The chair of the U.S. House committee investigating the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection and Donald Trump’s effort to overturn the 2020 election opened Thursday’s prime-time hearing declaring the attack an “attempted coup” that put “two and a half centuries of constitutional democracy at risk.”
Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson said that “the world is watching” the U.S. response to the panel’s yearlong investigation into the Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021, and the defeated president’s extraordinary effort to stop Congress from certifying Joe Biden’s election victory. He called it a “brazen attempt” to overturn the election, and said that “Donald Trump was at the centre of this conspiracy.”
“Democracy remains in danger,” Thompson said. “We must confront the truth with candour, resolve and determination.”
The committee presented 12 minutes of never-before-seen video of the deadly violence that day and also of Trump administration officials in the chilling backstory as Trump tried to overturn Biden’s win.
In one clip, the panel played a quip from former U.S. attorney general William Barr, who testified that he told Trump the claims of a rigged election were “bullshit.”
‘Summoned a violent mob’
In another, the former president’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, testified to the committee that she respected Barr’s view that there was no election fraud. “I accepted what he said.”
Thursday night’s hearing aimed to lay out in gripping detail that the deadly violence was no accident. Instead, the panel declared it was the result of Trump’s repeated lies about election fraud, his public call for supporters to come to Washington and his private campaign at the highest levels of government to block Congress from certifying Biden’s election victory.
“President Trump summoned a violent mob,” said Republican Rep. Liz Cheney, the panel’s vice chair. “When a president fails to take the steps necessary to preserve our union — or worse, causes a constitutional crisis — we’re in a moment of maximum danger for our republic.”
Audible gasp in hearing room
There was an audible gasp in the hearing room, when Cheney read an account that said when Trump was told the Capitol mob was chanting for his vice-president, Mike Pence, to be hanged, Trump responded that maybe they were right; that he “deserves it.”
Trump was angry that Pence did not refuse to accept the certification of Biden’s victory.
The result of the coming weeks of public hearings may not change hearts or minds in politically polarized America. But the committee’s investigation with 1,000 interviews is intended to stand as a public record for history. A final report aims to provide an accounting of the most violent attack on the Capitol since the British set fire to it in 1814, and to ensure such an attack never happens again.
The riot left more than 100 police officers injured, many beaten and bloodied, as the crowd of pro-Trump rioters — some armed with pipes, bats and bear spray — charged into the Capitol. At least nine people who were there died during and after the rioting, including a woman who was shot and killed by police.
Emotions are still raw at the Capitol, and security will be tight for the hearings. Law enforcement officials are reporting a spike in violent threats against members of Congress.
‘We were there, we saw what happened’
Against this backdrop, the committee is speaking to a divided United States ahead of this fall’s midterm elections, when voters will decide which party controls Congress. Most TV networks were carrying the hearing live, but Fox News Channel was not.
Among those in the audience are several current and former police officers who fought the mob in a desperate battle to protect the Capitol, and lawmakers who were trapped together in the House gallery during the siege have stayed close.
“We want to remind people, we were there, we saw what happened,” said Democratic Rep. Dean Phillips of Minnesota. “We know how close we came to the first non-peaceful transition of power in this country.”
Thompson, the committee chairman and a civil rights leader, opened the hearing with a sweep of American history, saying he heard in those denying the stark reality of Jan. 6 his own experience growing up in a time and place “where people justified the action of slavery, the Ku Klux Klan and lynching.”
He and Cheney, a Republican and daughter of former U.S. vice-president Dick Cheney, outlined what the committee has learned about the events leading up to that brisk January day when Trump sent his supporters to Congress to “fight like hell” for his presidency, as lawmakers undertook the typically routine job of certifying the previous November’s results.
In the weeks ahead, the panel is expected to detail Trump’s public campaign to “Stop the Steal” and the private pressure he put on the Justice Department to reverse his election loss — despite dozens of failed court cases and his own attorney general attesting there was no fraud on a scale that could have tipped the results in his favour.
The hearings are expected to introduce Americans to a cast of characters, some well known, others elusive, and to what they said and did as Trump and his allies tried to reverse the election outcome.
The public will learn about the actions of Mark Meadows, the president’s chief of staff, whose 2,000-plus text messages provided the committee with a snapshot of the real-time scramble to keep Trump in office; of John Eastman, the conservative law professor who was the architect of the unsuccessful scheme to persuade Pence to halt the certification; and of the Justice Department officials who threatened to resign rather than go along with Trump’s proposals.
The Justice Department has arrested and charged more than 800 people for the violence that day, the biggest dragnet in its history.
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