As the first anniversary of the attack on the US Capitol approaches, the House committee investigating January 6 faces its biggest challenge yet: proving allegations that there was a coordinated effort behind the insurrection and convincing the American people that former President Donald Trump was complicit.
To do so, the House select committee is sketching out its strategy for 2022, including preparing for a series of public hearings intended to address Trump’s continued false claims that the election was somehow fraudulent.
Envisioned as prime-time broadcasts, some of those hearings would focus on the two months between the 2020 election and the January 6 riot and will likely include testimony from state election officials, as well as former top members of the Trump Justice Department.
The hearings are expected to be followed by an interim report over the summer and a final report in the fall ahead of November’s pivotal midterm elections. The goal will be to establish a definitive narrative about what happened on January 6 and propose legislative recommendations to prevent such an attack from happening again.
“In this great country of ours, I’m convinced that sunlight and truth [are] the best disinfectant when you’re dealing with a lie,” committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat, told CNN. “Hopefully we will provide the proper disinfectant for what’s happened on January 6, so that people will understand it.”
For any of this to be successful, the committee must overcome a series of obstacles, not the least of which is skepticism from a broad swath of the American public that holds on to the false belief that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from Trump. The committee is also fighting nearly a dozen legal challenges by key Trump allies, as well as Trump himself, who has asked the Supreme Court to block access to his White House records.
Despite this, committee members say the investigation is in full swing.
They’ve interviewed more than 300 witnesses and collected some 35,000 records. House investigators are subpoenaing bank records to follow the money behind the pro-Trump rallies that preceded the insurrection, and they’re poring over texts and other communications to examine the role of Trump and his allies.
The committee is also studying how Trump’s actions stoked violence on January 6 – and whether his inaction as the Capitol riot dragged on for hours amounted to a “dereliction of duty.”
Committee members revealed this week that they have “firsthand testimony” that Trump was watching the insurrection on television as staffers, friends and even his own children implored him to stop the riot.
“Any man who would provoke a violent assault on the Capitol to stop the counting of electoral votes, any man who would watch television as police officers were being beaten, as his supporters were invading the Capitol of the United States, is clearly unfit for future office,” GOP Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, who serves as vice chair of the panel, said on ABC’s “This Week.’
Members of the panel must also decide whether to engage in a charged fight by subpoenaing their own Republican colleagues who refuse to cooperate. Thompson told CNN that decision will be made “in the next few weeks.”
“There are still some critical questions that remain for us, and the closer we get to Donald Trump, the more we are finding,” committee member Jamie Raskin, a Maryland Democrat, told CNN. “I think we’ve painted two-thirds of a picture. The broad strokes are there, the outline of all the major objects are there, but there’s some extremely important details that still remain to be filled.”
The most important of those details pertain to the question of coordination between the White House and what ultimately unfolded on January 6.
Thompson told CNN this week that the three-hour delay before the National Guard received permission to send reinforcements on January 6 “was, in my opinion, by design.”
“When people are breaking into the United States Capitol, it should not take long for reinforcements to arrive,” Thompson said. “Three hours is just absolutely too long.”
Military leaders have maintained there was no delay. It took time to move Guard members from traffic duty to riot control, they say, especially after DC officials had repeatedly said they did not need more National Guard forces ahead of the riot.
Thompson also said he believes the effort to spread the lie of a stolen election “was part of an organized plan.”
Details of the work
Much of the committee’s work has happened behind closed doors, in an office building on the edge of the Capitol complex. Depositions are not always announced. Subpoenas are not always made public. Most of the committee’s 40-plus staffers keep a low profile.
The committee is divided into five investigative teams, each with its own color designation.
The green team is tasked with tracking money, including the funding behind the rallies, as well as untangling the complex web of financial ties between rally organizers and entities affiliated with Trump or his campaign, according to multiple sources. That team has made considerable progress, sources tell CNN.
The blue team is focused on how government agencies prepared ahead of January 6 and responded to the attack. The gold team is examining efforts by Trump and his allies to pressure Department of Justice officials, as well as those at the state level, to overturn the results of the election. The red team is investigating rally planners and the “Stop the Steal” movement. The purple team is digging into domestic violence and extremist groups, including the Proud Boys, 3 Percenters and Oath Keepers.
In interviews with CNN, committee members and staffers describe what has been an all-consuming amount of work, including spending nights and weekends keeping up with the volume of documents coming in. Thompson said that on many weekends when he is deer hunting with his grandson in Mississippi he takes his iPad along.
“It’s challenging,” said Thompson. “I accepted the appointment from the speaker, and you know sometimes family and other folks kind of look at you like have you lost your mind.”
