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Senators Call For Accountability From Colleagues After Capitol Riot

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

January at the U.S. Capitol - insurrection, impeachment, inauguration. Now some senators want to add accountability. Former President Donald Trump faces a Senate trial on charges of incitement of insurrection. Republican Senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley cited questions over the results of the elections and led objections to the vote certification on the day of the Capitol riot. Now a group of seven Democrats has filed a complaint with the Senate Ethics Committee, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island among them, and he joins us now from Newport, R.I. Senator, thanks so much for being with us.

SHELDON WHITEHOUSE: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: What exactly would you like the Ethics Committee to do?

WHITEHOUSE: The first and most important thing is to conduct a fair and thorough investigation so that the Senate can understand exactly what these two members had to do with the violence on January 6.

SIMON: What about the idea - Senator Cruz and Senator Hawley say, you know, they were just exercising their rights as citizens as much as public officials to object to the vote certification?

WHITEHOUSE: Yeah. And if that's the case, then we're going to hear that result, and we'll be able to respond accordingly. But as the level of sincerity of those beliefs dials down and as the coordination or cooperation with groups that were behind the assault on the Capitol dials up, you get into situations in which there's potential culpability on their part, and we just need to know what the facts are.

SIMON: Well, let me ask you what what you're seeing that would prompt an investigation. Do you believe that Senator Cruz and Senator Hawley were in direct communication with any of the insurrectionists? Are you suggesting that something they said signaled them or encouraged them?

WHITEHOUSE: Well, that's what they - that's what we need to know. Clearly, what they were saying encouraged them and gave aid and comfort to those who had a completely false belief that the election had been rigged and stolen. I don't believe that either Senator Cruz or Hawley actually believed themselves that the election was rigged or stolen, so I don't know quite why they were saying those things. But the more we learn about the groups behind the assault on the Capitol, the more it becomes important to understand the full picture of what took place. The role, for instance, of the Republican Attorney General's (ph) Association with Josh Hawley having been a recent Republican attorney general presents questions that need to be answered.

SIMON: Aren't Senators by design free from legal action for anything they say in floor debate, for example?

WHITEHOUSE: Well, generally, and that's why the Senate had to do this because while the Speech and Debate Clause protects members of the Senate from being questioned in any other place about what they say on the floor, the Senate is the place where the Constitution gives the responsibility to discipline its own members. And that's one of the reasons we couldn't count on an FBI investigation or the U.S. attorney's investigation to delve into the potential role of these two senators. We had to do this ourselves as a Senate. And as a Senate, we've conferred that responsibility on the Senate Ethics Committee, hence the petition to the committee to investigate.

SIMON: Half a minute we have left - senator, there are three Democrats and three Republicans on the Ethics Committee. Does that take care of it? Do you expect them to approve any kind of investigation?

WHITEHOUSE: I have every reason to believe that they will be fair. The steps are - first is a preliminary review to see if there is what a prosecutor would call probable cause, and then go on, if there is, to a proper adjudicatory hearing and then a report to the Senate.

SIMON: Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat from Rhode Island, thanks so much for being with us, sir.

WHITEHOUSE: Good to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.