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Heather Cox RichardsonJun 10

“Tonight, I say this to my Republican colleagues who are defending the indefensible: There will come a day when Donald Trump is gone, but your dishonor will remain.”

So Representative Liz Cheney (R-WY), vice chair of the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol, damned her Republican colleagues at tonight’s first hearing on the January 6 insurrection.

And that was only a piece of what we heard tonight.

Calmly, carefully, convincingly, and in plain, easy to understand language, committee leaders Bennie Thompson (D-MS) and Cheney placed former president Donald Trump at the center of an attempt to overturn our democracy. They were very clear that what happened on January 6 was an attempted coup, an “attempt to undermine the will of the people.” All Americans should remember, they reminded us, that on the morning of January 6, Donald Trump intended to remain president, despite his loss in the 2020 election and his constitutional obligation to step down in favor of President-elect Joseph R. Biden, as every president before him had done.

The committee established that there was no fraud in the 2020 election that would have changed the results of the election, showing testimony from Trump’s attorney general Bill Barr that the argument that Trump had won was “bullsh*t.” The committee presented testimony from other administration figures, including Trump’s chief of staff Mark Meadows and his daughter Ivanka, that Trump had been told repeatedly that he had lost. And yet, even with his inner circle telling him he had lost, and even with more than 60 failed lawsuits over the election, Trump continued to lie that he had been cheated of victory.

It was Trump who “summoned the mob, assembled the mob, and lit the flame” for January 6, the committee says. Unable to accept his loss and determined to remain in power, Trump organized and deployed an attack on our democracy.

The committee established that the attack on the Capitol was not a random, spontaneous uprising. The rioters came at Trump’s invitation. While they had been muttering about the results since immediately after the election, it was Trump’s tweet of December 19, 2020, that lit the fuse. That night, the former president met with lawyers Sidney Powell and Rudy Giuliani, former national security advisor Michael Flynn, and others at the White House. Shortly after the meeting, Trump tweeted that it was “[s]tatistically impossible to have lost the 2020 election. Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!”

Members of the extremist organizations the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers took Trump’s December 19th tweet as a call to arms. On December 20, they began to organize to go to Washington. These radical white supremacists had taken great pride in Trump’s shout-out in a presidential debate on September 29 that the Proud Boys should “stand back and stand by.” After that comment, membership in the Proud Boys had tripled.

Members of the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers testified that they went to Washington because Trump personally asked them to. “Trump has only asked me for two things,” one man testified: “my vote, and he asked me to come on January 6.”

The committee provided evidence that 250 to 300 Proud Boys arrived in Washington to stop the counting of the electoral votes. Nick Quested, a documentary filmmaker working to film the gang, testified that the riot was not spontaneous: the Proud Boys, who were allegedly in Washington to hear Trump speak, walked away from the rally at the Ellipse even before then-president Trump spoke, walking to the Capitol and checking out the police presence there. The Oath Keepers, too, were in Washington to stop the count and were expecting Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act, enabling them to fight for him to remain president.

The groups quite deliberately fought their way into the Capitol in a planned and coordinated attack. Meanwhile, Trump continued to stoke the crowd’s fury at then–vice president Mike Pence for refusing to overturn the election in his role as the person in charge of counting the certified electoral votes. The rioters stormed the Capitol and went in search of Pence and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), their calls for “Oh, Nancy,” echoing like the singsong chant from a horror movie. When he learned that the rioters were chanting “Hang Mike Pence,” the president said: “Maybe our supporters have the right idea.” He said that Pence “deserves it.”

Videos of the violence outside the Capitol further undercut the attempt of Republicans to downplay the rioters as “tourists.” Asked by Thompson if any one memory from January 6 stood out to her, Officer Caroline Edwards, who fought to protect the Capitol, said yes: the scene of “carnage” and “chaos.” It was like a war scene from the movies, she said, with officers bleeding on the ground, vomiting. She was slipping in people’s blood, catching people as they fell. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think… I would find myself in the middle of a battle,” she said. More than 100 police officers were wounded in the fighting, attacked with cudgels and bear spray, and at least nine people died then and immediately after.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) was only one of many people caught up in the violence to contact Trump and beg him to call off the rioters. Clearly, Republicans as well as Democrats knew the mob were his people and that they would respond to his instructions. And yet, he refused. He did nothing to call out the military or the National Guard to defend the Capitol.

Ultimately, those requests came from Vice President Pence, in what appears so far to be an unexplained breakdown in the usual chain of command. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley testified that Pence was very clear that the military needed to turn up and fast to “put down this situation.” In contrast, Meadows talked to Milley not about protecting the Capitol, but to say “we have to kill the narrative that the vice president is making all the decisions.” Milley said he saw this as “politics, politics, politics.”

After the attempt to overturn the election and keep Trump in power had failed, according to Cheney, Representative Scott Perry (R-PA) and “multiple other Republican congressmen” tried to get Trump to pardon them for their participation. While they are now insisting they did nothing wrong, the requests for a presidential pardon show that they were aware that they were in trouble.

After the hearing, CNN congressional correspondent Ryan Nobles talked to Representative Adam Schiff (D-CA), who is on the committee. “It’s actually a pretty simple story of a president who lost, who couldn’t stand losing, who cared nothing about the constitution and was determined to hold on to power and who incited a mob when everything else failed,” Schiff said.

The hearing provided some new information about the January 6 coup attempt that had not previously been publicly available. It also put what we already knew into a clear and compelling narrative using the words of Trump’s own advisors, including his daughter, and video previously unseen by the public. That story singled Trump out as the author of an attack on our democracy and isolated him even from those in his inner circle in a way that could weaken his influence in his party.

At the same time, the committee’s presentation was horrifying, reviving the pain of January 6 and clarifying it by bringing together the many different storylines that we have previously seen only in isolation. The timeline juxtaposed the mob violence with Trump’s own statements about how Pence was letting them down, for example. It showed Officer Edwards being knocked unconscious while Trump claimed the mob was made up of “peaceful people… great people,” and described “the love in the air, I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Pundits had speculated before tonight’s televised hearing that it would not make compelling television, but they could not have been more wrong. The Fox News Channel, some of whose personalities were involved in the events surrounding January 6, refused to air the proceedings. Nonetheless, that channel inadvertently proved just how powerful the hearing was when it ran Tucker Carlson’s show without commercial breaks, apparently afraid that if anyone began to channel surf they might be drawn in by the hearing on other channels.

Veteran reporter Bob Woodward called the evening “historic.” Looking back at the 1954 hearings that destroyed the career of Senator Joe McCarthy by revealing that he was lying to the American public, Woodward said that tonight’s event “was the equivalent of the Army-McCarthy hearings.”

Notes:

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