What we’ve learned so far
Though much of the committee’s investigation has been done in secret, significant information has begun to emerge. Most notably, last month the panel made public a batch of text messages obtained from former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows. The messages include revealing communications from some of Trump’s closest allies and members of his family.
Cheney told ABC News that the panel has “firsthand testimony” that during the attack, Trump’s daughter and then-senior adviser, Ivanka Trump, asked him to call off the riot. Trump didn’t make a statement until 187 minutes after the violence started.
In one batch of subpoenas, the committee revealed a direct connection between Trump and organizers of the January 6 rallies that preceded the attack, stating Trump had met with organizers in his private dining room off the Oval Office to discuss the rally on the Ellipse and who would be speaking.
Sources tell CNN that the committee is also receiving the communications records of more than 100 people, including former Trump officials and associates, that show contacts before, during and after the attack on the Capitol.
The panel is still hoping to receive documents from the National Archives to fill in holes about what happened at the White House leading up to and on the day of the attack, including drafts of previously unseen videos that Trump recorded prior to releasing his video message at the White House on January 6.
Facing obstruction from Trump’s biggest allies
The committee still faces an uphill battle in getting some of Trump’s closest allies to cooperate. Among them are some of the members’ own colleagues, including Reps. Scott Perry of Pennsylvania and Jim Jordan of Ohio, both of whom turned down the committee’s voluntary request to speak with them.
In the new year, members of the panel will have to decide not only whether to subpoena their colleagues, but also whether to expand the list of Republican lawmakers.
Thompson told CNN directly that he was not afraid to subpoena lawmakers if it came to that.
In December, the House referred Meadows to the Justice Department for possible criminal contempt charges. Trump ally Steve Bannon has already been indicted for contempt of Congress and has a trial date for July. (He has pleaded not guilty.) Former Department of Justice official Jeffrey Clark, who pursued unfounded claims of voter fraud in the weeks after the November election, along with a growing list of others, has informed the panel he will plead the Fifth Amendment.
“We’re very serious about trying to get Meadows to testify to us. And we’re very serious about trying to get Jeffrey Clark to testify,” Raskin told CNN. “But the closer you get to Donald Trump, the more afraid they are of both Donald Trump and also of being criminally prosecuted, so they’re turning to the Fifth Amendment.”
Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff of California, who serves on the panel, told CNN, “I don’t think there’s any question that there’s some coordination among those who’ve been subpoenaed as an effort to obstruct the investigation.”
Committee members remain steadfast that despite these stonewalling tactics, there are still plenty of ways to build out their investigation. Their swift criminal contempt actions, they believe, will also convince others to talk.
“It’s only a very handful of people who want to risk jail time and fines for contempt of Congress who are obstructing our process,” Democratic Rep. Stephanie Murphy of Florida, who serves on the panel, told CNN.
Building a case before the midterms
The committee likely has until November to make its case to the American public. If Republicans take over the House, the investigation will almost certainly stop.
Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, the only other Republican committee member besides Cheney, is not running for reelection. Murphy, whose district was redrawn, has also announced her retirement. Cheney faces a tough primary, while Democratic Rep. Elaine Luria will have to run in a competitive district in Virginia.
“It’s certainly a consideration that if the House of Representatives would change hands in 2022 that the other party would not want to continue this work,” Luria said. “They would not want these things exposed. They want to just brush it away.”
With a majority of Republican voters still doubting the legitimacy of Biden’s election win, the committee faces tough hurdles in making its case.
“Will it change minds? I think it’s hard to say,” said former Republican Rep. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, who is a CNN contributor. “As we know, the country is deeply polarized and tribalized, and some people won’t let new facts change their hardened opinions.”
Some members of the panel have suggested the investigation could result in evidence related to criminal activity by Trump, but that’s not the committee’s focus.
Legal scholar and Harvard professor Laurence Tribe told CNN that while the committee does not have the power to prosecute any crimes it may find, it can put pressure on the Justice Department to act.
“It can’t ensure that it will happen, but it can certainly increase the likelihood and create a kind of public momentum that will make it harder for the Justice Department just to sit there and twiddle its thumbs,” he said.
Tribe laid out specific legislative recommendations the panel can make, such as specifying that acting corruptly to impede or obstruct the electoral vote count is a federal crime and protecting the integrity of the process to certify the next president.
A year later, the violence of the day, along with the stakes of the investigation, still weighs on the committee.
“It is a tremendous sense of responsibility,” Raskin said of what it means to him to serve on the panel. “Everywhere we go, people tell us that this is the most important investigation they can remember at least since the Watergate investigation. So there’s a high burden of hope being placed upon us.”
Luria said that when she walks through the empty Rotunda of the Capitol late at night, she often reflects on the violent and troubling incidents that happened in that very hallway.
“It’s incredibly sobering,” she said.