The art of whipping up anticipation is usually better understood in Hollywood than in Washington. Grabbing hold of an audience requires first offering some enticement (in the form of a trailer that craftily hints at the story) before the main feature. The first day of the congressional hearings on the aborted coup of January 2021, however, offer an indication that at least some politicians have a talent for shaping narrative suspense. The team of Democratic Representative Bennie Thompson, chairman of the committee, and Republican Representative Liz Cheney, the vice chairman, presented a masterful overview. They unfolded a plausible narrative for the events leading up to the storming of the Capitol and summarized the forensic case for former President Donald Trump’s culpability in the attempted insurrection. Video clips from the riot offered a vivid reminder of the orchestrated violence that Trump stirred up.
The danger of the Trump era is that his outrageous words and actions are so innumerable that it’s easy to become inured to them. The recency bias that is built into human experience also makes it easy to forget old crises so we can concentrate on emerging dangers. But the events of January 6 deserve to be not just remembered but also punished.
Never forget: An outgoing American president riled up a mob to attack Congress. That remains an open wound on the polity, one that can’t be healed until justice is served on those responsible for it. The guilty include not just the rioters who have already been charged for their individual offenses but also the masterminds who instigated the failed subversion of democracy.
In the key sentence of the first day of hearings, Cheney said, “You will also hear about plots to commit seditious conspiracy on January 6th, a crime defined in our laws as conspiring to overthrow, put down, or destroy by force the government of the United States or to oppose by force the authority thereof.”
If we take these words seriously, the hearings are going to be much more than a fact-finding mission. They are a prosecutorial brief that will lay out a criminal case against Trump and his accomplices.
Of course, the ultimate decision to pursue legal action belongs to Attorney General Merrick Garland, who might not take up case. Still, Cheney’s words gesture towards the seriousness of the offense. As Greg Sargent of The Washington Post notes, it is possible that “Cheney used that language not to telegraph a detailed legal case to come, but to signal the dire seriousness of Trump’s scheme. That, too, strongly suggests that the story the committee plans to tell is extraordinarily grave.”
The most eyebrow-raising revelation of the first day of hearings was that Trump allegedly told advisers, “Maybe our supporters have the right idea” about executing vice president Mike Pence, who “deserves it.” Equally startling was the disclosure that multiple Republican members of Congress had asked Trump for pardons for their complicity in the aspirational coup.
In future hearings, we can expect to hear more about these solicitors of pardons. What were their names? What assistance did they provide for the attack on the Capitol? Did they work with the Proud Boys and other outside groups by giving them key information about logistics and the congressional floor plan? How did the insurgents know where the Senate ballots were kept? How did they know that Representative James Clyburn had not just a public office but also a private and less-accessible office?
We can also hope to find out more about the Stop the Steal organization and its role as instigator and organizer—and about the role played by Trump cronies such as Sidney Powell, Rudy Giuliani, and Michael Flynn.
Offering a preview, Cheney said, “In our second hearing, you will see that Donald Trump and his advisers knew that he had in fact lost the election. But despite this, President Trump engaged in a massive effort to spread false and fraudulent information to convince huge portions of the US population that fraud had stolen the election from him. This was not true.”
In another foreshadowing, Cheney promised “you will see” evidence that
President Trump ignored the rulings of our nation’s courts. He ignored his own campaign leadership, his White House staff, many Republican state officials. He ignored the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security. President Trump invested millions of dollars of campaign funds purposely spreading false information, running ads he knew were false, and convincing millions of Americans that the election was corrupt and that he was the true President. As you will see, this misinformation campaign provoked the violence on January 6th.
All of this points toward hearings that will be tightly focused on the guilt of Trump and his inner circle, along with the more egregious of his congressional allies. This approach has much to recommend it in terms of creating a bipartisan consensus on January 6.
But the price of bringing a handful of Republicans such as Liz Cheney on board has been steep. Bipartisan hearings mean that Trump is being cast as an outlier to American politics, leaving the broader problems of American democracy that created Trump unaddressed. The Washington Post reports, “Cheney did not want the committee to investigate Ginni Thomas, a conservative activist and the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, according to people involved with the investigation. Cheney did not think it was fair to target the justice without evidence that he was involved, according to those involved, but some Democrats instead saw this as an effort to protect her hardcore Republican.”
In the first hearing, Cheney was given pride of place. She was allowed not just to shield Ginni Thomas but also to twice allude to Ronald Reagan as a beacon. Cheney also praised Mike Pence for demonstrating that “he had a higher duty to the United States Constitution.” In point of fact, Pence has refused to speak to the January 6 committee, and his criticism of Trump, a man who cheered on the former vice president’s possible assassination, has been minimal.
The Washington Post notes, “Cheney has also clashed with Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.) over how much to focus on Trump vs. other Republicans, according to those involved.” The political reality is that since January 6, the GOP has only become more Trumpized, nominating candidates who are open insurrectionists. The Democrats could still play up this fact in elections, but they’ve chosen to hold hearings that are designed to hide it instead. In other words, the hearings will offer some accountability, but carefully demarcated. The cost of a bipartisan coalition is that the full crisis of American democracy, and the key role of the GOP in creating that crisis, will be left on the sidelines.