The Jan. 6 committee unveils its work: Will America listen?

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Television crews and technicians prepare the Cannon Caucus Room for the hearing by the House select committee investigating the attack of Jan. 6, 2021, at the Capitol in Washington, June 7, 2022.
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The Jan. 6 select committee will open a series of highly anticipated hearings tonight, based on more than 1,000 interviews and 140,000 documents they’ve gathered over the past year. The goal: to establish a definitive narrative of what happened on Jan. 6, and make sure it never happens again.

Some argue that a blow-by-blow account of the events of Jan. 6 is not what’s needed going forward to protect American democracy, but rather an understanding of the motivations and future activities of those behind the events. And a considerable swath of the American people likely won’t be tuning in; Fox News is not even televising it. Which raises a question: How widely will this effort resonate throughout the country?

Why We Wrote This

Can facts save the nation? A yearlong effort to establish what happened on Jan. 6 may be marred by the same distrust and partisan blind spots that led to the Capitol riot in the first place.

Only two committee members are Republicans and none are Trump supporters. Democrats say that’s because Republicans blocked a bill to create a more bipartisan commission of experts. The GOP blames their colleagues for being unwilling to broaden their scope beyond a politically advantageous framework.

The truth shouldn’t be a partisan matter, said Capitol Police Officer Harry Dunn on the sidelines of a committee meeting this spring.
“Everybody has a duty to do,” he says. “We did ours. Time for you to do yours.”

After nearly a year of preparation, the Jan. 6 committee is ready for prime time.

The cast includes seven Democrats and two Republicans who, with the help of a former TV producer, have shaped a script based on more than 1,000 interviews and 140,000 documents. 

Their goal: to establish an irrefutable narrative, based on reams of new evidence, that there was a coordinated attempt to overturn the 2020 election and stop the transfer of power from Donald Trump to Joe Biden – and that the former president himself was at the center of it. They will also make the case that the danger is not over. 

Why We Wrote This

Can facts save the nation? A yearlong effort to establish what happened on Jan. 6 may be marred by the same distrust and partisan blind spots that led to the Capitol riot in the first place.

The select committee will lay out “a clear indication of ongoing threats to American democracy,” a committee aide told reporters Wednesday. 

But a considerable swath of the American people likely won’t be tuning in. Fox News has decided not to air the prime-time hearing tonight, the first in a highly anticipated series. Which raises a question: How widely will this effort resonate throughout the country?

If the committee has concluded that many Trump supporters aren’t reachable, they may be right; some two-thirds of Republican voters believe the 2020 election was stolen, and nearly half blame the Capitol riot on left-wing protesters trying to make Trump supporters look bad, despite the ample evidence to the contrary. 

Some argue that a blow-by-blow account of the events of Jan. 6 is actually not what’s needed going forward to protect American democracy. “If you think you can find the magic moment that will finally discredit Donald Trump in the eyes of the electorate, you haven’t been paying attention over the last six years,” wrote New York Times columnist David Brooks on the eve of the hearings, arguing that it’s more vital to shed light on the motivations of millions of Americans who still believe the election was stolen and how they may act going forward.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File
Chairman Bennie Thompson, Democrat of Mississippi, and Vice Chair Liz Cheney, Republican of Wyoming, of the House panel investigating the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol insurrection, testify before the House Rules Committee seeking contempt of Congress charges against former President Donald Trump's White House chief of staff Mark Meadows for not complying with a subpoena, at the Capitol in Washington, Dec. 14, 2021.

When asked whether the committee is taking steps to try to win over people who don’t share its view of Jan. 6, Democratic committee member Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland said in a phone interview that he and his colleagues are simply focused on laying out the facts.  

“Everyone who watches our hearings and reads our report will have to form his or her own judgments about what to do about these events,” says Representative Raskin, a constitutional lawyer who managed the second Trump impeachment hearings. “But the events themselves actually happened.”

Why efforts to form a commission of experts failed

One of the challenges the committee faces is a perception on the right that its work is tinged with a partisan agenda heading into the 2022 midterms – in part because only two members are Republicans and none are Trump supporters. Democrats say that’s because Republicans blocked a bill to create a more bipartisan commission of experts; Republicans say Democrats were unwilling to broaden their scope beyond a politically advantageous framework. 

Initially, many expressed support for a national commission akin to the one formed to investigate 9/11, with congressional leaders from both parties appointing an equal number of members, drawn from fields ranging from law enforcement to civil liberties. But Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who at first said Mr. Trump bore responsibility for the Capitol attack but changed his tune after visiting the former president at Mar-a-Lago in Florida, ultimately came out against the bill. He said it would be duplicative and counterproductive. Although the bill passed the House with the support of 35 Republicans who broke ranks, it was blocked by Senate Republicans. 

