Finding Someone to Blame
Terry H. Schwadron
Feb. 24, 2021
We got a good reminder yesterday that when senators insist vehemently about being non-partisan as they look into how the defense of the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6 insurrection, we should be ready for how the inevitable partisanship enters into the questions that get aired.
So, in fact, there was Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., inserting into his questions the distinct impression that insurrectionists actually were jolly Donald Trump supporters walking down Pennsylvania Avenue who were surprised to learn that some armored protesters up ahead had gotten out of hand — and probably not part of their group. He wanted us to believe that reports of armed insurrectionists had been wildly overblown.
And there was Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., the guy who had hand-signaled support for insurrectionists before rising himself to continue to keep the underlying baseless election fraud allegations alive even once seditionists were ousted from the Capitol, to lay some kind of blame for lack of direction from Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Mitch McConell.
On the other side, there were more than a few jabs from Democrats to remind all that Donald Trump had been at the center of the coordination of the mob attack.
Still, we managed to learn a few things about a failure of useful intelligence about the attacks, ineffective communications among federal security officials and the lack of appropriate preparation of the Capitol police assigned to defend the chambers. An FBI email to update the dangers apparently never made it to the Capitol security team that would call in the National Guard.
The short story is that no one was fully in charge that day who had all the facts needed to meet the day. For you and me, it was good news only that most members of the committee seemed to accept that the insurrection was a planned event.
The Weird Process
Despite a good start on getting the needed information, the hearing over Capitol security was a reminder of how these congressional hearings are about the worst forum possible to actually conduct an effective way to tell a story about how complicated events unfolded. Giving senators a few minutes to ask individual questions just leads to a herky-jerky way of understanding exactly what had happened in what itself had been a terribly coordinated and confused effort that day.
Indeed, the Capitol defenders who spoke — the now-resigned Capitol Police chief, and the sergeants of arms of the House and Senate, blamed the FBI, Homeland Security and others not present for poor planning and delayed deployment of the National Guard — something that Washington, D.C. cannot do itself.
They did their best to keep their words tight, narrowly focused on policing, and avoiding the senatorial invites to expand blame to politicians.
As a result, it may be only luck and a handful of voluntary witness suggestions for more training, helmets and some streamlining of communications and oversight of the Capitol police that actually help us believe that another version of the event might turn out differently.
Of course, there will be a continuing series of hearings with those other agencies.
And, they never got to the most important question about why the Army held up the deployment of the National Guard after the breach had happened.
This was a head-snapping Senate day that set up as whether we need facts before deciding the case.
Besides the session on Capitol security, other senators in other hearings were challenging Rep. Deb Haagland, D-NM, as a suitable Interior Secretary-designate because the first Native American thinks oil and gas drilling on public land that Republicans like is a bad idea. Actually,
Republican opponents got a boost from Energy Committee chair Joe Manchin, the West Virginia Democrat who represents a coal-producing state, in pressing against blanket actions to halt fossil fuel exploration on national lands.
And Republicans were doing their best to depict California’s Xavier Becerra as a troubled candidate for running the Health and Human Services department because he isn’t a doctor. Of course, neither had Alex Azar, the previous secretary been a doctor, nor, as it turned out, was he very efficient in coordinating plans to fight coronavirus. Instead, Becerra has made health care a center of his legislative work over decades.
So, the same Republicans made clear that they did not like Becerra’s longtime support for the Affordable Care Act and for abortion policies.
The Senate did confirm Linda Thomas-Greenfield as Jo Biden’s choice for UN ambassador and Thomas Vilsack as agriculture secretary, and the relatively easy confirmation hearings for Merrick Garland completed a second day.
When Does It End?
Maybe by the time we’re all vaccinated, we’ll get an actual working Cabinet.
What emerged from a full day of hearings — other committees were examining digital security among federal agencies and businesses and economic policy — felt like a lot of posturing about trying to re-fit events and people into pre-determined political frames.
It was clear that at least some Trump-supporting Republicans like Johnson still want to paint the Capitol attacks as a picture of left-wing anarchists rather than a pro-Trump crowd, or somehow trying to hang delays on Pelosi rather than looking squarely at the obsession over election fraud by The Former Guy in the White House.
By now, too, there must be a sense of upset building at the White House over the slow crawl towards getting a full Cabinet.
Remembering that all these senators work on our behalf sometimes felt like a stretch.