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Latino lawmaker: Jan. 6 investigation is about defending democracy at home

Rep. Pete Aguilar says it's “deeply troubling” that lawmakers who call out government repression and tyranny in Cuba and Venezuela “came back after the insurrection and voted to decertify the election.”
Image: Rep. Pete Aguilar
Rep. Pete Aguilar, D-Calif., at a news conference at the Capitol on Nov. 16.Bill Clark / CQ-Roll Call Inc. via Getty Images file

The day after Rep. Jim Jordan refused to assist the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, Nicaragua swore in Daniel Ortega as president, prompting the U.S. to retaliate with sanctions for what many have said was a rigged election.

Jordan, R-Ohio, a close ally of former President Donald Trump, said in a letter to the House committee that he had nothing worth sharing about the Jan. 6 attack, which President Joe Biden said Tuesday was an attempted coup.

Rep. Pete Aguilar, D-Calif., the vice chair of the House Democratic Caucus and the only Latino on the committee investigating the riot, said he sees his job as uncovering what led up to and happened the day the U.S.’s own democratic electoral process was threatened.

Ortega’s hold on power is a reminder of how precious democracy is, which many Latinos, particularly those from countries in political turmoil or with families in them, understand, Aguilar said.

“Some of the campaigns and some of the political rhetoric in other countries really does sound shockingly familiar to the language that the former president used,” Aguilar said.

Aguilar, who was on the House floor during the violence, said Jordan’s refusal to be interviewed is “disappointing.”

“For someone who has had conversations with the president, if he is committed to the truth and fairness like he says, then he would voluntarily come before the commission and disclose that he talked to the president multiple times that day,” Aguilar said.

Potential witnesses who refuse to talk to the committee get a lot of attention, but the committee has plenty of information for a robust report on the attempt to overturn Biden’s election, Aguilar said.

Aguilar’s spokesman, Owen Kilmer, said that the committee has information from more than 340 witnesses and that dozens more interviews are scheduled. It has reviewed more than 450,000 documents and is following up on about 350 tips, he said.

“If we put together a report that is fact-based, my belief is that the country will pay attention and people will hear the warnings signs for democracy that we are pointing to,” Aguilar said.

‘Efforts to whitewash’

Aguilar started his political career at 26, when he became the youngest City Council member in the history of Redlands, California. He was picked to fill an open seat by five council members who were Democratic and Republican. He went on to be appointed and then elected mayor, and then he was elected to Congress.

His career led him to reach across party lines while working for former Gov. Gray Davis in Riverside and in his congressional district, which was more Republican when he was first elected in 2014.

But Aguilar said he now feels let down by his colleagues, including fellow Latino lawmakers, on the other side of the aisle who are perpetuating Trump’s claim of a stolen election and denying the severity of the riot.

“There are still efforts to whitewash what took place Jan. 6,” he said.

It has been “deeply troubling” that lawmakers who call out government repression and tyranny in Cuba, Venezuela and other parts of Latin America “came back after the insurrection and voted to decertify the election,” he said.

‘I’m a little scared’

Aguilar was sitting behind Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., the day the attackers violently forced their way past overwhelmed officers into the Capitol. He knew things were amiss when congressional leaders began being evacuated. Raskin had just buried his son, and Aguilar was giving him his condolences when “the commotion started.”

He learned that day that gas masks were stored under the seats. Aguilar said his experiences weren’t as bad as those of others, but he recalled the fright growing as the banging on the doors intensified. As he has previously recounted, he scribbled an entry in a journal he regularly carries with him. It said: “2:34. I’m a little scared.”

He worried for his colleagues in the gallery as he left the House floor. He said the day has changed his relationships with some of his colleagues.

“I’d be lying to you if I said that I was able to just quickly turn the page. It will affect my relationship with a lot of members, some of the Latino Republicans, as well as other Republicans who represent California,” he said. The details of his conversations with those lawmakers are better left out of print for now, he said.

Aguilar said he recognizes he’s the only Latino on the committee, and he said he brings that perspective, along with his own experiences, to the work he’s doing and the questions he’s raising.

The mission of the commission is to defend democracy, “to reaffirm our commitment to the ideals that make our country great,” he said. Central to that is free and fair elections, he said.

“What the rioters tried to do that day was to overturn the results of an election, something that we can’t ever let happen again,” he said.

Aguilar said he recognized that once the committee releases its report, some Americans won’t accept its findings, the same way some denied the findings of the report on the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Along with competing with the coronavirus pandemic and economic concerns for Americans’ attention, the committee will release the report in a social media and disinformation environment far wider than existed when the 9/11 report was released.

Latinos have seen disinformation intensify, passed on by family and friends through social media apps like WhatsApp and on Spanish-language radio.

To help grab Americans’ attention, Aguilar said, the committee plans a “layered” report that will include embedded videos, tweets, images and more.

The committee will soon hold public hearings; Aguilar said there is discussion about holding them in the evening, when more people aren’t working. He said there are also plans to translate the report into other languages.

He said he believes the majority of the country wants to know what led up to the Jan. 6 attack.

“Maybe all of us can look at this as an experience on how we do what we can to protect democracy in our own way,” he said, “because it’s on every American, whether it’s the act of voting or participating in an election on the political side, all those are acts of democracy.”

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