The report of the January 6 committee was at long last released today, after nearly two years of congressional hearings, interviews, and subpoenas. You’re going to hear a lot about how former president Donald Trump’s rhetoric inspired those who stormed the Capitol, about how he refused to acknowledge his election loss, that he pressured various officials to overturn the result, and that he egged on his followers and fanned the flames of violence. You will hear the top-line news that the committee has made unprecedented criminal referrals for Trump and others based on their conduct that day. All of this is true, of course, and important.
What you won’t hear about is how and why the law enforcement agencies who had ample notice that all of this would happen failed so spectacularly to protect the Capitol from what they thought could be a mass of armed, far-right militia members bent on carrying out violence.
This is not what happened on January 6, thankfully. The vast majority of those who stormed the Capitol weren’t members of far-right militias, most weren’t carrying firearms, and it’s not clear how many even knew they’d be storming the Capitol on the day, since even members of the Oath Keepers who were later charged with seditious conspiracy were found to have no such plans in advance. Instead, most were an eccentric fringe of rank-and-file conservatives and Trump supporters who’d been poisoned by endless waves of cable news bullshit about election fraud and had no idea what to do once they, to their own surprise, actually found themselves inside the building.
What could have turned out far, far worse fortunately ended with only one, nevertheless tragic, shooting: that of an unarmed protester by a Capitol police officer, after she tried to breach the barricades protecting the lobby to the House chamber where dozens of lawmakers were holed up. That it did not turn out worse was no thanks to the United States’ vast and expensive national security apparatus.
How did law enforcement drop the ball so badly? Why were numerous warnings from within multiple agencies serially not acted on? What exactly was the role of the Secret Service in everything that happened? The reason you won’t get answers to these and other related questions can be summed up in two words: Liz Cheney.
Yes, the GOP congresswoman–turned–liberal icon reportedly used her position as cochair of the January 6 committee, which put her in the driver’s seat to shape the inquiry, to protect law enforcement from public accountability over its failures, just as a whistleblower had alleged some unnamed members of Congress had done. Despite conducting more than a hundred interviews and depositions with officials across multiple law enforcement agencies, which was explicitly part of the committee’s mission, committee staffers working on this issue were suddenly given a “pens down” order one day in November and told the final report would focus mostly on Trump, NBC News previously reported.
Later that month, the Washington Post drew on the testimony of fifteen former and current committee staffers to report that it was Cheney, who had “exerted a remarkable level of control over much of the committee’s public and private work,” who pushed to narrow the committee’s findings to the former president and his actions. According to the Post, staff became so disillusioned over the fact that months of work was going to be unceremoniously dumped that they simply left, and others complained to the paper that the whole enterprise “became a Cheney 2024 campaign.”
There’s no doubt Cheney is a grandstander par excellence, someone who attached herself like a remora to Trump for years until it looked like he was set to lose in 2020, only for his ongoing hold over the GOP to backfire on her ― and drive her to start posturing as a principled “Never Trumper” in the hope of saving her political skin. Incidentally, it’s exactly this cynical, Trump-fixated grandstanding that led outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to plop Cheney in the cochair’s position on the January 6 committee, giving her the power to shape that investigation the way she has.
But while Cheney’s desperation explains a lot of this, we should also realize there’s a nakedly ideological motivation to it. “What we aren’t gonna do, Bret, is blame the Capitol Police, blame those in law enforcement, for Donald Trump’s armed mob that he sent to the Capitol,” Cheney told Fox News’ Bret Baier back in July. Her spokesperson later reiterated that Cheney wouldn’t “sign onto any ‘narrative’ that suggests Republicans are inherently racist — or smears men and women in law enforcement” and that she’d see to it the report “will not blame federal law enforcement officers for Donald Trump’s attack on our democracy.”
In other words, Cheney’s behind-the-scenes work has served two functions: it’s given Cheney oodles of airtime and adoring headlines to set up her future political career, and it’s protected the US national security state from facing the music over its stunning failure, a longtime Cheney family priority. Incidentally, this only raises the risk of this kind of failure happening again and is therefore a well-timed Christmas gift to the very pro-Trump right Cheney pretends to be fighting whenever there’s a camera and a microphone in spitting distance.
The Cheney-neutered report is still significant, as are the criminal referrals, and Trump and his cronies clearly should be prosecuted for trying to steal an election. And it seems at least some of the staffers’ investigation into law enforcement will at least be included in an appendix, though this will dramatically narrow the impact of the findings as well as limit the amount of detail we learn.
But this issue, and the world in general, is a lot bigger than Trump, something you would think the establishment would’ve learned by now. Over the past year or so, we’ve gotten more and more of an idea of the scope of law enforcement’s failure on that day and some darker hints of possible far-right sympathies and even collusion with Trump within those agencies ― even as their powers and funding have been alarmingly expanded in response to their own failure. The January 6 committee had a duty to sort fact from hearsay on the matter and tell us what exactly went wrong and why. Thanks to one of Trump’s former stalwart allies, it seems we won’t.