Jan. 6: Congress

How Jan. 6 Committee Staffers Have Filled in the Blanks

By Quinta Jurecic
Tuesday, March 21, 2023, 8:30 AM

According to Tucker Carlson, the riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, was not an attempted putsch but instead “mostly peaceful chaos”: The “overwhelming majority” of rioters “were not insurrectionists,” he insisted. “They were sightseers.” The Fox News host’s revisionist take on Jan. 6, aired following the decision of Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy to share 41,000 hours of Capitol Police footage exclusively with Carlson’s team, has so far received widespread condemnation from the Capitol Police, the Justice Department, the White House, and Republican and Democratic members of Congress alike. Among the voices criticizing Carlson’s attempted rewriting of history have been staffers formerly on the Jan. 6 committee. 

“I served as a senior professional staff member on the January 6th Select Committee and helped write its final report,” wrote Tom Joscelyn in Politico. “I got a close look at some of the video evidence that Carlson obtained—and his manipulation of the audience was immediately obvious to me.” In a PBS interview, former senior investigative counsel James Sasso rejected Carlson’s claim that Jan. 6 was not an insurrection as “objectively not true.” Sasso went on, “There’s nothing to hide in the footage. There’s nothing to hide in the interviews that we had with defendants. We put out all of our transcripts. We have backed it up.” And Timothy Heaphy, the committee’s chief investigative counsel, told MSNBC, “This narrative that this was largely a peaceful protest with people waving flags and taking smiling selfies is just wrong.”

These responses to Carlson are only three of many public comments made by former Jan. 6 committee staffers in the months since the committee closed its doors on Jan. 3, 2023. Staffers have written guest essays in the New York Times and articles in Lawfare; they’ve appeared on podcasts; they’ve given television interviews; and one, Sasso, even made an appearance on the NPR quiz show “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!” (Asked by host Peter Sagal if “there’s anything that you know, but you couldn’t prove, but you’re going to tell me anyway,” Sasso responded, “If I told you that, I would be in a lot of trouble.”) 

The interviews and writing by former staffers are particularly notable because the Jan. 6 report was such an incomplete and fragmentary document. Now, a look at what these staffers have said publicly—and what they haven’t—reveals key points about what the report did and didn’t contain. And it suggests what issues, and controversies, will remain important for the country to address going forward.

The flood of interviews and writing by former Jan. 6 investigators is particularly striking when compared to the relative silence following other major investigations of Trump. The Mueller probe, for example, was famously a black box. Even in the years since the special counsel closed up shop, relatively few people involved have spoken publicly about their experiences. “Where Law Ends,” a bomb-throwing account by former Mueller prosecutor Andrew Weissmann, is a major exception—but even that was published in September 2020, a year and a half after the release of the Mueller report. Likewise, the two impeachment proceedings against Trump saw plenty of after-action commentary by the House managers prosecuting the impeachment and senators acting as the jury, but little from the staff working behind the scenes. 

Perhaps, though, there’s simply more for staffers to talk about in this instance. Rather than providing a comprehensive record of everything the committee uncovered, the Jan. 6 report frames the story of the insurrection narrowly around the figure of Donald Trump—a decision that, according to reporters, was driven chiefly by Vice Chair Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.). This approach has the advantage of telling a clear, direct story about Trump’s responsibility for the insurrection, but at the cost of leaving out—or even distorting—other parts of the story. The Washington Post, for example, has published a lengthy draft memo written by staffers investigating the role of social media in the insurrection, little of which made it into the final document.

That’s not to say that the report sought to cover up the committee’s other work—after all, as many staffers have emphasized, the committee has made available an extraordinary amount of raw investigative material for the public to sort through. But it does mean that former staffers have a lot to talk about. And their public comments provide a useful road map for a broader understanding of the committee’s work. 

Many staffers have acknowledged the report’s limited scope directly, with greater or lesser degrees of willingness to criticize the committee’s final decision-making on what to include in the final report. The report “could only tell part of the story,” Sasso wrote in the New York Times. Writing in Just Security and Tech Policy Press, Dean Jackson, Meghan Conroy, and Alex Newhouse—all staffers who worked on the committee’s social media probe—argued, “The report’s emphasis on Trump meant important context was left on the cutting room floor.” Still, Jackson told me in a Lawfare Podcast conversation that he understood the reasoning behind the committee’s choices:

I am not a decision maker in the ultimate findings of Congress. That role belongs to the elected representatives on the committee, and they had a decision early in their work together, they were going to work by consensus to the extent possible. And when you have a committee as diverse … Liz Cheney to [Democratic representative] Adam Schiff, the band of consensus might be rather narrow.

