Hillary Clinton testifies before the House Select Committee on Benghazi in Washington on Oct. 22, 2015. (Photo: Carolyn Kaster, AP)
The last time a House speaker set up a select committee with an investigative mandate, Republican John Boehner was speaker, it was 2014, and he was launching the GOP’s sixth probe of a terrorist attack on the U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11, 2012. Now Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has announced she’ll name a select committee to look into the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection. If we are to do justice to the events of Jan. 6, we must resist the temptation to compare the Benghazi and insurrection investigations.
The triggers for these two select committee investigations could not be more different. Jan. 6 was an act of domestic terrorism incited and encouraged by our own political leaders. Benghazi was an act of terrorism that exposed vulnerabilities in our foreign embassy security protocols, and Republicans turned it into a way to destroy former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton after earlier investigations had found no serious wrongdoing.
GOP went after Clinton, not truth
“From minute one, it became clear, the purpose was to blame then-secretary of state Clinton, particularly after she became a Democratic presidential candidate,” the late Rep. Elijah Cummings, the senior Democrat on the Benghazi Select Committee, said in his book, “We’re Better Than This.” “The investigation put her under constant scrutiny, accusation, and presumed guilt – at one point including an eleven-hour grilling of Secretary Clinton herself.”
Cummings’ instincts were confirmed by House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, who infamously bragged to Sean Hannity that the Benghazi proceedings were part of a strategy to “fight and win” the 2016 presidential election.
Moreover, when terrorists stormed the Benghazi compound in Libya, resulting in the deaths of four Americans, they did not do so at the instruction of the president of the United States. They did not do so with the support of one of the two major political parties in America. They did not do so as part of a widespread disinformation campaign designed to undermine the integrity of American democracy.
The structure of the Democrats’ new select committee must reflect the new reality that their Republican counterparts are engaged in an active cover-up of the events they are investigating. If Republicans in Congress wanted to be honest and equal partners in this investigation, they would have supported forming a bipartisan 9/11-style commission. Instead, they blocked it.
Riot police push back a crowd of Trump supporters storming the Capitol building on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington, D.C. (Photo: ROBERTO SCHMIDT, AFP via Getty Images)
The Republican strategy for the Jan. 6 attack is to pretend it didn’t happen. Rep. Andrew Clyde of Georgia has used the phrase “normal tourist visit” to describe the events of a violent insurrection. Never mind there’s a photo of him on the House floor trying to barricade the doors to protect himself from those “tourists.” Other Republicans have labeled those who wanted to “hang Mike Pence” as “patriots.” It’s possible that some Republicans in Congress even gave tours to insurrection planners, who may have used those tours to scout the layout of the Capitol.
Some Republicans have made a conscious decision to side with the violent Capitol rioters. Many will attack Democrats and label the select committee a “partisan witch hunt.” They will complain that the committee isn’t fair or equal. My advice: Let them. The facts will speak for themselves. The evidence and testimony will tell the story.
Danger ahead: January 6 Commission defeat previews failures to come on voting and elections
As they did with this year’s impeachment proceedings, House Democrats need to appoint their most skilled and savvy members to the select committee. Some who come to mind: Reps. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, Adam Schiff of California, Eric Swalwell of California, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ted Lieu of California, Val Demings of Florida, Joaquin Castro of Texas, Elissa Slotkin of Michigan, Jamie Raskin of Maryland, Veronica Escobar of Texas and Karen Bass of California.
And the Democratic chair needs to have unilateral subpoena and deposition authority. A subpoena request from Republicans or an effort to veto a subpoena should require a majority vote of the committee. If Republicans don’t like that, just quote Benghazi Chair Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., to them from 2015: “I am unwilling to let the minority party veto subpoenas when it is clear they have prejudged the outcome of the investigation.”
Put Fanone first to describe violence
In addition, House Democrats should strongly consider ditching the normal five-minute volleys that alternate between Democrats and Republicans. Instead, give each side a set bloc of time to ask their questions. Just like in an actual court hearing, make the witness answer questions from one side first, and then be cross-examined after.
Finally, nothing is more important than a first impression. The select committee’s first witness should be Washington Metropolitan Police Department Officer Michael Fanone. Let officer Fanone tell the story of Jan. 6 from his firsthand perspective. Dare those “law and order” Republicans to tell officer Fanone that what he experienced was just a “normal tourist visit.” Show the world the bodycam footage depicting the moment he was brutally assaulted by these “patriots.”
Mark your calendar: January 6, 2025 could be the date American democracy dies
Republicans are desperate to move on. Many are trying to convince the world that what we can readily see with our eyes and ears isn’t the truth. Democrats don’t have to overreach. They don’t have to use fiery rhetoric. All they have to do is show the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Republicans know that, and they’re terrified of it. It’s time to find out why.
Kurt Bardella, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors and an adviser to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, is a former spokesperson and senior adviser for Republicans on the House Oversight Committee. Follow him on Twitter: @KurtBardella
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