There were many memorable lines, and even a few revelations, in the long-awaited début of the House select committee prime-time hearing on the harrowing events of January 6, 2021. Viewers on Thursday night learned that Donald Trump’s own Attorney General, Bill Barr, had dismissed his “rigged election” claims as “bullshit.” They learned that Trump’s own daughter Ivanka agreed with Barr. And they learned that Trump’s White House chief of staff, Mark Meadows, had been informed of the complete and utter emptiness of Trump’s false election claims by one of Trump’s own campaign lawyers. “There’s no there there?” Meadows asked the lawyer.
But the most unforgettable words were those of Liz Cheney, the Wyoming Republican who, in defiance of her party, is helping to lead the investigation by the House panel. Speaking directly to her fellow-Republicans in Congress, the vast majority of whom have continued to support and promote Trump even after a pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol and sent them fleeing for their lives, she concluded her presentation with a warning: “There will come a day when Donald Trump is gone, but your dishonor will remain.”
In the course of a searing forty minutes, Cheney was given the starring role in laying out the select committee’s case against Trump. She marshalled the evidence—much of it new, much of it devastating—to show how the former President knew his claims about the election were a lie but used them to inflame his followers and summon them to the Capitol anyway. She nailed it.
It was, in the end, appropriate that it should be a Republican who emerged as the most brutally effective prosecutor of Trump, the former President who has not only escaped being banished and disgraced by his party but remains its leader and the putative front-runner for its Presidential nomination, should he run again in 2024.
At the end of her presentation, Cheney showed what might have been the night’s most revealing witness statement—a short clip of Jared Kushner. In it, Kushner was asked about the repeated threats by Trump’s White House counsel, Pat Cipollone, and his staff, to resign as they sought to stop Trump from unconstitutionally seeking to overturn the election. Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, who served as one of the former President’s close advisers throughout his four disruptive years in the White House, said that he did not take Cipollone’s threats to resign seriously. He thought Cipollone was just “whining.”
It was a brutal moment. Kushner did not believe Trump’s false claims about the election. But he, like so many others surrounding Trump, like so many of Cheney’s Republican colleagues on Capitol Hill, who knew full well that everything Trump said about the election was a lie, chose to wash his hands of the matter. Instead of trying to stop the President, he and Ivanka purchased a 32.2-million-dollar lot on an exclusive private island near Miami in December, 2020, and he started writing his memoir. Whining, indeed.
The hearing began and ended, as it should have, with Trump himself. “President Trump summoned the mob, assembled the mob, and lit the flame of this attack,” Cheney said, consciously echoing an interview she gave to Fox News on the afternoon of January 6th, while she and her colleagues were still in hiding from the pro-Trump mob. It said everything about where American politics are today that on Thursday night, a year and a half after the events in question, Fox News did not dare to broadcast Liz Cheney’s remarks—or to air the full hearing live as the other networks did. Instead, it chose to run its regular evening programming of Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, and the rest of the Trump propaganda machine.
There is a moment, often replayed in the various January 6th retrospectives, that always hits me like a gut punch. It is the frantic call over a police radio at around 2:30 P.M. on January 6th. “We lost the line! We’ve lost the line,” an officer screams. It was the moment when the Capitol was overrun, ransacked, and occupied by a hostile force for the first time since the War of 1812. I wanted to cry listening to it again on Thursday night.
The January 6th committee hearings will continue throughout June and have been a year and a half in the making. The panel has reportedly interviewed a thousand witnesses and reviewed many thousands of pages of documents. It has chronicled what the committee’s chairman, the Mississippi Democrat Bennie Thompson, said on Thursday was a “sprawling, multi-part conspiracy aimed at overturning the Presidential election.” Cheney declared it a “sophisticated seven-part plan,” and future hearings will dive deeper into its components: Trump’s spreading of election misinformation; his plot to fire the acting Attorney General in order to get the Justice Department to further his false claims; his pressure on Vice-President Mike Pence to block the counting of the electoral votes; his pressure on Republican-led state legislatures to switch their electoral votes and scheme to send fake electoral certificates to Congress; his summoning of the mob to the Capitol on January 6th; and his refusal to do anything to stop them once they were there, rampaging.
Thursday’s hearing suggested that there is still much to be learned from the investigation, as it offered only a glimpse of what the testimony has uncovered. One of the night’s more tantalizing nuggets came when Cheney revealed that Trump, when told about rioters chanting “Hang Mike Pence,” seemed to agree with the sentiment, telling his staff, “Maybe our supporters have the right idea.” Another came when she noted that multiple Republican members of Congress who had participated in Trump’s plotting had unsuccessfully sought Presidential pardons for their roles.
After less than two hours, it was clear that much of the most damaging information from the committee’s probe will come from Trump’s aides, advisers, and even family members. Jason Miller, a Trump campaign adviser, was shown testifying that Trump had been clearly and unambiguously informed by his campaign’s data expert that he would certainly lose. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified that he had not heard from Trump himself on January 6th but had received a call from Meadows. The White House chief of staff expressed no interest in the attack on American democracy, according to the nation’s top military officer, but offered only concern that Trump, not Pence, still be seen as in control. “We have to kill the narrative that the Vice-President is making all the decisions,” Milley testified that Meadows told him. “We need to establish the narrative that the President is still in charge.” To Milley—and to all of us listening at home—the conclusion was obvious. As Milley said, it was just “politics, politics, politics.”
Before the hearings began, committee members had promised stunning revelations. Jamie Raskin, the Maryland Democrat and lead House prosecutor of Trump during his second impeachment trial, memorably said they would “blow the roof off the House.” I’m not sure we know yet whether he was right. Already it is clear that the information gathered by this remarkable investigation will keep historians busy for years, sifting through the wreckage of an American political system battered by the former President’s unprecedented and unpresidential actions. But, unfortunately, the true scandal of January 6th had always been apparent, long before the House select committee made it clear once again on Thursday night: the mob never would have been there had Donald Trump not lied about the election he lost. ♦