The House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 Capitol attack made clear Thursday evening that it intends to connect every provable thread about an “attempted coup” to Donald John Trump.
So determined was then-President Trump to hold on to power after he lost the 2020 presidential election that he ignored reality, disregarded the Constitution and oversaw a conspiracy to stop the peaceful transfer of power — an effort, had it not been thwarted, that would have sent American democracy into chaos.
That description of events, as presented by the committee during a rare prime-time hearing, shows an account of a president motivated by self-preservation — regardless of the costs. As the panel continues to reveal its findings more fully in hearings over coming weeks, it will seek to show that Trump was central to the effort to overturn the election and that Republican allies, including those currently serving in the House, had a role in that enterprise.
Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., said Trump was “at the center” of a conspiracy to overturn the election and remarked that Jan. 6 “was the culmination of an attempted coup.”
Republicans have resisted congressional attempts to examine the facts and circumstances surrounding the Jan. 6, 2021, riot. House Republicans, led by Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, rejected an independent, 9/11-style commission to investigate the attack, which would have required bipartisan buy-in to issue subpoenas and excluded current politicians. They also rallied against the select committee.
Now that the special panel is presenting uncomfortable, captured-on-video truths — for instance, that Trump’s own daughter, Ivanka Trump, and William Barr, the former attorney general, believe Trump lost the election — Republicans will have to grapple with those and other revelations. (Trump posted on his social media site that his daughter was merely “checked out” from her White House position and knew little about election results.) That includes comments from Vice Chair Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., who said the committee intends to show that Republican members sought presidential pardons for their roles in seeking to overturn the election.
The investigation has received cooperation from those who worked closely with the former president, including Barr, who told the panel during a recorded interview that Trump’s election fraud claims were “bullshit.” Those constitute a small portion of more than 1,000 interviews the committee has conducted; it has also collected more than 140,000 documents.
Neil Eggleston, former White House counsel in the Obama administration, said the language Barr used underscored “just how strongly AG Barr felt about it and just how powerfully he wanted to express his view that a claim that there had been sufficient fraud in the election was just completely not true.”
Even after he lost more than 60 cases in state and federal courts to litigate his false campaign claims — and with the knowledge, provided by multiple staff members, that he had lost the election — Trump sought to falsely convince millions of Americans that the election had been corrupted by Democrats.
“By the time of Jan. 6th, the violent cessation of the certification process was all that he had left,” Eggleston said of Trump.
The panel investigating what Cheney described Thursday night as a seven-part plan to keep Trump in office outlined its intention to show the public evidence of that effort — and how the former president was culpable in the deadly attack. Cheney said a federal judge who evaluated the panel’s evidence concluded Trump “likely” violated federal law by pressuring his vice president, Mike Pence, to refuse to count the Electoral College votes. As rioters were chanting for Pence to be hanged, Trump said that “maybe our supporters have the right idea” and that Pence “deserves” it.
“Over multiple months, Donald Trump oversaw and coordinated a sophisticated seven-part plan to overturn the presidential election and prevent the transfer of presidential power. In our hearings, you will see evidence of each element of this plan,” Cheney said.
When he saw the violence erupting at the Capitol on Jan. 6, Trump did not take immediate action to quell the mob, even as police officers were being beaten and overrun trying to defend the building, and gave no order to deploy the National Guard, Cheney said.
Graphic video footage played at the hearing on Thursday showed the violence law enforcement officers faced that day. Caroline Edwards, a Capitol Police officer who was knocked unconscious by the mob, described a “war zone” in which she saw officers “bleeding” and “throwing up.”
“I saw friends with blood all over their faces,” said Edwards, who continued fighting after regaining consciousness. “I was slipping in people’s blood.”
At the end of some of the violent footage, Trump’s voice was overheard from a July 2021 interview with Fox News in which he said the rioters were “peaceful people — these were great people,” remarking that he had never seen anything like the “love in the air” on Jan. 6.
‘Call to arms’
In addition to Trump’s apparent apathy about the violence that occurred, the committee sought to tie his words to encouraging the actions of the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, two far-right groups that led the storming of the Capitol. Members of both groups have been criminally charged for their roles in the riot, some of them with seditious conspiracy.
Marcus Childress, an investigative counsel for the committee, said Trump’s Dec. 19, 2020, tweet was viewed by the extremists as a “call to arms.”
The committee found Trump’s comment at a presidential debate between him and Joe Biden telling the Proud Boys to “stand by” led to a large increase in the group’s membership. Further, on Dec. 19, 2020, Trump tweeted about the Jan. 6 rally, instructing people to come to Washington: “Be there, will be wild!”
“Many of the witnesses that we interviewed were inspired by the president’s call and came to D.C. for Jan. 6. But the extremists, they took it a step further: They viewed this tweet as a call to arms,” Childress said.
As a result of the tweet, the Oath Keepers focused on Jan. 6. Kelly Meggs, president of the Florida chapter of the group, posted on social media on Dec. 22, 2021, that Trump “called us all to Capitol and wants us to make it wild!!!”
On the night of Jan. 5, Stewart Rhodes, founder of the Oath Keepers, and Enrique Tarrio, then-leader of the Proud Boys, met in a parking garage in Washington. The next day, individuals associated with the Proud Boys instigated the initial breach at the Capitol by the Peace Circle at 12:53 p.m., the committee found. Waves of rioters eventually breached the Capitol and ransacked it. Some chanted the name of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a longtime target of criticism by Trump and conservative opinion-makers.
Trump’s GOP allies in Congress, including Pennsylvania Rep. Scott Perry, sought presidential pardons related to their roles in trying to overturn the election, Cheney said. Perry, who thus far has not complied with the panel’s subpoena to testify, called Cheney’s statement that he sought a presidential pardon a “soulless lie.”
The second hearing, slated for June 13 at 10 a.m., will drill down on how Trump’s advisers knew he lost the election and told him so. But despite this, the then-president promulgated false information by claiming it was stolen, an effort that convinced a massive number of Americans of that lie.
The committee is made up of seven Democrats and two Republicans, but no Trump defenders. The collegial, sober way in which the panel approached the first hearing — a straightforward accounting of what happened, and why — reminds Molly Reynolds, a Brookings senior fellow who studies Congress, what an effective hearing can look like.
“For me,” she said, “the biggest overall takeaway is that this is a win for Congress and a display of what Congress can do.”