Viewers who tuned in Thursday to the first night of public hearings by the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection were not given Washington political theater as usual. On the contrary, the broadcast portion of the largest-scale investigation in congressional history was a clean, concise production of real substance.
And yet, for all the facts it marshaled, the riveting two-hour opener was still televised drama of the highest order — likely because the seditious, violent effort to overthrow the U.S. government in evidence was not mere fiction, or even spectacle. It was a damning true story, well told.
For nearly a year, the committee has operated behind closed doors gathering testimony and scouring video, phone records, emails and other documents to look at former President Trump’s involvement in the attack on the Capitol, as part of his broader effort to stop the peaceful transition of power to Joe Biden. And on Thursday, the committee successfully organized the chaos of Jan. 6 into a narrative of concerted action to subvert American democracy — with Trump at the center of the conspiracy.
The committee hired James Goldston, former president of ABC News, to produce a prime-time show that expertly combined the opening statements of committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) and Vice Chair Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) with video clips from depositions, previously unseen video of the attack, cogent timelines, witness testimony and more.
But perhaps most impressively, Thursday’s compelling proceedings were just a teaser for what’s to come. Cheney said that Trump had a seven-part plan to overturn the 2020 presidential election and promised the American public watching at home that “you will see evidence of each element of this plan.”
“Over the next few weeks, you will hear testimony live and on video, from more than half a dozen former White House staff of the Trump administration, all of whom were in the West Wing on Jan. 6,” said Cheney. “You will see never-before-seen footage tonight. You will see evidence of what caused this violence. … President Trump summoned the mob, assembled the mob and lit the flame of this attack.”
In a more chilling moment, Cheney also spoke of one staffer’s forthcoming testimony about Trump’s reaction to rioters chanting to hang former Vice President Mike Pence. “And aware of the rioters’ chants to hang Mike Pence, the president responded with this sentiment: ‘Maybe our supporters have the right idea.’ Mike Pence, quote, ‘deserves it.’”
With a large screen hanging over the room that read, “Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol,” Thompson made the committee’s goal clear within the first 15 minutes of the hearing: “Donald Trump was at the center of this conspiracy,” he said, seated at a long wooden dais with eight other members. “[Trump] spurred a mob of domestic enemies of the Constitution to march down to the Capitol and subvert American democracy. Any legal jargon you hear about seditious conspiracy, obstruction of an official proceeding, conspiracy to defraud the U.S., boils down to this: Jan. 6 was the culmination of an attempted coup. A brazen attempt, as one rioter put it shortly after Jan. 6, to overthrow the government. The violence was no accident. It represents Trump’s last stand, most desperate chance to halt the transfer of power.”
The hearing was designed to grab the attention of viewers who are worn down by the constant drumbeat of partisan messaging and bad news out of the Capitol. The committee’s decision to bring in media professionals was a smart one: The opening day of proceedings broke down complicated legal issues with multimedia explanations, organizing events in a traceable order, without pandering to audiences with Maury Povich-style theatrics.
Emotions were high in the room when two witnesses testified live, but the passion wasn’t coming from grandstanding politicians. It was brought forth by the harrowing story of Caroline Edwards, a Capitol Police officer who was injured trying to hold back rioters. She gave a terrifying account of being knocked out by members of the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers as they forced their way into the Capitol.
When video from the incident and other violent moments caught on film were played in the chamber, there was a visceral reaction on Edwards’ face, as well as the faces of other Capitol officers who attended the hearing. Nick Quested, a documentarian who embedded with the Proud Boys that day, also testified about what he saw following the radical-right group the day before the attack.
One of many devastating pieces of evidence against Trump was the clip of former Atty. Gen. William Barr testifying in a deposition that he told the president that his insistence the election was stolen due to fraud was “bullshit.” When asked in another deposition, Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, said she believed Barr.
Cheney said the upcoming hearings will be broken into parts, the second showing how Trump and his advisors knew there was no election fraud, yet still spread the “Big Lie.” The third will focus on how Trump corruptly planned to replace the attorney general so the Justice Department would spread his false stolen election claims. The fourth will focus on Trump pressuring Pence to refuse to count electoral votes, and the fifth will hear evidence on how Trump pressured state legislators and election officials to change the results. In the final two public hearings, Cheney promised Americans that they’d hear how Trump “summoned a violent mob and directed them illegally to march on the U.S. Capitol.”
She stressed that the investigation is still ongoing and the committee was still working with witnesses. And, as if to remind us to tune in next week for another episode of this must-see drama, in which democracy hangs in the balance, she urged American not to look away: “Please remember what’s at stake.”