For a country where few people remember what happened before last week’s verdict in the Johnny Depp-Amber Heard case, Thursday night’s hearing provided a gut-punch reminder of the violence of the insurrection.
Ryan Kelley, a Republican candidate for governor of Michigan, was arrested by the FBI on Thursday morning in connection with his involvement in the January 6 insurrection.
Kelley’s arrest provided a fitting lead-in to the first hearing of the House January 6 committee, televised live and in prime time on Thursday night. His arrest helped underscore the degree to which the Republican Party has been captured by the Trumpist forces that were behind the insurrection, and which today seem unashamed and determined to sabotage democracy again to try to usher in a right-wing, authoritarian government as soon as possible.
For those who have already chosen to forget, the January 6, 2021, insurrection was the worst domestic attack on the U.S. government since the Civil War, involving a mob of thousands who were hellbent on stopping the congressional certification of the election of Joe Biden as president in order to keep Donald Trump in power. Incited to march on the U.S. Capitol by Trump, the mob overwhelmed the police guarding the Capitol and succeeded in delaying the certification and nearly stopping it. In the process, the mob threatened the lives of members of Congress, who were forced to flee the House and Senate chambers.
For an attention-deficient nation, where few people remember anything that happened before last week’s verdict in the Johnny Depp-Amber Heard case, Thursday night’s hearing provided a gut-punch reminder of just how violent and dangerous the insurrection was, how close it came to overturning the 2020 presidential election, and how much of a threat to American democracy remains today from the right-wing furies unleashed by Trump.
For nearly a year, the House select committee has been investigating what happened on January 6 as well as the conspiracy behind it. It has conducted about 1,000 interviews to document the full and ugly story behind Trump’s obsessive, monthslong efforts to overturn the 2020 election, climaxing in the violence on January 6.
The committee’s leading members now say they have evidence that shows that Trump committed crimes in connection with the insurrection. Rep. Liz Cheney, the Wyoming Republican who is the committee’s vice chair, said during Thursday night’s hearing that Trump had a “sophisticated seven-part plan” to overturn the presidential election, which will be examined in future hearings. She also blamed Trump for inciting the riot on January 6, saying that “Trump summoned the mob, assembled the mob, and lit the flame of this attack.”
Video footage aired during Thursday’s hearing backed that up, showing how the insurrectionists took their lead from Trump even as they were seeking to knock down fences, scale walls, and smash windows to get into the Capitol. One used a megaphone to read a Trump tweet criticizing Vice President Mike Pence for refusing to use his role as the presiding officer during the congressional certification process to overturn the election in Trump’s favor. In response, the mob chanted, “Hang Mike Pence.”
In order to bring the story to life for the forgetful American public, the committee brought in James Goldston, a former network news executive, to help produce the hearings. The result was a compelling hearing that wove in videos of the insurrection that had never before been aired, along with videos of testimony from a wide range of officials, including some who said Trump didn’t want the insurrection to stop. In a video of his earlier interview with the committee, Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley also said that it was Pence, not Trump, who finally ordered National Guard troops to reinforce the police at the Capitol.
“There were two or three calls with Vice President Pence. He was very animated, and he issued very explicit, very direct, unambiguous orders. There was no question about that,” Milley said. “He was very animated, very direct, very firm to Secretary [Christopher] Miller. ‘Get the military down here, get the guard down here. Put down this situation, etc.’”
But Milley said he was told by the White House to say that it was Trump who ordered the troops to the Capitol.
Milley also said that Trump’s chief of staff Mark Meadows told him that “we have to kill the narrative that the vice president is making all the decisions.”
The most gripping moment of Thursday night’s hearing came during the live testimony of Capitol Police officer Caroline Edwards, who was injured, knocked unconscious, and later hit with chemical spray as she tried to defend the Capitol. “I was called a lot of things,” she recalled. “I was called Nancy Pelosi’s dog.”
The hearing also showed the degree to which the extremist groups leading the insurrection, the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, took their lead from Trump personally. The Proud Boys were mobilized by Trump’s calls for their help during a presidential debate in 2020, when he said that the Proud Boys should “stand back and stand by.” Separately, the Justice Department has charged Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio and Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes, along with other members of their groups, with seditious conspiracy in connection with January 6. The sedition charges seem to represent a significant escalation in the Justice Department’s prosecution of those involved in the riot and come after months of criticism of Attorney General Merrick Garland for only bringing minor charges against low-level individuals who were in the mob.
The House committee plans to go beyond January 6 to examine Trump’s concerted effort to overturn the election. Former Attorney General William Barr said he told Trump that he had lost the election and that there was no evidence of significant voter fraud. “I repeatedly told the president in no uncertain terms that I did not see evidence of fraud, you know, that would have affected the outcome of the election,” Barr said in testimony to the committee, shown on video.
But Trump ignored the truth and kept pushing to overturn the election throughout the months between the election in November 2020 and Biden’s inauguration in January 2021. After Barr resigned, Trump tried to get rid of acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen in order to install a lackey, Jeffrey Clark, to get the Justice Department to back his efforts to overturn the election.
In addition to the investigations by the House committee and the Justice Department, prosecutors in Georgia are also investigating whether Trump violated Georgia election laws by his constant efforts to pressure Georgia officials to overturn the results in that state. The House committee is examining what happened in Georgia as well, and Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger may testify before the committee in a future hearing.
Despite the historic importance of the insurrection, many reporters and pundits in the mainstream press spent the days leading up to the hearings downplaying their significance, as if they were ready to move on from reporting on the riot. One of their favorite journalistic devices has been to compare, negatively, the public’s interest in the January 6 hearings with the prominence of the Watergate hearings of the 1970s.
But for anyone who still doubts the importance of developing a comprehensive record of January 6 and Trump’s efforts to subvert democracy, all you need to do is see what Trump said Thursday. Trump said on his new “Truth Social” site that the insurrection was “not simply a protest, it represented the greatest movement in the history of our Country to Make America Great Again.”