Notably, Schiff (D-Calif.) himself has suggested some dissatisfaction with the report’s focus on Trump, hinting at some of what might have been left out of the final document in the name of consensus. In a New York Times essay published after the report’s release, he wrote that “one line of effort to overturn the election is given scant attention” in the report: the role of Republican members of Congress in pushing to upend the vote. Schiff’s curious use of the passive voice—who gave scant attention to this issue?—reflects the delicate dance that those involved in the committee’s work have performed in order to gently indicate dissatisfaction with the report without pointing fingers at anyone in particular.

Members of the committee’s color-coded “red” and “purple” teams—the first investigating the planning of the Jan. 6 rallies and the “Stop the Steal” movement, and the second investigating extremism and social media—have been particularly open in sharing their thoughts. The portrait of Jan. 6 that emerges from their writing and public commentary is richer and more complicated than the published report’s insistence that “the central cause of January 6th was one man, former President Donald Trump, whom many others followed.” 

Jackson, Conroy, and Newhouse, all members of the purple team, argue that, “[w]hile Trump played an instrumental role in driving the attack, right-wing networks—comprised of everyone from mainstream talking heads to extremist armed groups—drove the mass spread of conspiracy theories and far-right content on social media.” In their view, major social media platforms played a crucial role in allowing this spread by failing to implement content moderation policies that would have required cracking down on the far right—often because executives feared political backlash from Republicans. Violent rhetoric also spread across smaller “alt-tech” platforms like Gab and Parler, which lacked the will or the means to limit such posts. This doesn’t mean that social media is a but-for cause of the insurrection, but it does indicate that the spread of extremist ideas across the internet, and the failure of social media companies to respond adequately, is a crucial part of the story of Jan. 6. 

Jacob Glick, who served as investigative counsel for the committee and conducted depositions of rioters and members of extremist groups, argued in Lawfare that the insurrection should be understood as the culmination of “a monthslong trend toward political violence … spurred on by pandemic-related health restrictions and, later, Black Lives Matter protests.” These previous events, together with Trump’s rhetoric about a stolen election, helped extremist groups recruit combatants to fight a “continuing war against leftist radicals and their collaborators,” which “reached a new phase” with the supposedly stolen 2020 election. In this sense, Glick wrote, Jan. 6 must be understood as part of “a larger, even more disturbing pattern”—a story about an “emboldened vigilante wing of the far-right that is held in thrall to bigotry and paranoia, which poses a threat to the rule of law that runs deeper than an old man’s dangerous vanity.”

Likewise, in the New York Times, Sasso wrote, “Other political, social, economic and technological forces beyond the former president had a hand, whether intentionally or not, in radicalizing thousands of people into thinking they needed to attack the seat of American democracy.” In his telling, key to Jan. 6 was a broader loss of faith in democratic institutions across American life, such that for both violent extremists and otherwise ordinary Americans present at the insurrection, “a stolen election was simply the logical conclusion of years of federal malfeasance.”

A key part of the Jan. 6 story left out of the committee’s report—or, in some instances, actively misrepresented by the committee’s presentation of events—involves the failures of law enforcement and intelligence agencies to anticipate and prevent the violence. This was the province of the committee’s “blue” team, which was largely absent from the final document—reportedly to the frustration of staffers who worked on this prong of the investigation. Heaphy, the committee’s chief investigative counsel, spoke to this omission in an interview with NBC. Trump “was the proximate cause” of Jan. 6, he told reporters, but “law enforcement had a very direct role in contributing to the security failures that led to the violence.” He explained, “There was a lot of advance intelligence about law enforcement, about carrying weapons, about the vulnerability of the Capitol. The intel in advance was pretty specific, and it was enough, in our view, for law enforcement to have done a better job.”

Yet Heaphy then walked back his comments after Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) seized on them to blame former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for the violence, arguing that the committee had covered up information about law enforcement failures in order to protect Pelosi. Speaking to the New York Times, Heaphy said

Law enforcement had specific intelligence about potential violence directed at the joint session of Congress, and didn’t accurately assess and operationalize that. But some people have mischaracterized that as me saying that it’s law enforcement’s fault, that law enforcement could have prevented this or that the congressional leadership should have. That’s just wrong.

