Senate Republicans acknowledged that politics was the reason they voted to kill a bipartisan commission to probe the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol. The question is whether it was smart politics.
Displaying unusual candor, several top Republicans said a commission could hurt them in the 2022 election. Republican senators fear it would “become a political weapon in the hands of the Democrats,” said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the minority whip.
That suggests concern over what such a panel would uncover about President Donald Trump’s role in the Capitol insurrection: why he delayed urging demonstrators to desist and what he did to instigate a protest on the day Congress counted the electoral votes that sealed his defeat.
But the lack of a bipartisan commission won’t keep Trump’s actions out of the 2022 campaign, and it will encourage his efforts to dominate the GOP between now and the 2024 election. Indeed, the longer the former president is able to spout lies about his 2020 defeat and its aftermath, the more of a problem he will remain for the GOP.
Already, he has persuaded a majority of Republicans — 56% in a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll — that illegal voting or election rigging decided the 2020 election. But support for that is narrowly partisan; only 25% overall share his view.
The Senate’s action won’t likely preclude House Democrats from launching their own Jan. 6 investigation. It would be able to seek the details about Trump’s role that a bipartisan commission would have determined, though the former president and his top aides will almost certainly fight those efforts.
Meanwhile, Trump is ramping up his efforts to act as the GOP’s de facto leader. He is planning a series of his signature rallies in 2022 battleground states. Judging from his recent statements, they are likely to be heavy on resentment, criticism of fellow Republicans and false claims he was illegally denied the presidency.
Doing that probably won’t expand the pro-Trump universe. While the Ipsos/Reuters poll showed 53% of Republicans believe he is still the true president, only 3% of Democrats and 22% of independents believe that.
And the more Trump keeps making controversial statements, the more GOP candidates will be forced to answer questions about them. Until now, his lowered profile has protected them to some degree. They’ll also face questioning why they opposed a bipartisan probe of the greatest modern domestic assault on our democracy.
Trump also said he plans to develop, along with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a 2022 version of the 1994 Contract for America that helped Republicans capture the House that year.
It could further complicate the GOP’s 2022 efforts if he produced a platform more appropriate to his hopes for a 2024 comeback than the party’s midterm drive to regain the House and Senate.
And Trump’s plan to endorse GOP primary candidates in crucial states could result in Republican nominees more popular with Trump’s base than with the larger, more moderate general electorate.
Looking past 2022, Trump is already influencing the battle for the party’s next presidential nomination. By suggesting he may run, he complicates the potential candidacies of erstwhile allies like former Vice President Mike Pence, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley.
One prospective candidate who said he won’t be influenced by Trump’s plans is former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. While mostly supportive of Trump, he sharply criticized his refusal to accept defeat.
Polls show Trump remains popular within the GOP — but not the overall electorate. In a recent Quinnipiac University poll, two-thirds of Republicans wanted him to run in 2024. But overall, the same proportion — two-thirds — opposed his running.
Even if he doesn’t run, he will certainly be a factor, by supporting one candidate or by opposing others. And he will almost certainly speak at the 2024 GOP convention, where his speech could set the tone of the general election as much as the nominee’s.
Given recent political uncertainty, Trump’s future role is surely not guaranteed. He is nearing his 75th birthday. Though he has long been overweight with an unhealthy diet, his doctors said during his presidency he was in good health. And he is more than three years younger than President Joe Biden.
The most serious threat to his future role may be the investigations of his activities in several states, underscored by recent reports a grand jury has been convened in the ongoing New York probe of his business activities.
While the former president’s history shows he would contest any legal actions and seek to delay them, the outcome of those proceedings would likely affect his ability to remain powerful within the GOP.
When Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell discussed his reason for opposing a Jan. 6 commission, he cited ongoing investigations of individuals who stormed the Capitol and the need for heightened security arrangements and said Democrats wanted “to continue to litigate the former president into the future.”
Like many other Republicans, McConnell would seemingly prefer it if the former president just went away.
But preventing creation of a commission won’t do that. It will only encourage him.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.