WASHINGTON – The House Select Committee to Investigate the Jan. 6 Attack on the U.S. Capitol on Thursday began laying out in meticulous and shocking detail the extent of former President Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the election and keep himself in office, including testimony it has collected that Trump endorsed the hanging of his own vice president as a mob of his supporters descended on Congress.
Opening a landmark set of hearings during an evening session on Capitol Hill, the panel made the case that Trump knew his claims of election fraud were false and proceeded anyway with an unprecedented plot to disrupt the peaceful transfer of power.
“Donald Trump was at the center of this conspiracy,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., chair of the committee. “And ultimately, Donald Trump, the president of the United States, spurred a mob of domestic enemies of the Constitution to march down the Capitol and subvert American democracy.”
Using previously unreleased video of testimony from former aides to Trump and even his daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, the panel left little doubt about the truth of the former president’s actions, which Thompson called “an attempted coup.” In doing so, its leaders said they hoped to force the nation to grapple with the reality of a dark chapter in its history, one that is still reverberating.
“Our democracy remains in danger,” Thompson said. “Jan. 6 and the lies that led to insurrection have put two and a half centuries of constitutional democracy at risk. The world is watching what we do here.”
The session kicked off an ambitious effort by the committee, which was formed in July after Republicans blocked the creation of a nonpartisan commission to investigate the attack, to lay out for Americans the full story of a remarkable assault on U.S. democracy that led to a deadly riot, an impeachment and a crisis of confidence in the political system.
The opening night contained several revelations, perhaps the most damning of which came from Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., vice chair of the panel. She relayed that the committee had received testimony that when Trump learned of the mob’s threats to hang Vice President Mike Pence, he said, “Maybe our supporters have the right idea,” adding that Pence “deserves it.”
The committee also revealed that several Republican congressmen, including Rep. Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, now the chair of the Freedom Caucus, asked for a presidential pardon after Jan. 6.
Cheney said the panel would lay out how Trump knew he had lost, but “engaged in a massive effort to spread false and fraudulent information to convince huge portions of the U.S. population fraud had stolen the election.”
The prime-time hearing, which unfolded in the historic Cannon House Office Building in a hall adorned with Corinthian columns and crystal chandeliers, was the first in a series of at least six planned for this month, during which the panel plans to make public its findings so far.
With a flash of TV savvy, the hearings provide the most high-profile platform yet for the committee to unfurl the complex story it has uncovered and grab the attention of the American public to focus on an episode in which democracy was teetering on the brink.
On Thursday night, the panel began laying out the extraordinary tale of how a sitting president undertook unprecedented efforts to overturn a democratic election and keep himself in power, testing the guardrails of American democracy at every turn. Trump and his allies challenged President Joe Biden’s victory in the courts, at statehouses and, finally, in the streets.
When one plan to keep Trump in power failed, they shifted to another. They put forward slates of pro-Trump electors in states won by Biden; they explored the seizure of voting machines; they targeted the removal of the acting attorney general; and, ultimately, when all else failed, they began amassing a mob to march to the Capitol to pressure Trump’s own vice president to go along with the plan.
Given the gravity of the threat, the members of the committee see themselves as carrying out a critical and historic function, much as landmark fact-finding committees did before them, investigating the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, the Watergate scandal in 1973 and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
At a time of intense political polarization, members of the panel took pains to back up their assertions with clear evidence, turning frequently to videotaped testimony to drive home their points. When Thompson outlined how Trump had been told repeatedly that there was no election fraud, he added, “Don’t believe me?”
Then he turned to a video showing former Attorney General William Barr testifying that he knew the president’s claims were false, and told him as much.
Barr then relayed an expletive to the committee’s investigators in regards to what he told the president about the claims. “I didn’t want to be a part of it.”
The committee also played video of a Trump campaign adviser, Jason Miller, and the president’s daughter Ivanka Trump acknowledging the same facts.
Later, the panel played a video montage of the brutal attack that unfolded at the Capitol, revisiting the chilling sights and sounds of rioters storming the seat of American government.
Members of the panel promised to reveal evidence that would fundamentally change the public’s understanding of a dark day in American history and bring into clearer focus exactly who is to blame.
“It’ll change history,” predicted Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., a member of the committee.
The hearings are unfolding five months before midterm elections in which the Democrats’ majority is at stake, at a time when they are eager to draw a sharp contrast between themselves and the Republicans who enabled and embraced Trump, including the members of Congress who abetted his efforts to overturn the 2020 election.
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The committee was never supposed to exist.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., created the panel only after Senate Republicans blocked an independent commission to investigate the violence.
But the committee has investigated deeply and broadly, interviewing more than 1,000 witnesses and accumulated more than 140,000 documents. It has assembled a staff of about 45 employees, including more than a dozen former federal prosecutors and two former U.S. attorneys, and it is spending more than $1.6 million per quarter on its work.
Many Republicans in Congress, whose leaders initially supported the idea of an independent commission, have spent the months since the assault trying to rewrite its history and downplay its severity.
They ramped up their fight Thursday morning, when the party’s House leaders took turns at a news conference on Capitol Hill bashing the panel’s work as “illegitimate” and a “sham.”
“Is Nancy Pelosi going to hold a prime-time hearing on inflation?” Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the No. 2 Republican, said. “I’d sure like to see that. I think a lot of Americans would. Is Nancy Pelosi going to hold a prime-time hearing on lowering gas prices?”
But the committee said the prime-time venue was needed to try to express to as many Americans as possible just how grave a threat democracy faced.
“The conspiracy to thwart the will of the people is not over,” Thompson warned. “There are those in this country who thirst for power but have no love or respect for what makes America great.”
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Four officers who defended the Capitol and suffered injuries watched the hearing, one wearing a shirt with the definition of the word “insurrection” on it. Gladys Sicknick, the mother of Brian Sicknick, a Capitol Police officer who died after fighting off the mob, also attended.
They were there in part out of support for the testimony of a Capitol Police officer, Caroline Edwards, who was injured as rioters breached barricades and stormed into the building.
The hearing also featured the testimony of a documentary filmmaker, Nick Quested, who was embedded with the right-wing group the Proud Boys during the attack. Several members of the Proud Boys have been charged with conspiracy and sedition.
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Quested, a British documentarian who has worked in war zones such as Afghanistan, spent a good deal of the postelection period filming members of the Proud Boys, including the group’s former chair, Enrique Tarrio, who has been charged with seditious conspiracy in connection with the Capitol riot. Quested accompanied the Proud Boys to pro-Trump rallies in Washington in November and December 2020 and was on the ground with members of the group on Jan. 6, when several played a crucial role in breaching the Capitol.
Edwards, a well-respected Capitol Police officer, is believed to be the first officer injured in the attack, when she suffered a concussion during an assault at a barricade at the base of Capitol Hill. A man who has been charged with taking part in the assault, Ryan Samsel, told the FBI during an interview more than a year ago that just before he approached the barricade, a high-ranking member of the Proud Boys, Joseph Biggs, had encouraged him to confront the police.
Other officers around the building recall hearing Edwards calling for help over the radio – one of the first signs that mob violence was beginning to overrun the police presence. Months after the attack, she continued to have fainting spells believed to be connected to her injuries.
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Other hearings are expected to focus on various aspects of the committee’s investigation, including Trump’s promotion of the lie that the election had been stolen, despite being told his claims were false; his attempts to misuse the Justice Department to help him cling to power; a pressure campaign on Pence to throw out legitimate electoral votes for Biden; the way the mob was assembled and how it descended on Washington Jan. 6; and the fact that Trump did nothing to stop the violence for more than three hours while the assault was underway.