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Monday, June 17, 2024

The January 6 Insurrection Hearings Are Just Heating Up

The House committee investigating the January 6 attack never promised a quiet summer, but when hearings started a month ago it certainly seemed like it might be a quieter summer. Many of what were anticipated to be the biggest revelations appeared to have leaked before the hearings began, and the six to eight scheduled public sessions, expected to last only about two hours each, seemed to telegraph modest ambitions—especially in comparison to the 1973 Watergate hearings that stretched for 237 hours, or even the far less consequential 2015 Republican-led Benghazi hearings, where Hillary Clinton alone testified publicly for 11 hours.

But then the hearings began, and with them an emotional and tense multimedia roller coaster, exquisitely produced by former ABC News executive James Goldston to mimic a prestige TV series, in which each “episode” reveals deeper twists and turns and ever more corruption and outrage. Representative Liz Cheney and surprise witness Cassidy Hutchinson, an aide to former chief of staff Mark Meadows, emerged as the summer’s biggest breakout TV stars. 

The testimony so far has proven far more compelling, damning, and reputationally damaging to former president Trump than almost anyone imagined. The committee evidently has the goods and understands how to package them for maximum effect. They are now preparing to return from a brief summer break with two more hearings this week, one on Tuesday and a second prime-time hearing on Thursday.

For 18 months, the tick-tock of the Trump administration’s chaotic build to January 6 has trickled out in news reports, documentaries, and government documents, giving the public a sense of the scope of misdeeds and damage to American democracy. But the events had seemed akin to what the country (and the world) lived through during Trump’s four years as president—a disordered and noisy series of imprudent and haphazard pronouncements, ill-considered tweets, hasty policy choices, and reckless bluster.

Now the country can see otherwise: There was a method to Trump’s madness. The events across the 10 weeks from early November to January 6 were far more organized and sinister than previously known.

Most importantly, the evidence of crimes and criminality has proved inescapable.

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In fact, it seems there was a lot of crime in the days and weeks leading up to the riot at the Capitol on January 6—and Trump’s aides seemed to clearly understand that they were headed toward a criminal reckoning. As Hutchinson recounted White House counsel Pat Cipollone telling her, “We’re going to get charged with every crime imaginable if we [let the President go to the Capitol on January 6.]”

Altogether, the committee has painted a far more organized and coherent picture of the administration’s efforts than most imagined existed. The hearings have revealed a seven-part coordinated effort by the Trump White House—and the president personally—to weaponize every public, political, and governmental tool at his disposal to hold on to power in the face of a clear and convincing electoral loss. He and a small cadre of loyal aides tried to undermine the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s victory, encouraged states to overturn valid election results, attempted to install election-doubting loyalists at the Justice Department, and applied consistent pressure to Vice President Mike Pence to step outside his constitutional role and reject the electoral college certification. And then—when literally all else failed—Trump encouraged his supporters to flock to the Capitol and stood by—without taking any action to stop them—while they rampaged through the building and came close to harming Pence and lawmakers.

Trump knew what he was doing, was told by aides repeatedly and broadly that it was wrong, and continued his pressure campaign anyway. January 6 wasn’t a spontaneous riot; it was the final attempt at a coup that had failed at every step until then. And the fact that so many of the participants, from members of Congress to, according to Hutchinson, White House chief Mark Meadows himself, apparently sought presidential pardons for their actions in the Trump administration’s final days makes it clear there was what prosecutors call “mens rea,” a guilty mind. In the 18 months since the events at the Capitol, the Justice Department has brought charges against more than 800 people involved in the riots, including eye-opening charges of “seditious conspiracy” against some of the white nationalist militia members, like the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys, who should figure prominently at this week’s congressional hearings. Precisely none of those yet charged have been within Trump’s inner circle.

That may soon change—and American democracy might very well hinge on whether it does.

While the chair, Representative Bennie Thompson, and vice chair Cheney maintain that their purpose is only to deliver a comprehensive accounting of the events around January 6, the outlines of a whole series of criminal actions are now evident. The technical crimes may feel somewhat obscure—wire fraud, theft of honest services, defrauding the United States, obstruction of justice, obstruction of an official proceeding of Congress—but the fact pattern seems to grow ever more clear. Moreover, the hearing that focused on the White House pressuring elected officials in the state of Georgia brought renewed attention to the possibility that even if the US Justice Department fails to act, state prosecutors might very well decide Donald Trump committed electoral crimes there.

The biggest shift in the national landscape from the January 6 committee, though, seems likely to be ahead of us.

It’s worth remembering too how much the political and factual landscape can change during hearings like this: The biggest revelation of the Watergate hearings—that Nixon had installed a taping system in the White House that would have captured all the key conversations of the conspiracy and cover-up—didn’t emerge until mid-July 1973, weeks into the hearings by Senator Sam Ervin’s Watergate select committee.

Perhaps similarly, there’s a growing sense that the blockbuster nature of the January 6 hearings—and the damaging testimony elicited thus far—is itself compelling further cooperation and testimony. For example, Hutchinson, who had long been represented by a Trump-paid attorney, changed counsel midstream and began cooperating. Friday, Cipollone—who had also resisted testifying—met with committee investigators for nearly eight hours. And the Justice Department announced in a court filing Monday that one of Trump’s attorneys had interviewed with the FBI, as part of Steve Bannon’s related criminal contempt process, testimony that could have wide-ranging implications and itself spur further targets to cooperate. (As part of that filing, the Justice Department rejected Bannon’s weekend public proclamation that he was willing to cooperate with the committee as insincere, saying, “The only thing that has really changed since he refused to comply with the subpoena in October 2021 is that he is finally about to face the consequences of his decision to default.”)

Prosecutors understand this phenomenon well: As evidence of crimes mount, cooperation among the conspirators often spreads. Conspiracies crumble as testimony builds and personal legal and criminal jeopardy rises with it. John Dean, the former White House counsel who originally helped architect the Watergate cover-up before turning states’ witness, became a star witness only after he realized how much—and how clearly—he’d participated in the obstruction of justice.

Other Trump aides seem to be listening to the January 6 hearings and making their own calculations as the committee reconvenes this week. Surely many of them will be uncomfortable with what they hear in the hours and days ahead.

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