WASHINGTON – The House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol held its eighth hearing Thursday evening, a prime-time television spectacle that capped off a series of presentations detailing former President Donald Trump’s actions before, during and after the riot.
The panel plans to hold more hearings, but as lawmakers go home for Congress’s August recess, their constituents will help them answer a looming question: Do the committee’s findings matter to Republican voters?
The hearings have been a stage for Republicans to wage an internal battle over the direction of their party. Reps. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, trying to wrest control of the GOP from Trump’s grasp, have played leading roles alongside the committee’s seven Democratic members.
A parade of Trump administration insiders and prominent conservatives has appeared as in-person witnesses and in recorded testimony, describing the former president’s stubborn insistence that he was the true winner of the 2020 election – despite top advisers telling him that was nonsense – and his refusal to call off the mob as it chanted for his vice president to be hanged.
Yet Cheney and Kinzinger have paid a steep price for their lack of fealty to Trump, along with the other GOP lawmakers who voted to impeach him for inciting the assault on the Capitol.
Of those 10 House Republicans, Kinzinger and three others opted to retire at the end of their current terms rather than face Trump-backed challengers. The six who chose to run for re-election – including Cheney and Washington Reps. Dan Newhouse and Jaime Herrera Beutler – are testing whether their constituents care more about conservative policies or loyalty to one man.
Rep. Tom Rice of South Carolina lost his primary by a wide margin in June to a Trump-endorsed candidate. Cheney trailed her opponent by 22 points in a Casper Star-Tribune poll ahead of Wyoming’s Aug. 16 primary, with nearly 60% of likely GOP voters saying her role on the Jan. 6 committee makes them less likely to vote for her. Newhouse and Herrera Beutler may face better odds when they square off against multiple Trump-aligned candidates in Washington’s unusual open primary Aug. 2, but their political futures are far from assured.
Thursday’s hearing featured testimony from two former members of Trump’s White House staff, deputy national security adviser Matt Pottinger and deputy press secretary Sarah Matthews. Both resigned in protest on Jan. 6, 2021, after the then-president ignored the pleas of his aides and family members to condemn the violence at the Capitol and tell his supporters to leave.
As in the previous hearings, the panel emphasized the conservative bona fides of the witnesses, who said they were proud of the Trump administration’s accomplishments but saw his behavior during the riot as a bridge too far.
The hearing focused on Trump’s actions and decisions on Jan. 6, especially once his supporters had marched down Pennsylvania Avenue – as he instructed during a speech outside the White House – and forced their way into the Capitol to stop Congress from certifying the presidential election results.
For nearly three hours, the committee said, Trump watched Fox News in the White House dining room while the rioters clashed with police and smashed windows to enter the Capitol. In live and recorded testimony, several White House officials described Trump refusing to act when they pleaded with him to call off the rioters, instead calling Republican senators to ask them to overturn the election results, as well as campaign lawyer Rudy Giuliani.
“President Trump did not fail to act,” Kinzinger said. “He chose not to act.”
Yet the panel showed Trump’s role went beyond inaction. After aides told him the mob was chanting, “Hang Mike Pence,” Trump wrote on Twitter his vice president was a “coward” for refusing to go along with a plan, rejected by a prominent conservative judge who advised Pence, to single-handedly overturn the election results and reinstall Trump as president.
After showing video of Trump supporters focusing their ire on Pence after Trump’s tweet, the committee played recorded testimony from a White House security official who revealed that Secret Service agents in Pence’s security detail feared for their lives and asked their colleagues to say goodbye to their loved ones if they were killed defending the vice president.
The committee took aim at Republican lawmakers who changed their tune during and after the Capitol riot. They showed a now-famous photo of Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., raising his fist in solidarity with Trump supporters before he entered the Capitol to lead a group of GOP senators in objecting to the election results. Then they showed a video of Hawley running away from the mob, repeating it in slow motion.
They also showed remarks on the House floor by House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy of California, on Jan. 13, 2021, who said “the president bears responsibility” for the “attack on Congress by mob rioters.”
“He should have immediately denounced the mob when he saw what was unfolding,” McCarthy said at the time, but since then the Republican leader has attacked the committee as a partisan sham.
“Whatever your politics,” Kinzinger said, “whatever you think about the outcome of the election, we as Americans must all agree on this: Donald Trump’s conduct on Jan. 6 was a supreme violation of his oath of office and a complete dereliction of his duty to our nation.”
Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., said Thursday that the panel will hold more hearings when Congress returns to D.C. in September. Cheney has signaled future hearings may focus on attempts by Trump and his allies to intimidate witnesses.
The Justice Department has indicted nearly 900 people in connection to the riot, including leaders of the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers on charges of seditious conspiracy, but it is unclear if Trump or members of his inner circle will face charges.
On Friday, longtime Trump ally and former White House strategist Steve Bannon was convicted by a jury in D.C. of contempt of Congress for defying the committee’s subpoena for information related to the riot and the effort to overturn the election. Bannon faces between 60 days and two years in prison, with sentencing scheduled for Oct. 21.
Attorney General Merrick Garland faces a tough decision. On one hand, an administration prosecuting members of a previous regime is a hallmark of the world’s most unstable governments. On the other hand, if they find evidence of criminal actions, choosing not to indict for political reasons could erode the rule of law.
The House is scheduled to return from its summer recess on Sept. 12.
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