The first hearing of the congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection did not go well for those who continue to downplay what happened that day.
The select committee heard three hours of detailed and emotional testimony from four police officers who battled rioters at the Capitol, in a meeting that set the tone for the rest of the body’s work over the next year or more.
Committee Chairman Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., said after the hearing that he would issue subpoenas immediately to those the committee wants to testify, rather than sending requests. Subpoenas are enforceable through the courts, though it has been over a century since Congress used its authority to arrest and detain someone for defying a subpoena. Thompson made clear he did not want to give aides to former President Donald Trump time to stall and delay, anticipating that they would try to drag out the process.
Thompson also made clear that the select committee will be focused not just on what happened in the past, but also on the ongoing threat to democracy posed by Trump and his continued campaign of lies about the 2020 election.
During his opening statement, Thompson played a video clip of insurrectionists vowing to return to Washington with 30,000 guns. “That man's warning reminds us that this threat hasn't gone away. It looms over a democracy like a dark cloud,” Thompson said.
“While our institutions endured ... a peaceful transfer of power didn't happen this year. It did not happen. Let that sink in,” he said.
The insurrection came after Trump spent months repeating false and unsupported claims of a rigged and stolen election. He deceived millions of supporters into believing this alternative reality. Thousands of them then attempted to stop the certification of the 2020 election on Jan. 6.
And now, after an initial period following the insurrection in which GOP leaders recognized the reality and gravity of what had happened, Trump’s lies have been picked up and promoted again by many Republicans. These attempts to downplay, distract from or even defend what happened were a theme of the testimony by the four police officers who testified Tuesday.
“Truly nothing has prepared me to address those elected members of our government who continue to deny the events of that day and in doing so betray their oath of office," said Michael Fanone, a Washington, D.C., police officer who was dragged down the steps of the Capitol by rioters, beaten with fists and flagpoles, and electrocuted at the base of his neck multiple times, and who heard those assaulting him yell, “Kill him with his own gun.”
It was impossible to deny the horror of Jan. 6 during the hearing Tuesday. Fanone and the three other officers each recounted their experiences that day in excruciating detail, and the committee also played video footage from each officer’s body camera to supplement their testimony. Fanone’s body camera showed other officers standing over him and carrying him into the Capitol as he lay unconscious for about four minutes, he said.
“I was electrocuted again and again and again with a Taser,” he said. “I'm sure I was screaming, but I don't think I could even hear my own voice. ... I thought of my four daughters who might lose their dad.”
The gripping video clips displayed a grinding crush of bodies battling inch by inch to gain control of entrances to the Capitol. It was a “contest of wills,” said D.C. Police Officer Daniel Hodges.
Thompson told the officers that their heroism during these battles bought precious time until reinforcements could arrive. It took hours for the National Guard and other law enforcement to show up, and the reasons for that delay are part of the committee’s probe.
A Senate panel has investigated the details of those delays in the law enforcement response, as well as the weaknesses in law enforcement’s preparation for Jan. 6. But much remains unknown about why the Capitol was so badly defended and unprepared for violence that day.
“Our chain of command had not told us to prepare for any of these levels of violence,” said Harry Dunn, an officer with the Capitol Police.
Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., made clear that the committee plans to look in detail at the role Trump and his aides might have played in those delays.
“We must know what happened here at the Capitol. We must also know what happened every minute of that day in the White House — every phone call, every conversation, every meeting leading up to, during and after the attack,” she said.
Cheney is a central figure on the Jan. 6 committee. She is the most prominent Republican to stand up against what Hodges called the Trump “cult” that has taken over much of the Republican Party. She was a member of Republican leadership in the House until party members removed her, offended by her insistence on confronting Trump’s lies.
The other Republican on the committee, Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., said that unlike the violence that took place during the protests for racial justice in the summer of 2020, the events of Jan. 6 were a direct threat to democracy. “Not once [during the summer protests] did I ever feel that the future of self-governance was threatened like I did on Jan. 6,” Kinzinger, who noted he was deployed to the summer protests as a member of the Air National Guard, said.
“There is a difference between breaking the law and rejecting the rule of law, between crimes — even grave crimes — and a coup.”
Many House Republicans are trying to dismiss the committee as a partisan sideshow. On Tuesday, some argued speciously that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was to blame for the intelligence failure prior to Jan. 6.
“Why was the Capitol unprepared and vulnerable to attack on 1/6?” tweeted Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., who Pelosi blocked from joining the panel, given his earlier arguments that a committee was not needed.
Another faction of far-right Republican lawmakers who have consistently catered to conspiracy theories and hyperpartisan falsehoods — such as Republican Reps. Matt Gaetz, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Paul Gosar and Andy Biggs — held a press conference in front of the Justice Department in which they asked for insurrectionists who assaulted the Capitol on Jan. 6 to be released. Gosar called the insurrectionists “political prisoners.”
Capitol Police Sgt. Aquilino Gonell, in his testimony, called these lawmakers “pathetic” and said, “They shouldn’t be ... elected official[s] anymore.” Gaetz and the others were forced to end their press conference when protesters disrupted their remarks.
Those who defend Trump’s behavior during and in the lead-up to the riot were left grasping at straws on Tuesday, with little of substance to say in response to the overwhelming video and documentary record of Jan. 6 that already exists.
What remains unknown about that day has a lot to do with Trump, and it was clear after the committee’s first hearing that Thompson, Cheney and the others on the panel are intent on revealing more about whether the then president and others in his government conspired to delay the law enforcement response.
“Efforts to subvert our democracy are ongoing,” Thompson said. “A major part of the select committee's work will be to find ways to eliminate that threat.”
And because House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., declined to nominate anyone to the panel, he has no allies to push his talking points during deliberations. Trump’s most fervent loyalists will continue to rationalize Jan. 6 to hard-core supporters who watch right-wing cable TV, but Thompson hopes the majority of the country will see the committee forging ahead without distraction.
Those who will likely be called to testify in either a deposition or a public hearing include Trump’s former chief of staff Mark Meadows, Trump’s daughter and adviser Ivanka Trump and the former president himself, to name just a few.
The committee may hold another hearing in August, Thompson said, but it has not announced its next steps.
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