The congressional Jan. 6 committee held its first prime-time hearing Thursday night about the attack on the Capitol and the events leading up to it. Here are six takeaways from the first of June’s hearing, after nearly a year of investigation.
1. The committee holds Trump responsible for the attack
“President Trump summoned the mob, assembled the mob, and lit the flame of this attack.” That is the top Republican on the committee (and one of only two who agreed to participate with Democrats), Vice-Chair Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) directly laying the blame for the violence on Trump.
“[W]hen a president fails to take the steps necessary to preserve our union or worse causes a constitutional crisis,” she said, “we’re at a moment of maximum danger for our republic.”
Cheney said that over the next month, the committee will present evidence that Trump made not a single call to the Defense Department or other national security agencies during the attack. The committee played testimony from Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, saying that it was Vice President Mike Pence who made those calls.
The committee said it will present evidence that the president “refused for hours to do what his staff, his family and many of his other advisers begged him to do, immediately instruct his supporters to stand down and evacuate the Capitol.” He also yelled at advisers who told him to act, the panel said.
And, perhaps most damning, the committee said that he cheered on the protesters’ most violent tendencies. Cheney said, “Aware of the rioters chanting to ‘hang Mike Pence,’ the president responded with this sentiment ‘Maybe our supporters have the right idea. [Mike Pence] deserves it.’”
2. How the committee plans to tell its story
It was always going to be a challenge for the committee to focus the public’s attention on an event from more than a year ago — and to do it over a series of hearings for a month. On Thursday, it laid out exactly how it will try to tell the story of the Jan. 6 attack and who was responsible for it.
The committee opened by seeking to jolt the American public back to that violent day with never-before-seen footage of the attackers marching up to the Capitol and smashing windows to get in, overwhelming Capitol Police officers. “We can’t hold this there are too many f——g people. Look at it from this vantage point. We’re f—-d,” one officer says.
On Monday, the committee members will share how they think Trump tried to steal the election, though he knew he had lost. “President Trump ignored the rulings of our nation’s courts,” Cheney said. “He ignored his own campaign leadership.” They played video of Trump’s attorney general, William P. Barr, who told the committee he resigned in the final month of the administration in part because Trump was trying to wrestle his way to stay in power: “I made it clear 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.
On Wednesday, it will detail how Trump “corruptly planned” to replace top Justice Department officials with his own allies, who wanted to endorse investigations of baseless election fraud claims in states like Georgia. (After they threatened mass resignations, he did not end up replacing them.)
Later, the committee will spend a significant amount of time on the pressure Trump and his allies put on Pence to overturn election results on that day, something Pence himself said was “wrong.” They’ll also talk about how Trump “corruptly pressured” state legislators and election officials to change election results, and will shed new light on the Trump campaign’s efforts to set up slates of false electors in states he’d lost.
Finally, the committee will revisit the day of the attack, accusing Trump of having “summoned” right-wing groups to attack the Capitol, then resisting calls by his allies and family to tell the attackers to go home. And in Cheney’s words, after the attack, White House staff feared that Trump “was too dangerous to be left alone.”
It’s a lot for the committee to tackle — all while keeping Americans’ attention span over a long period of time. But the first hearing was objectively riveting, weaving together startling footage of that day — including congressional staffers running for their lives as attackers breached the Capitol — with live testimony.
3. A sharp attack on Trump’s Republican defenders
Top Republican lawmakers — even Pence, whose life was threatened by the attackers — have spent the year and a half since the attack downplaying what happened. It’s now a badge of honor in some circles to have been in D.C. protesting election results or to be labeled an insurrectionist.
Chairman Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.) compared those who have justified what happened to those who defended slavery and the civil war.
“I’m from a part of the country where people justify the actions of slavery, the Ku Klux Klan and lynching,” Thompson said in his opening remarks, his Southern drawl evident. “I’m reminded of that dark history as I hear voices today try to justify the actions of the insurrectionists.”
And Cheney, whose party has isolated her for her strong criticism of Trump and willingness to serve on this committee, said, “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.”
The committee also shared new information: A number of Republican lawmakers, including Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.), asked the White House for pardons in the weeks after the attack, for their alleged involvement in trying to overthrow the election. Last month, the committee had subpoenaed Perry, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and several other House Republicans, who refused to cooperate with their investigation.