A key sticking point for many GOP lawmakers was the double standard they saw around the racial justice protests of the summer of 2020, some of which targeted police stations and federal buildings. While more than 90% of the demonstrations were peaceful, at least nine people died and more than 2,000 police officers were injured in connection with those protests, which also resulted in an estimated $1 billion to $2 billion in property damage.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, of Calif., center, speaks during a news conference on the House Jan. 6 Committee with members of the GOP leadership, Thursday, June 9, 2022, on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Although a bipartisan group of researchers found growing support on both the left and right for political violence, Democrats point out that the toll has been lopsided; from 1994 to 2020, there were 15 times more deaths in the U.S. from right-wing extremists than from left-wing ones, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

And they say what happened on Jan. 6 was a unique attack on a central function of American democracy that merits its own investigation. Three protesters died in connection with the attack, including one person shot by Capitol Police. Capitol Police officers paid a heavy price: About 150 police officers were injured in the riot and five have since died, including four by suicide. A bipartisan Senate report described what they endured as ”absolutely brutal” physical abuse. The Capitol building suffered an estimated $1.5 million worth of damage from the attack, according to the architect of the Capitol.

How the members of the select committee were picked

After the bill for a 9/11-style commission failed, House Democrats passed a resolution to form a Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol. It would be made up of 13 lawmakers who would “investigate the facts, circumstances, and causes relating to the domestic terrorist attack on the Capitol,” and produce a report with legislative recommendations. Five of the 13 lawmakers were to be picked in consultation with GOP leadership.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi appointed six Democrats plus GOP Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming. Then Minority Leader McCarthy put forth his five members – three of whom had voted to challenge the electoral results of two key swing states on Jan. 6. Ms. Pelosi promptly vetoed two of them, saying they would compromise the integrity of the investigation. 

In response, Mr. McCarthy pulled all five members. Ms. Pelosi then added Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois to the panel, resulting in a commission of nine: seven Democrats, including the managers of the two Trump impeachment hearings, and two Republicans who had voted to impeach former President Trump for inciting Jan. 6.  

J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi announces her appointments to a select committee to investigate the attack on Jan. 6, 2021, at the Capitol, including from left, Democratic Reps. Adam Schiff, Zoe Lofgren, and Bennie Thompson, who will lead the panel, on Capitol Hill in Washington, July 1, 2021.

Representative Raskin says their work has been refreshingly free of partisanship. “While every other committee I serve on is constantly engaged in partisan polemics and insults, this is one committee which is actually laser-focused on just the work product,” he says. 

But critics on the right see it as stacked against Mr. Trump. The speaker’s inclusion of Representative Cheney in her initial slate of members was a politically calculated move, not an olive branch, they say. “Nancy Pelosi didn’t do that to be nice,” says former Rep. Barbara Cubin of Wyoming. 

GOP lawmakers also accuse the committee of ignoring questions about Capitol security weaknesses. In a press conference Thursday, GOP Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana – one of the two members whom Speaker Pelosi vetoed – called the committee “a fraud” and listed more than half a dozen questions he said were vital to answer regarding why officers were unprepared and underequipped, saying an ad hoc group of Republicans would publish a report in the coming weeks.

“Everybody has a duty to do”

Thursday night’s hearing will serve as an opening statement – laying out what the committee has found so far. It will include testimony about the involvement of militia members in that day’s violence, and will feature two live witnesses: Capitol Police Officer Caroline Edwards and documentary filmmaker Nick Quested, as well as video clips that have not been publicly shared before. 

On a background call with reporters Wednesday, aides were tight-lipped about what other evidence or witnesses would be put forward in the coming weeks, and what themes they would address. Their goal, they said, was to provide the American people with answers about Jan. 6 and make legislative recommendations to make sure nothing like it ever happens again. 

They emphasized that the vast majority of the witnesses they sought out have cooperated voluntarily, and even those subpoenaed have largely complied – though a few high-profile ones, including former Trump administration officials Steve Bannon and Peter Navarro, have not. The Department of Justice has indicted both for criminal contempt of Congress.

Two Capitol Police officers who spent hours fending off violent protesters and were witnesses at the committee’s first hearing last summer say they applaud the committee for trying to get to the truth.

“On Jan. 6, we were protecting the Capitol. What Liz Cheney is doing is the same thing,” says Sgt. Aquilino Gonnell, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic who says he still holds true the ideals of America despite the pain of hearing GOP lawmakers downplay the violence of that day. 

“Everybody has a duty to do,” agrees Officer Harry Dunn, who says the truth shouldn’t be a partisan matter. “We did ours. Time for you to do yours.” 

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