Seventeen months fell away in an instant.
The picture of untamed thuggery and fascistic violence unleashed by an authoritarian President abusing his power that was painted by the January 6, 2021, committee’s first prime-time hearing Thursday was almost more frightening than when it happened.
The stunning televised event made the clearest, most comprehensive case yet that ex-President Donald Trump concocted a sprawling conspiracy to defy voters’ will and steal power based on claims about a stolen election he knew were false.
Making good on its word to produce compelling new evidence, the committee built a clear narrative that Trump’s incitement and example directly inspired extremist groups to breach the US Capitol to stage an insurrection.
“President Trump summoned the mob, assembled the mob and lit the flame of this attack,” said Republican Rep. Liz Cheney, the panel’s vice chair, who spelled out Trump’s “sophisticated seven-point plan” to overturn the 2020 election.
Previously unseen footage showing the harrowing battles waged by Capitol Police officers to keep the rioters at bay left viewers with a sickening vision of American society’s extremist underbelly, which Trump cultivated and unleashed.
“It was carnage. It was chaos,” said Caroline Edwards, a Capitol Police officer whose testimony was interspersed with footage of her being knocked unconscious by members of Trump’s mob, and who described slipping on the spilled blood of her colleagues.
“I am not combat trained, and on that day it was just hours of hand-to-hand combat,” said Edwards of a day when she defended the citadel of US representative democracy against fellow Americans.
Those ugly scenes were even more chilling since – although some of the leaders of extremist movements involved, like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, are facing charges for what happened on January 6, 2021 – Trump is still spreading his poison about a stolen election. His nascent 2024 campaign and continuing incitement raises the possibility that the darkly historic moment when violence was endorsed by a sitting President as a legitimate political expression birthed a new era of extremism and sedition.
“Our democracy remains in danger. The conspiracy to thwart the will of the people is not over,” Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat, said. “January 6 and the lies that led to insurrection have put two-and-a-half centuries of constitutional democracy at risk.”
In another sign of how the Trump extremist movement is threatening truth and democracy, Fox did not join other major networks in showing the hearing live. Opinion hosts Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity featured a feed of the hearing room but talked over the action, spinning falsehoods and conspiracy theories about what happened on January 6. They did not just deprive their viewers of the chance to make up their minds about the evidence but offered millions of Americans who have bought Trump’s lies about a stolen election a safe zone where his claims and record of inciting violence was insulated from fact.
Shocking new evidence
Thursday’s hearing was the product of months of investigations, interviews with witnesses that penetrated deep into Trump’s West Wing and campaign team – even his family – and battles to obtain critical documents from his former aides.
The question of whether such shocking evidence and truth will be sufficient to change the political dynamic against Trump and deal him the kind of accountability he has always dodged is for the weeks and months to come. The same caveat applies to whether the hearings will change the result of midterm elections in November in a nation that is deeply polarized politically.
The impact of the committee’s final report on Trump’s future presidential hopes is something for 2024. It’s also too early to say whether the panel’s effective indictment of his conduct, which so flouts a conventional understanding of the duties of a President sworn to uphold the Constitution will make a damning criminal case as well as a political one.
The unavoidable takeaway from Thursday’s hearing – the first of weeks of individual presentations by the committee about Trump’s behavior – was how close America came to the destruction of the rule of law and extremist mob rule.
There were stunning moments in the two-hour hearing. It included the allegation by Cheney that multiple Republican members of Congress – including Rep. Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, a player in multiple strains of Trump’s bid to overturn the election – sought pardons from the then-President before he left office. Perry denied this allegation in a tweet on Friday: “The notion that I ever sought a Presidential pardon for myself or other Members of Congress is an absolute, shameless, and soulless lie.”
The committee showed never-before-seen footage of people rushing out of Republican Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s office early in the riot. McCarthy, after initially saying Trump bore responsibility for the worst attack on the Capitol in 200 years, has since tried to whitewash his political patron’s role as he tries to achieve his dream of becoming House speaker.
Cheney previewed evidence that suggested Trump thought the mob chanting for then-Vice President Mike Pence to be hanged for refusing to illegally subvert the Constitution and hand the election to Trump might be right. And in the final moments of the hearing, the committee featured video testimony from six rioters saying that Trump’s comments drew them to Washington, putting an exclamation point on the case that the ex-President was directly responsible for the insurrection.