4. How Trump influenced the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys
So if the attack wasn’t spontaneous, as the committee flatly says it wasn’t, what led to it? The committee alleges that right-wing extremist groups were motivated by Trump himself. The committee spent a large chunk of Thursday’s hearing introducing Americans to two of these groups — the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers — and making the case for how Trump’s statements and tweets influenced their actions, and eventually, their violent acts.
The committee presented evidence that membership of the Proud Boys “tripled” after Trump praised them in a presidential debate toward the end of the election campaign. The hearing also featured footage of rioters reading aloud, over a bullhorn, a tweet Trump sent attacking Pence for his lack of “courage. And when Trump tweeted ahead of Jan. 6, “be there and be wild,” the committee said that these extremist groups took it as “a call to arms.”
Filmmaker Nick Quested, who embedded with the Proud Boys that day, testified that some Proud Boys went to the Capitol early that morning; others left the “Stop the Steal” rally to march to the Capitol before Trump’s speech even began. They didn’t seem very interested in hearing Trump’s speech, which Quested said confused him at the time. But he described the group’s atmosphere as “much darker” than usual.
“What you witnessed was what a coordinated plan effort would look like,” Thompson said, after Quested finished speaking. “It was the culmination of a months-long effort spearheaded by President Trump.”
The hearing also featured interviews with several men charged in the riot who said they came because Trump told them to. “We were invited by the president of the United States!” an attacker yells in footage from that day.
And the committee presented evidence that the groups took credit for the attack. “Make no mistake. We did this,” the leader of the Proud Boys, Enrique Tarrio, said in an encrypted text, according to a Justice Department indictment of Tarrio. He and four of his top lieutenants were recently charged with seditious conspiracy — alleging they conspired to overthrow the government. The leaders of the Oath Keepers have also been charged with this.
5. The production value of night one
Throughout June, the committee has to weave together thousands of hours of testimony, tens of thousands of documents, more than 1,000 different people they interviewed — and make it all coherent, compelling and as concise as Congress can be. In their first prime time hearings, they did that expertly.
Over a period of two hours on Thursday (relatively short, for a congressional hearing), the committee aired snippets of about a dozen pretaped interviews, ranging from Trump’s former attorney general to his son-in-law Jared Kushner (who said he thought the White House counsel’s threats to resign over the election fraud push was “whining”) and his daughter Ivanka Trump (testifying that she accepted the Justice Department’s assessment that the election wasn’t stolen), from Trump campaign officials to attackers who are now serving jail time for breaching the Capitol.
They also showed the public new footage of the attack, splicing images of determined rioters yelling obscenities and waving Trump flags as they marched, with body-camera footage from panicked Capitol Hill police officers.
And in between all of that were two live witnesses: Quested and Capitol Hill police officer Caroline Edwards, who was one of the first attacked and who returned to the line of duty repeatedly.
Edwards’s testimony was particularly chilling. The committee played graphic footage of protesters knocking her unconscious with a police barricade. After she recovered, she went to the front lines again and served alongside Capitol Hill police officer Brian D. Sicknick, who suffered two strokes and later died. She described how she and Sicknick were tear-gassed and knocked down repeatedly, calling it “a war scene.”
“I saw friends with blood all over their faces. I was slipping in people’s blood,” said Edwards, later adding, “It was carnage.”
In the audience were Sicknick’s relatives, as well as other family members of Capitol Hill police officers. (Five people died in the Jan. 6 attack or in the immediate aftermath, and 140 police officers were assaulted.) It was an emotional night, and the committee intended it to be.
6. The committee says more is to come
They’ve spent 11 months investigating, but they’re not done, Cheney reminded the American public: “[O]ur investigation is still ongoing. So what we make public here will not be the complete set of information we will ultimately disclose.” And she added that Justice Department criminal investigations are also ongoing, specifically mentioning that investigators are de-encrypting messages from those involved in the attack or in election conspiracies.
That could mean completely new evidence may be revealed even with the hearings underway, or that the committee will keep sharing revelations throughout the summer — as the midterm elections near.
After June’s hearings, the committee plans to release its final report in September.