Why is Mitch McConnell suddenly legitimizing the January 6 committee?

December 20, 2021

It’s difficult to dismiss even one comment by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) as anything other than part of a concerted and deliberate political strategy. It’s virtually impossible to dismiss two, reports The Washington Post.

All of which makes twin comments this week by McConnell legitimizing the House’s January 6 committee quite compelling

As the committee continues to uncover significant new information—including facts about what the Post describes as “the desperate and anti-democratic efforts to overturn the 2020 electionthat preceded January 6 and about how much allies who went on to downplay Trump’s role initially said something quite different privately—Republicans and their allies have been put on the defensive.

And they’ve become defensive. They’ve accused the committee of being partisan and of overstepping.

But McConnell has struck a very different tone this week—in ways that he must know legitimize the committee’s mandate and its work.

On Tuesday, December 14, CNN’s Manu Raju asked McConnell about the revelation that Trump allies—including Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr. and Fox News hosts who went on almost immediately to downplay Trump’s role — had pleaded with Meadows during the riot to get Trump to stop it. The text messages showed those people recognized Trump was the catalyst for the events, despite their later comments.

McConnell raised some eyebrows when he responded: “I do think we’re all watching, as you are, what is unfolding on the House side, and it will be interesting to reveal all of the participants who were involved.”

Okay, maybe a little generic and noncommittal, the Post comments. But he certainly wasn’t suggesting that the committee comprises a bunch of partisan hacks out for political gain, as other Republicans have. Rather, he suggested that it was worth knowing who might have pushed the efforts to overturn the election—efforts that McConnell is on the record sharply criticizing. And McConnell well knows that the people he’s talking about are political allies.

Things got more interesting on Thursday, December 16, when McConnell was asked again about the committee’s work. And he reinforced that he views it as important. The premise of the question even cited his comments Tuesday, inviting McConnell to walk them back if he wanted to.

But he didn’t just double down; he arguably went further.

“I think the fact-finding is interesting; we’re all going to be watching it,” McConnell said. “It was a horrendous event, and I think what they are seeking to find out is something the public needs to know.”

McConnell’s comments are particularly interesting in that, while he strongly criticized Trump’s role in the January 6 revolt (while voting against impeachment), he was a leading force behind blocking a separate proposed effort to probe the Capitol riot: A bipartisan commission modeled on the 9/11 Commission.

What seemed clear at the time—not just from McConnell’s comments but from many other Republicans—was that he and his party weren’t terribly interested in reliving that day and the factors that contributed to it for one main reason: political considerations. It would be nothing but bad news for a party bent on regaining power in 2022, when McConnell has a great shot at regaining his perch as Senate majority leader.

Exactly why McConnell has reversed himself is a valid question. Perhaps he is sending a message to Trump, as Trump continues to attack him and to (unsuccessfully) push for Senate Republicans to cast McConnell aside as their leader.

Perhaps he truly believes that anti-democratic efforts to overturn the election were just that bad and would very much like for those involved to be publicly exposed, believing it won’t necessarily harm Republicans in general.

But in either case, that skates past the plain political calculus that McConnell has demonstrated is central to virtually everything he does. Legitimizing the congressional January 6 investigation in any way, even subtly—which Republicans have been loath to do and which McConnell, himself, once joined in fighting—diminishes efforts to cast that work as hackery and seemingly could hurt McConnell’s chances of becoming Senate majority leader again.

That brings up another potential read on the situation, the Post notes, which would seem to be validated by the revelations of recent days: This is all going to reflect quite poorly on those involved, and McConnell recognizes it will be difficult to dispute that. Maybe it’s better to express openness to the committee’s findings and then dispute the specifics and pin this on ne’er-do-well individuals later.

Whatever the case—and with the acknowledgment that McConnell has hardly given the committee a full “Good Housekeeping seal of approval”—what he’s saying is a departure from his party that significantly hamstrings efforts to undermine the committee. And it’s certainly worth keeping an eye on.

Research contact: @washingtonpost