Members of the select committee tasked with examining the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol met behind closed doors with their staff for more than five hours on Monday night – but as they seek thousands of documents and hours of potential interviews, the ultimate course of the ambitious investigation is still not clear.
It has been four months since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced plans to form the panel to investigate the deadly riot, and the committee is on the verge of issuing its first subpoenas as it attempts to corral all the information it has requested.
The committee has held only one public hearing, but it has requested potentially millions of documents from various government agencies and social media companies. It’s also requested that the telecommunications records of hundreds of people be preserved as it attempts to piece together a picture of what went wrong that day and who is to blame. The committee has received only a fraction of what it has asked for and it is what that information reveals that will ultimately determine the course of the investigation.
In the interim, the members are left pointing to lofty goals about what they hope to accomplish, without a clear understanding of how they plan to get there.
“We have to see from the standpoint of who helped finance what went on,” said Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, the committee’s chairman. “We have to see what individuals had something to do with getting people here. We have to see who, in effect, pushed out misinformation and how social media was a part of that effort.”
That charge is broad, and committee members seem aware that the mission will not be easy.
“You know it’s an overwhelming task because we’re talking about one of the largest crimes in American history, involving thousands of people and thousands of potential offenses,” said Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, a member of the committee.
Another member of the committee, Democratic Rep. Elaine Luria of Virginia, pushed back when asked if the investigation was being narrowed.
“This is a comprehensive investigation. I think you can easily say it’s all of the above,” Luria told CNN when asked how the committee plans to narrow its focus after sending out tranches of requests to government agencies, social media companies and individuals. “We’ve sent out troves of requests for information. We’re receiving thousands of pages of information, and it’s going to take time and deliberative process to go through it. And we’re also going to hear from individuals in public hearings as well.”
Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, one of two from his party to serve on the committee, tamped down expectations that the product the committee is working to create could be produced in a quick fashion.
“I think there’s an expectation that, you know, all of a sudden everybody’s going to know immediately what all we’re doing. The truth is there’s a lot of information to be gathered. And that’s what we’re talking about now, is kind of setting the plan forward,” he said. “But the scope will be broad.”
The committee is casting a wide net and sought much of that information while the House was in recess, giving members limited opportunities to meet in person and discuss a path forward. Although the committee has been convening virtually on a fairly regular basis, the group met for the first time in person in more than a month on Monday night and emerged with a renewed sense it was heading in the right direction. As members came and went from the meeting on Monday, a large monitor could be seen with a PowerPoint presentation mapping out a communications strategy.
“It’s an overwhelming database of information we’re seeking,” Raskin conceded. “But we are systematically breaking it down and figuring out the kinds of relationships and connections that need to be exposed.”
Part of the challenge for the committee is that it doesn’t know where the investigation may lead. It is counting on this collection of information to reveal a path. Members continue to make clear that they are not going to limit their work to one specific target but expect that once they start parsing the details, they will have an idea of where to narrow their focus.
“I think we’ve been very clear from the beginning that we’re going to follow the facts,” said Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the Republican vice chairwoman of the committee. “We’re very focused on every aspect that we’ve laid out. What happened in the run-up to January 6, what happened on the 6th. What happened after the 6th.”
For Cheney, the goal of the committee will be to take the voluminous amount of information and offer up a concise recounting of what happened. A challenge they hope to have wrapped up as soon as next spring.
“We’re telling the American people the story of what happened,” Cheney said. “I think that people know bits and pieces of it. We’ve seen bits and pieces of it reported. But I think laying out the full picture of what really happened, the decisions that were made, how it led to the attack on the Capitol is really going to be what our focus is.”
As Cheney sees it, the nature of the committee’s work, the majority of which will continue to play out behind closed doors, also makes it difficult for the public to track the progress the panel is making.
“There’s a tremendous amount of work that’s going on that isn’t public, and I think that that’s very important for people to recognize and understand,” Cheney said.
But there are signs the committee is ready to significantly ramp up its work. Thompson said Monday night that subpoenas could be issued as soon as next week and more public hearings are being planned. Thompson also said they are scheduling closed-door interviews as well.
The chairman said that ultimately the committee will need to produce something that Congress can act on.
“We really have to make some recommendations as a committee that would put Congress in a position that a situation like January 6 would never happen again,” Thompson said.