On Twitter, he wrote, “We need a reasoned discussion about how law enforcement gathers and assesses intelligence about domestic violent extremism in this country. That discussion should be unencumbered by politics or false characterizations of the committee’s findings.” But the dustup is itself a demonstration of how political differences among Jan. 6 committee members seem to have constrained what the committee was willing to say in its report in the service of seeking consensus about how best to tell the story. Members reportedly cut material about law enforcement and intelligence failures in order to focus more narrowly on Trump himself. A harsh statement to the Washington Post by a Cheney spokesman in November 2022, which argued that “[s]ome staff have submitted subpar material for the report that reflects long-held liberal biases about federal law enforcement,” hints at why some of the material on law enforcement might not have made the cut. 

Ironically, though, the spat over Heaphy’s NBC interview suggests that the committee’s decision-making may have undercut its own credibility by opening itself up to charges that members downplayed the true scope of responsibility for Jan. 6. Even before the committee published its final report, a group of Republican members of the House published their own report on security failures in the run-up to Jan. 6 and pointed the finger at Pelosi—an indication of how discussions of law enforcement failures had already become a locus of partisan disagreement. It’s more difficult to have the “reasoned discussion” about countering domestic violent extremism that Heaphy feels is necessary now that any such discussion will become mired in the auxiliary debate over why the committee did or didn’t include certain material in the final report. 

“When you make mistakes, ideally, you’ll learn from them,” Heaphy told NBC of failures by law enforcement and intelligence agencies. Along these lines, the Jan. 6 staffers who have spoken publicly have often emphasized that the work of responding to the insurrection is not yet done. This follows naturally from the (sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit) argument that the causes of Jan. 6 run wider and deeper than Trump himself: If greater societal forces are at play, then preventing another insurrection will require more than simply keeping the former president out of the Oval Office. 

Jackson, Conroy, and Newhouse—the purple team investigators—argue that “greater transparency in the realm of social media is essential” for public understanding of how private companies govern the digital public square. They call for “a host of pro-democracy and counter-extremism reforms both on and offline.” Writing with Mary B. McCord of Georgetown’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection, Glick made the case for an effort to counter far-right paramilitary groups, many of which were present on Jan. 6. Sasso argued for reforms that would help revitalize public faith in democracy, from campaign finance reforms to “tackling economic inequality and reinvesting in communities devastated by globalization and technological changes.”

This idea of work left unfinished also emerges in how former staffers talk about their own sense of responsibility in speaking out. “The final report from the committee told one piece of the story,” said Newhouse in a podcast interview. “I think our roles here, myself and my colleagues in the coming months, the coming years, is to try to help tell the rest of the story, to try to fill in the gaps.” His fellow staffers expressed similar views. In our Lawfare Podcast conversation, Jackson told me, “I do think there’s a responsibility to talk about it.” Often, staffers have positioned this process of speaking out as a collaborative effort, pointing to the trove of material released by the committee in addition to the final report. The committee, Sasso wrote, “released many of our documents publicly and archived the rest so that historians, political scientists, sociologists and many others can scrutinize our findings in ways we could not, examining the causes and consequences of Jan. 6 with a longer time horizon than we had.” 

(This argument can also be less collaborative and more accusatory. In a podcast discussion with Yahoo reporters Michael Isikoff and Daniel Klaidman, former committee member Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) bristled when Isikoff pressed him on the committee’s failure to dig further into law enforcement and intelligence failures. “We laid out the facts the best that we could,” Raskin said. “Where is your profession? Have the journalists figured out who was the person who dropped the ball?”)

For all the work that remains to be done, the existence of the committee’s publicly accessible archive is, in a sense, a source of hope. It’s a commitment to the idea that the work can be done by engaged experts, journalists, and everyday people interested in digging through the documents. Kristin Amerling, who served as chief counsel and deputy staff director to the committee, commented at a Georgetown event that “the committee not only assiduously footnoted the various findings it made throughout the report, but it made every effort to provide the public the underlying information so that the public can draw their own conclusions and evaluate the basis of the committee’s findings.”

Likewise, there’s also an optimism to the idea that the existence and availability of these documents might help Americans understand the truth of what happened on Jan. 6, even amid lies like Carlson’s. “I’m really glad that all of our transcripts have been released,” Heaphy told the New York Times. “So if anyone thinks that we misled or shaded or hid facts, it’s all out there.” At a panel discussion following the news that Tucker Carlson would be broadcasting Jan. 6 footage, Sandeep Prasanna, a former investigative counsel for the committee, expressed a similar hope. This documentation, he said, ensures that, “regardless of whether someone is out there right now slicing and dicing surveillance footage to achieve whatever partisan or conspiratorial ends there may be, there is a factual record of what happened out there.”