, the natural way to do it is to write a story that is both painstakingly researched and kept kissing-close to the evidence—a story, in other words, that is also a history. A history has to be true, to the best of your knowledge at the time of the writing, and it ought to be riveting. The Warren Commission Report (1964) reads like a mystery novel: “In the corner house itself, Mrs. Barbara Jeanette Davis and her sister-in-law, Mrs. Virginia Davis, heard the shots and rushed to the door in time to see the man walk rapidly across the lawn shaking a revolver as if he were emptying it of cartridge cases.” The Starr Report (1998), an investigation of a real-estate deal that ended up exposing Bill Clinton’s relationship with Monica Lewinsky, often reads like porn: “In the course of flirting with him, she raised her jacket in the back and showed him the straps of her thong underwear, which extended above her pants.” The 9/11 Commission Report (2004) reads like an international thriller: “Tuesday, September 11, 2001, dawned temperate and nearly cloudless in the eastern United States. . . . In Sarasota, Florida, President George W. Bush went for an early morning run. For those heading to an airport, weather conditions could not have been better for a safe and pleasant journey. Among the travelers were Mohamed Atta and Abdul Aziz al Omari, who arrived at the airport in Portland, Maine.” The January 6th Report reads like a prosecuting attorney’s statement to a jury: “President Trump’s decision to declare victory falsely on election night and, unlawfully, to call for the vote counting to stop, was not a spontaneous decision. It was premeditated.” A page-turner it is not.


January 6th

Here, Jill Lepore critiques the January 6th Report not on its content, but rather on its style. These sorts of reports, she explains, are intended not only to explain the results of congressional investigations, but also to gain public support and inform policy moving forward. Will this document be up to the task?