The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Jan. 6 committee uses video, testimony to tell tale of the insurrection

The presentation was carefully calibrated to tell a story — one infused with as much patriotism, action, tension and heroism as the American public might find this side of ‘Top Gun: Maverick’

The House select committee held its first prime-time session on June 9 after spending nearly a year investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. (Video: Mahlia Posey/The Washington Post, Photo: Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

It began with callbacks to the darkest days of American history — to redcoats sacking a young nation’s capital and a legacy of racist violence it has long struggled to overcome. It continued with solemn reverence for the constitutional order under which the nation has persevered — for the rule of law and for oaths, both kept and unkept. And it reached a jarring climax in an 11-minute video montage of violent marauders attacking the temple of that democracy, sending police officers flailing and lawmakers fleeing as the disembodied voice of a president played over it.

“They were peaceful people. These were great people,” President Donald Trump said. “The love in the air — I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Thursday’s prime-time congressional hearing — the first from the select House committee established to investigate the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol — was like none Capitol Hill had ever seen. Far from a dry examination of established facts or a bare-knuckle partisan throwdown, the presentation Thursday was carefully calibrated to tell a story — one infused with as much patriotism, action, tension and heroism as the American public might find this side of “Top Gun: Maverick.”

The story was told in the Delta drawl of Chairman Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.), who described in surgical terms how Trump “spurred a mob of domestic enemies of the Constitution to march down the Capitol and subvert American democracy,” and in the no-nonsense deadpan of Vice Chairwoman Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), who let no responsible party unscathed, least of all her fellow Republicans.

“There will come a day when Donald Trump is gone. But your dishonor will remain,” she said.

There was no instant rebuttal Thursday night, no counterprogramming inside the room — a fact that was largely the making of Republicans. The select panel was established last year after GOP leaders opted to reject a bipartisan commission to investigate the Jan. 6 attack, and then, after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) moved to strike some Republican appointees to the special committee, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) opted to pull out entirely.

So while most congressional hearings on sharply partisan matters give viewers competing arguments on the matter at hand, Thompson, Cheney and their fellow panel members were free to weave a seamless narrative, unpunctuated by hostile voices.

That narrative featured a succession of special guests: characters in the saga that began in the hours after Trump’s 2020 presidential election loss who played varied roles in the losing president’s attempts to wring victory out of defeat. Some were cast as heroes, others villains.

Cast as Cassandra, former attorney general William P. Barr made an early appearance — seen by video during Thompson’s opening statement delivering a frank assessment of Trump’s quest to overturn his loss.

“I made it clear I did not agree with the idea of saying the election was stolen … which I told the president was bullshit,” he said.

In footage shared during the Jan. 6 committee hearing on June 9, former attorney general William Barr said that he did not believe the election was stolen. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

There was Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, heard on tape dismissively recalling a conversation in which White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows pushed him to intervene in the brewing crisis: “Politics, politics, politics — red flag.” Later on came presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner, seen in newly released deposition footage summing up his attitude toward White House Counsel Pat Cipollone’s repeated threats to resign: “I kind of took it up to just be whining, to be honest with you.”

And then there was the voice of Stephen K. Bannon, Trump’s former strategist and off-and-on Svengali, as heard on his podcast on Jan. 5, 2021: “All hell is going to break loose tomorrow. Just understand this. All hell is going to break loose tomorrow.”

A video from the Jan. 6 hearing on June 9 used multiple sources, including security and body camera footage, to walk viewers through the attack on the Capitol. (Video: The Washington Post)

The 11-minute video was nakedly cinematic, beginning with the foreshadowing of a lone protester caught on video that morning near the Washington Monument: “I am not allowed to say what’s going to happen today because everyone’s just going to have to watch for themselves right now. But it’s going to happen.”

Trump’s words from the Ellipse, exhorting his followers to action, are heard echoing across the Mall as Proud Boys and Oath Keepers go on the march: “You’ll never take back our country with weakness.”

