The first hearing of the January 6 select committee lived up to the ample hype surrounding it, providing a cogent case — with compelling new details — for Donald Trump’s culpability in the violent effort to overturn the 2020 election.
The thesis of the committee’s case — that “January 6 was the culmination of an attempted coup” — was laid out by Chair Bennie Thompson (D-MS) at the very beginning of the hearing. It was bolstered with a somber presentation carried live across broadcast and most cable networks that previewed the seven additional hearings the committee will hold in the coming weeks.
Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, a committee staffer said the goal was to present “new details showing that violence was a result of a coordinated, multi-step effort to overturn the 2020 election and stop the transfer of power and that Donald Trump was at the center of that effort.” Despite questions about whether the committee could deliver any new information — there’s been extensive reporting, not to mention an entire impeachment trial on this already — it did.
A brief recap
This was not your normal congressional hearing. There was minimal preening or grandstanding by members. In fact, only two, Thompson and Vice Chair Liz Cheney (R-WY), even spoke during the two hours of hearings. The others remained silent, seated on the dais.
Cheney, one of two Republicans on the committee, laid out a cold, prosecutorial case, weaving in video testimony that showed former President Trump was repeatedly told that he lost the election. It included former Attorney General Bill Barr testifying that he had explicitly told Trump that the former president’s claims of election fraud were “bullshit.”
"I remember he delivered to the President in pretty blunt terms that he was going to lose." - Jason Miller, a senior Trump Campaign spokesperson pic.twitter.com/F8uxTV9cyt— January 6th Committee (@January6thCmte) June 10, 2022
The goal was to make clear that Trump did not genuinely believe his false claims of election fraud. Instead, Cheney said, “Donald Trump oversaw and coordinated a sophisticated seven-part plan to overturn the presidential election and prevent the transfer of presidential power.”
This was followed by a 10-minute video explicitly chronicling the events of January 6 with new footage, including from police body cameras, to show the brutality of the attack that day. Viewers in the hearing room — including a number of the members of Congress and police officers who responded to the attacks — appeared to struggle to contain their emotion. Afterward, Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-PA), who was in the House gallery when the Capitol was breached, told Vox, “It’s hard because it brings it very viscerally back, but much worse for me is my fear for our country.”
Sandra Garza, partner of deceased Capitol police officer Brian Sicknick and U.S. Capitol Police Officer Harry Dunn cry as they attend a hearing of the U.S. House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6 Attack on the Capitol. Reuters Photo by Jonathan Ernst pic.twitter.com/cxoIqzZHJZ— Jim Bourg (@jimbourg) June 10, 2022
Using clips from the more than 1,000 depositions and interviews it conducted in the past year, compilation of footage from the attack on the Capitol, and live testimony from two witnesses, the committee outlined the case against the former president, culminating in a video presentation where rioter after rioter explicitly said they stormed the Capitol because Donald Trump told them to do so.
What was new?
The hearing was jam-packed with new information about the attack on the Capitol and the effort to overturn the 2020 election.
The most audible reaction in the room came when Cheney relayed testimony that Trump had said, “And maybe our supporters have the right idea, Mike Pence deserves it,” after hearing that the mob was chanting “hang Mike Pence.” It had previously been reported that Trump had reacted with approval to the chants, but not in such a stark statement.
Cheney also revealed that Rep. Scott Perry (R-PA) explicitly sought a pardon from Trump after the events of January 6 in order to evade prosecution for his efforts to overturn the election. She added that multiple other unnamed members did the same.
In a taped deposition, Gen. Mark Milley, the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, described an attempt by White House chief of staff Mark Meadows to try to cover for Trump as the former president let the chaos at the Capitol rage. “We have to kill the narrative that the vice president is making all the decisions,” Meadows told Milley. “We need to establish the narrative that, you know, that the president is still in charge and that things are steady or stable.”
The committee also used videos to outline the extraordinary level of planning and coordination by extremist groups, particularly the Proud Boys and the Oathkeepers, on January 6. Nick Quested, a documentary filmmaker embedded with the Proud Boys, testified that the group began marching to the Capitol even before Trump’s now-infamous rally on the Ellipse that day, indicating a deliberate plan to storm the building from the beginning.
What happens next?
The suspense in Washington was whether these hearings would be more like the ones into Watergate or Benghazi. The former became appointment viewing as Americans tuned in to the hearings in droves, making many of the participants household names. The latter was a damp squib that still served to motivate partisans but had little long-term consequential impact. So far, these are looking more like the former in terms of their substance and potential to resonate.
The committee offered up appetizers from the 1,000 depositions it recorded, showing brief clips of depositions from key Trump officials including Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump and snippets of text messages between Sean Hannity and White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany in the aftermath of the attack. And they made clear there was more to come as they outlined future hearings.
The next one, on Monday, will outline that Trump knew he had lost the election and was not proceeding from a sincere belief that he was somehow the victim of voter fraud. The second, on Wednesday, will outline Trump’s alleged plot to install Jeffrey Clark, a Justice Department official, as acting attorney general in an effort to leverage federal law enforcement to advance the efforts to overturn the election. The third will focus on efforts to pressure Pence to overturn the election. Later hearings will focus on Trump’s attempts to pressure state officials as well as how he “summoned a violent mob and directed them illegally to march on the United States Capitol.”
The question is what long-term impact these will have. Although Thursday’s hearing was carried across most major networks, Fox News did not carry it. Instead, Tucker Carlson featured guests like Darren Beattie, a former Trump White House staffer who spent January 6 tweeting that various prominent African Americans needed to “take a knee to MAGA.”
It’s unlikely that any revelation, no matter how shocking or grotesque, could break through to the right-wing echo chamber and pierce Trump’s support there. But it doesn’t need to, and that’s not really the aim. The goal is not just to look backward but also to reach those who were initially horrified by the attack and have since moved on and remind them that, as Thompson said, “the cause of our democracy remains in danger. The conspiracy to thwart the will of the people is not over.”
It’s too early to tell if those people were watching and if that effort will be successful. But if the committee fails, it won’t be for lack of effort or preparation.