Tonight Congress began its second prosecution of former President Donald Trump for his role in the events of the January 6, 2021 insurrection. The first occurred barely a month after the Capitol siege, when the Senate held an abbreviated impeachment trial that resulted in his acquittal. Last year, the Democrats leading the prosecution chose not to call witnesses. “People want to get home for Valentine’s Day,” Senator Chris Coons of Delaware reportedly told the impeachment managers, infuriating those who were hoping that the Senate would hold Trump accountable and bar him from ever running for public office again.
The House Select Committee investigating the January 6 attack is calling witnesses this time around—lots of them. In its first public hearing, televised in primetime by all major networks except Fox News, the panel aired clips of former Attorney General William Barr recounting how he told Trump that his claims that the 2020 election was stolen were “bullshit.” The committee interviewed Trump’s eldest daughter, Ivanka, who said in a videotaped deposition that she “accepted” Barr’s conclusion about her father’s bogus assertions.
The millions of viewers who likely tuned in to tonight’s opening salvo saw only a snippet of what the select committee has uncovered. (By design, this first of several hearings represented an opening statement, essentially teasing the revelations to come in future episodes, the next of which is on Monday morning.) The two-hour introduction was neither as dry as most congressional proceedings nor as slick as some had expected when news broke that the committee had hired a former ABC News executive to help plan its showcase.
Yet at times, the event resembled a criminal trial as much as it did a standard House hearing. Instead of an endless parade of lawmaker statements, viewers had to endure only two: from Chairman Bennie Thompson, Democrat of Mississippi, and Vice Chair Liz Cheney, the Wyoming Republican who last year was removed as a member of the GOP leadership over her vote to impeach Trump. The committee also dispensed with opening statements from its two live witnesses, Capitol Police Officer Caroline Edwards and documentary filmmaker Nick Quested.
Cheney, who holds a law degree from the University of Chicago, delivered a 30-minute speech previewing the committee’s case that Trump was “at the center” of the January 6 riot and the effort to overturn the election that led to it. “President Trump summoned the mob, assembled the mob and lit the flame of this attack,” she said. What followed was perhaps the most compelling evidence the committee presented tonight—an 11-minute video compilation of the attack itself, showing the breach of the Capitol and featuring previously unseen police body-cam footage of harrowing hand-to-hand combat between officers and rioters. “We’ve lost the line! We’ve lost the line!” an officer is heard shouting at one point as a crowd surged toward the Capitol.
Again and again, the committee returned to Trump and his role in the insurrection. Among the arguments the hearings will advance is that Trump and his allies knew that he lost the election even as he tried to hold onto power. Committee members also spent much of the second half of tonight’s presentation trying to demonstrate that Trump’s tweets and statements after the election were interpreted as motivation—and even direction—by the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, the two groups who came to Washington on January 6 prepared not merely for peaceful protest but for violence.
The goal of the hearings, aside from bolstering the historical record around January 6, is clearly to warn the public about the danger that Trump still presents, both as an individual who may again run for president in two years and as the leader of a movement that does not care much for democracy.
The structure of tonight’s opening—giving equal weight to the panel’s Democratic and Republican leaders—had the effect of lending more bipartisanship to the committee than is probably merited. The House GOP officially boycotted the effort, forcing Democrats to name Cheney and Representative Adam Kinzinger of Illinois as members because they were the only Republicans willing to participate.
Trump is not a defendant, despite the committee’s best efforts to paint him as one. Its members can’t hope to sanction him, only to sway public opinion, and, perhaps, nudge the Justice Department to pursue the former president more aggressively than it already has. The panel’s chances to meaningfully reach the public, too, are limited, because the network with by far the most Trump-voting viewers, Fox News, chose not to air the hearing. Congress had its opportunity to hold Trump responsible more than a year ago, when the horror of January 6 was still fresh. The House impeached him and the Senate tried him. But senators chose Valentine’s Day over witnesses, a quick verdict over a deep and far-reaching investigation.
Now the public will finally get something close to a full accounting of January 6, but is it too late?
Republicans are poised to win back Congress this fall, and Trump, free to run once more, remains the likeliest presidential nominee in 2024. “Tonight, I say this to my Republican colleagues who are defending the indefensible,” Cheney said at the conclusion of her speech, in an implicit acknowledgment of her lonely place in the party. “There will come a day when Donald Trump is gone, but your dishonor will remain.” The committee is trying to reach people who haven’t made up their minds about Trump and the ongoing threat to democracy—however many of them are left.