Cameras mounted high on the Capitol Rotunda captured the horde breaking through police lines and rampaging to the building. Chants of “Hang Mike Pence” were juxtaposed with an image of the model gallows that had been erected on the East Front.

A Capitol Police officer is heard erupting in panic: “Too many people,” he cried. Inside, staffers flee McCarthy’s office while rioters down the hall pour into Pelosi’s office with a menacing mantra: “Nancy! Nancy! Nancy! Nancy!”

After the montage, and an intermission, came a star turn. Capitol Police officer Caroline Edwards recounted her harrowing experience on Jan. 6 as one of the first officers overrun on the Capitol’s West Front.

As the crowd grew hostile, she sounded a radio warning to a supervisor that could have come out of a movie script: “I said, Sarge, I think we’re going to need a few more people down here.”

Her perfectly composed appearance Thursday stood in devastating contrast to video shown moments later, of a rioter savagely flinging her into a concrete staircase and knocking her unconscious.

Edwards described coming to, getting up and rejoining the fight, later finding herself behind a battle line watching a “war scene” unfold.

“I was slipping in people’s blood," she said. "It was carnage. It was chaos.”

Capitol Police officer Caroline Edwards testified on June 9 that Officer Brian Sicknick fought the pro-Trump mob alongside her before being injured. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

Thompson and Cheney cited other acts of heroism: The Justice Department officials who pushed back on Trump’s plot. Vice President Mike Pence and aides who held fast to their oath amid fierce pressure. And the soldiers who poured into Washington in the aftermath of the attack, taking up garrison inside the breached Capitol grounds.

Some rested beneath paintings inside the Capitol depicting early scenes of American democracy — including John Trumbull’s famous portrait of George Washington resigning his commission, Cheney said, “voluntarily relinquishing power, handing control of the Continental Army back to Congress.”

“With this noble act, Washington set the indispensable example of the peaceful transfer of power,” she said. “The sacred obligation to defend this peaceful transfer of power has been honored by every American president except one.”

To create a compelling televised presentation, the committee engaged James Goldston, a former president of ABC News. Some of the more chilling moments inside the room, however, were not on camera.

The video montage brought former and current U.S. Capitol Police officers, as well as the widow and partner of two fallen officers, to tears. Eyes widened, and mouths went agape when Cheney cued videos of the private testimony from Kushner and his wife, Ivanka Trump — family members of the former president who have tried to separate themselves from the deadly Capitol assault.

Like all great yarns, Thursday’s hearing was left with a cliffhanger. Cheney laid out the series of hearings yet to come — each recounting, step by step, piece by piece, each element of the plot to steal the 2020 election and its awful, violent aftermath.

And even that, Cheney pledged, would not necessarily be the end. “Keep two points in mind,” she told Americans watching: The House investigation is ongoing, and so is the Justice Department’s criminal probe.

Jacqueline Alemany contributed to this report.

The Jan. 6 insurrection

Congressional hearings: The House committee investigating the attack on the U.S. Capitol held a series of high-profile hearings to share its findings with the U.S. public. What was likely to be the panel’s final public hearing has been postponed because of Hurricane Ian. Here’s a guide to the biggest hearing moments so far.

Will there be charges? The committee could make criminal referrals of former president Donald Trump over his role in the attack, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) said in an interview.

What we know about what Trump did on Jan. 6: New details emerged when Hutchinson testified before the committee and shared what she saw and heard on Jan. 6.

The riot: On Jan. 6, 2021, a pro-Trump mob stormed the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to stop the certification of the 2020 election results. Five people died on that day or in the immediate aftermath, and 140 police officers were assaulted.

Inside the siege: During the rampage, rioters came perilously close to penetrating the inner sanctums of the building while lawmakers were still there, including former vice president Mike Pence. The Washington Post examined text messages, photos and videos to create a video timeline of what happened on Jan. 6.

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