At the outset of this summer’s hearings, the select committee faced questions critical to its credibility and its prospects of being one of the few investigatory processes to ever hold Trump to account.
- Can it prove that the events after the 2020 election and the subsequent riot at the US Capitol were consciously orchestrated by Trump?
- And could it then use that evidence to show criminal intent that might prompt the Justice Department to prosecute the ex-President?
- With Trump itching to launch a new campaign that would test US institutions as never before, could the committee further shift public opinion against a lawless and autocratic ex-President who remains a threat to democracy?
The committee has comprehensively answered at least the first three of those questions and made progress on the other two.
It has also embroidered a broader narrative of an out-of-control President who put his own fantastical belief he won an election above more than two centuries of democratic tradition and the national interest. And, most chillingly, it is advancing a case — in the words of a key witness, retired conservative Judge J. Michael Luttig — that Trump remains “a clear and present danger” to US democracy.
As committee Vice Chair Liz Cheney, a Wyoming Republican, put it after Thursday’s extraordinary hearing, “Every American must consider this: Can a President who made the choices Donald Trump made during the violence of January 6 ever be trusted with any position of authority in our great nation again?”
That evidence has exposed a direct and dominant role by Trump in discrediting the 2020 election, making a false case that he won it, and the cascade of events that led to the worst attack on the US Capitol in more than 200 years.
What the committee has established
The hearings might best be compared to a prosecution in a court room, with evidence from multiple documentary sources interspersed with videotaped depositions and live testimony from the most compelling witnesses.
Cheney often opened hearings with a summary to the audience using language like, “You will hear how ex-President Trump …” as if she were an attorney addressing a jury, in this case the one at home.
This is what the committee has established so far.
- The insurrection was carnage, not the overwrought protest described by Trump allies. Previously unseen film footage from outside and inside the Capitol showed Trump’s mob smashing windows, battling with security officers and seeking vengeance against then-Vice President Mike Pence for failing to block President Joe Biden’s election win. Capitol Police officer Caroline Edwards testified about a “war scene,” adding, “I was slipping in people’s blood.”
- Trump was told repeatedly he lost the election by campaign aides, officials and lawyers but he persisted in his lies and attempts to steal power.
- Those fraud claims were “idiotic” and devoid of evidence according to multiple witnesses, including Trump’s former Attorney General William Barr.
- Trump imposed extreme pressure on Republican officials in key swing states to overturn the election — like Arizona Republican House Speaker Rusty Bowers, who testified that he chose the Constitution over politics. Georgia election workers, Wandrea “Shaye” Moss and her mother Ruby Freeman, said Trump’s intimidation campaign left them afraid to leave their homes.
- Trump was personally involved in schemes to get Pence to overturn the election in Congress — a power the vice president lacked, and to create slates of fake electors to steal Biden’s state victories.
- According to witness testimony, Trump thought Pence, rushed to safety by the Secret Service as the rioters invaded, deserved the calls for him to be hanged. The danger to Pence was real — the mob got to within 40 feet of him. A committee witness, whose identity was obscured, testified in a recording on Thursday that members of Pence’s detail genuinely feared that they would be killed.
- Rioters testified that they came to Washington because Trump asked them to. The ex-President incited the mob at his rally on the Ellipse, and he knew members in the crowd were armed but he exhorted them to march on the Capitol anyway. In fact, he would have gone there with them himself if the Secret Service had let him.
- Trump did not just watch the mayhem unfold on television; he expressly refused to fulfill his duty as president to protect the Capitol and democracy. And he further incited the crowd with a tweet.
How the committee did it
It is fitting that a President who won office partly because of the image he created on a TV program and whose term unfolded like an unhinged daily reality show should find his conduct eviscerated in a new kind of congressional probe that feels more like a streamable drama than a crusty Capitol Hill hearing.
The committee enlisted experienced TV producers to shape its hearings — two of which unfolded on prime time. Committee members conducting each session worked from a script, as clips of witness depositions were interspersed with other evidence like Capitol Police radio traffic, clips of pitched violence, texts from former White House officials and live testimony.
While key figures like Meadows and other close Trump aides sought to stonewall the committee, it used classic investigatory techniques to piece together the story. People from inside Trump’s inner orbit reticent to speak were placed under oath, including his daughter Ivanka, son-in-law Jared Kushner and senior White House officials. Week by week, the shocking video had an effect. More people inside the West Wing on January 6, 2021, came forward.
The courage of Hutchinson set off a surge of personal attacks from Trump world. But that may only have opened a spigot to more testimony and evidence. Cipollone came across as balancing his responsibilities to the office of the President and the doctrine of executive privilege with his duty to history and his own sense of right and wrong. In one compelling example from his deposition played Thursday, he left the damning impression that everyone in the White House that day wanted the rioters to go — except Trump.
In another effective technique, the committee decried by pro-Trump Republicans as a partisan scam often used Republicans to make the case against the ex-President. Members of the mob told how they thought they were doing Trump’s wishes because of what he said. GOP officials like Bowers and Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger testified to his abuses of power. On Thursday, the committee played footage from Fox showing the carnage that Trump watched in real time.
What is next?
At the start of these hearings, it seemed a stretch that the committee could build a case with criminal implications for the ex-President. That could be changing. Some seasoned lawyers believe that the committee has indeed established evidence of intent by Trump to precipitate the horrendous events leading up to and on January 6 — an important component to any court case.
Yet it is important to remember that as effective as it is, the committee’s case is being made solely from the perspective of a prosecution. The panel is able to select snippets of information most advantageous to its case. There has been no cross-examination of witnesses. Weaknesses or contradictions in their recollection or testimony have not been teased out by a defense lawyer.
Then there is the question of whether a potential prosecution of Trump, as a former President, would be in the national interest — since it could potentially rip even deeper partisan divides in an already internally estranged nation. Establishing a precedent that a former President could be liable to criminal action could be dangerous since it could be misused by future commanders-in-chief to go after their predecessors. These issue could become even more explosive since Trump may soon launch a presidential campaign that would make it easier for him to claim the investigation against him is politically motivated.
Yet the weight of evidence already unearthed by the committee poses an equally grave question. What message will it send to future generations if Trump escapes political and criminal accountability for trying to incite a coup against the US government that he was sworn to protect?
Attorney General Merrick Garland insisted this week that no one is above the law, sparking fresh speculation about the possibility of a Justice Department investigation and potential prosecution of Trump.
Harvard constitutional scholar Laurence Tribe believes the committee’s summer hearings have made that outcome more likely.
“The committee, through witnesses like Cassidy Hutchinson and through the testimony that it has recorded under oath, has painted an extremely strong picture of someone who … was bound to do anything he could in order to hold onto power,” he told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer Thursday.
“I think the committee has made it much easier for a prosecution to be brought partly because the people of the United States have been more fully informed. You have to get people ready for something as unusual as the prosecution of a former President.”