For many Americans, the events of January 6th will serve as a reminder of democracy’s darkest days. When verbal assaults on America’s democratic system turned physical, it marked a significant political turning point and exposed fractures in the current system.
Created for the purpose of democratic accountability, the January 6th commission is a prime example of the U.S.’s limited attempts at preserving its democratic institutions. Unfortunately, there are many strong forces working to subvert American democracy and avoid accountability at all costs. So far, the Committee’s real success has been exposing the true state of American democracy: for every step toward democratic accountability, democracy takes two steps back.
January 6th Committee
The committee’s own creation serves as an example of this democratic paradox. Attempting to enforce a semblance of horizontal accountability, mostly democratic members of the House sought to create a bipartisan commission to investigate the attack. Foreshadowing the partisan divides to come, this move was blocked by Republican Senators and a less bipartisan select committee was established by a party-line vote instead. U.S. House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol is comprised of 7 Democrats and only 2 Republican Representatives.
The creation of a January 6th committee should have been a strong showing of democratic loyalty; instead, it turned into another instance of partisan political games. The overall lack of consensus surrounding the need for an investigation invalidates any work the committee may achieve. Regardless of its findings, those in power will not take subsequent action on the issues brought forth by the committee. Going into an investigation with this political attitude sets the committee up for failure.
Members of the commission have described their investigation as three rings of inquiry focused on the motivations and influences of the protestors turned rioters; the involvement of right-wing paramilitary, militia, and nationalist groups like the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys; and the involvement of those attempting to overturn the election results in Trump’s inner circle. The commission is currently deep within the third ring of investigation and has begun subpoenas and requests for records. In the committee’s investigation, we are witnessing another instance of the “one forward, two back” mentality in Donald Trump’s executive privilege defense.
The Executive Privilege Defense
In August, the Committee submitted a request for over 50 from the Trump White House. The former President evoked his constitutional authority as head of the executive branch to declare these documents privileged, thus preventing their public release. However, this unwritten expansion of executive powers was blocked by the current administration, who is responsible for determining what exactly falls under executive privilege jurisdiction. In a major step forward, the Biden White House informed the National Archives that it would not assert executive privilege for the batch of documents requested by the House Committee. Statements made by the administration reasserted their commitment to the preservation of Democracy and demonstrated a clear departure from the prior administration’s philosophy on government transparency.
Of course, this step forward was followed by two steps backward. Shortly after Biden’s decision, Trump filed a federal lawsuit challenging not only the document request but the Jan. 6th investigation as a whole. Ultimately, U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan denied Trump’s request for an immediate injunction and emphasized Congress’s legitimate interest in obtaining these documents. Chutkan also rejected Trump’s executive privilege claims, stating “Presidents are not kings, and Plaintiff is not President.” While this accountability is vital to preserving the health of Democracy, the process to reach this verdict exposes the blatant weaknesses in the democratic system and opens them up for exploitation in the future.
Days later, Trump filed another lawsuit attempting to block the Committee’s request for call logs, draft speeches, and other executive branch communications from Mark Meadows and Kayleigh McEnany. In response to this lawsuit, the D.C. Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals has delayed the Jan. 6th commissions access to Trump’s records as they wait to hear arguments on Nov. 30th.
Paradox of Democracy
As the January 6th commission looks to complete a timely and thorough investigation, delays like this hurt America’s democratic process. Trump’s legal moves highlight the paradox of American democratic accountability: the system can try and hold you accountable, but you can also hijack the system.
The phenomenon can also be witnessed in the Steve Bannon case. While the system found a way to hold Bannon accountable by charging him with contempt of Congress, he found a way to successfully hijack the democratic system, slow down the investigation, and publicly criticize the committee’s legitimacy. One step forward, two steps back.
At its core, the January 6th commission embodies the democratic nation that America aspires to be: one of accountability, systematic order, and justice. However, reality seldom reflects one’s aspirations. Instead, the January 6th committee has revealed the democratic nation that America really is: one of partisanship, sensationalism, and inconsistencies.