“Trump has only asked me for two things,” said Matthew Walter, who has pleaded not guilty to nine charges in connection to the riot and was identified by the committee as a member of the Proud Boys, who Trump told to “stand back and stand by” in a presidential debate.
“He asked me for my vote, and he asked me to come on January 6,” Walker said.
Testimony of Trump acolytes, family used against him
For years, Trump has wielded power over his own orbit through intimidation and fervent demands for loyalty and the threat of turning his adoring political base against anyone who dissents from his personality cult.
But the committee broke through that ring of protection around the ex-President, forcing people close to Trump to testify under oath in a way that meant they could no longer avoid telling the truth about conduct that earned him a second impeachment – but also a second acquittal from Republicans in the Senate after he left office.
For instance, former Attorney General William Barr, who was able to spike much of the impact of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on links between Trump’s 2016 campaign and Russia with his own prebuttal, said he told Trump point blank his claims of a stolen election were absurd.
“I made it clear that I did not agree with the idea of saying the election was stolen and putting out this stuff, which I told the President was bullshit,” Barr said in video testimony played by the committee.
Trump’s eldest daughter and former senior West Wing adviser Ivanka Trump, testified in previously unseen video that she accepted Barr’s conclusions.
“It affected my perspective. I respect Attorney General Barr so I accepted what he was saying,” she said. Her husband, another senior Trump adviser, Jared Kushner was shown in testimony as saying that Trump’s final White House counsel Pat Cipollone repeatedly threatened to quit.
Cheney said that this was because he was concerned about “potentially lawless activity.” At least three other Trump aides apart from Barr testified to the committee that they told Trump or then-White House chief of staff Mark Meadows that he lost the election and there wasn’t widespread voter fraud.
Cheney also said that a future hearing would show how Trump used a conduit – conservative lawyer John Eastman – in a bid to subvert the certification of the election on January 6. And she said that the committee had learned new details about how Trump associates instructed supporters in multiple states to concoct fake electoral slates in a bid to overturn President Joe Biden’s election win.
Cheney was particularly effective in building a prosecutorial case against Trump – and her use of testimony of members of Trump’s circle appeared to be a conscious effort to puncture the myth among his supporters that the election was stolen.
As the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, who was reviled by Democrats during the Bush administration, there is some irony to her role now as a chief interrogator of Trump’s circle. But the Wyoming lawmaker paid for her willingness to stand up for truth and democracy with her No. 3 Republican leadership post in the House. She may well end up sacrificing her career as well, since she is facing a primary opponent backed by Trump in the midterms.
Searing footage of the riot
While some of the evidence previewed by the committee was extraordinary, the most searing moments of the hearing came in footage shot by documentary filmmaker Nick Quested that had never before been publicly seen.
Quested, who testified at the hearing, started the day on January 6 filming members of the Proud Boys as they marched up to Capitol Hill. “Whose streets? Our streets,” the extremists chanted and taunted police officers before the violence erupted. Using a clock showing timings of events as they unfolded, juxtaposing them with Trump’s inflammatory comments at a rally and evidence of pre-planning by extremists, the committee comprehensively debunked the idea that the insurrection was just a protest that got out of hand.
It showed how Proud Boys helped breach the Capitol Police’s defenses and pitched battles between officers and Trump supporters waving flags. At one point the panel played sound of a later interview by the ex-President when he said that the crowd was peaceful and there was “love in the air.” The wild scenes fully backed up the description of Edwards that the West Front of the Capitol became a “war zone.”
Far from showing contrition, Trump responded to the evening’s harrowing content by seeking to harness a new narrative that he is being persecuted politically – and by spreading more lies that could incite unrest.
“So the Unselect Committee of political HACKS refuses to play any of the many positive witnesses and statements, refuses to talk of the Election Fraud and Irregularities that took place on a massive scale,” the former President wrote on his ironically named social network, Truth Social.
“Our country is in such trouble!” he wrote, unwittingly describing the effect of his own continuing lies and undermining of America’s democratic system — and neatly making Cheney’s point as she recalled how Gen. George Washington voluntarily resigned his commission and handed control of the Continental Army back to Congress.
“The sacred obligation to defend this peaceful transfer of power has been honored by every American President – except one,” Cheney said.
“As Americans, we all have a duty to ensure that what happened on January 6 never happens again.”