Opinion What we learned from the Jan. 6 committee’s powerful case against Trump

U.S. Capitol Police Officer Caroline Edwards and British filmmaker Nick Quested are questioned June 9 by Reps. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.) and Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) of the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection. (Alex Brandon/Pool/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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In arguably the most important congressional hearing since Watergate, the House Jan. 6 select committee conducted its first prime-time proceedings on Thursday into defeated former president Donald Trump’s attempt to overthrow the 2020 election results. It was gripping, shocking and, at times, frightening.

Here are a few of the key takeaways of the committee’s gob-smacking account of the worst betrayal ever by an American president:

1

The seriousness of the insurrection

Committee Chairman Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.) in his opening remarks took time to make a compelling contrast of Trump to Abraham Lincoln, who in the middle of the Civil War was willing to turn over the reins of power if he lost reelection. As Thompson explained, the oath that officeholders must take — to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic” — was a response to the Civil War.

Meanwhile, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) quoted from the opinion of a federal judge warning that if the coup plotters were not investigated and held responsible, an attack on U.S. democracy would happen again. The message was profound and clear: We came frightfully close to losing our democracy — and will again unless we hold Trump accountable.

2

The whole plot

The challenge for the committee is to tell a coherent story of the entire plot and to dispel the myth that the coup attempt was only about the Capitol assault. The committee has so far succeeded. Its initial telling of the far-flung plot — peppered with new, damning tidbits of Trump’s willful pursuit of power — was breathtaking.

Committee members certainly provided a taste of the magnitude of the plot. Jan. 6 was the “culmination of a coup attempt,” said Thompson. Cheney promised to outline Trump’s seven-part plan to overthrow the election. Her calm, methodical presentation previewed the evidence of Trump’s efforts to pressure state officials, concoct phony electors and induce the Justice Department to assist in overturning the election.

Small anecdotes added to the persuasiveness of the account. Cheney described a late-night meeting of former national security adviser Michael Flynn and Trump attorneys Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell to cook up crazy schemes to “rerun the election.” That was the predicate for Trump’s infamous tweet summoning supporters to come to D.C. on Jan. 6. (“Be there, will be wild,” he said.) The clear implication was that Trump was calling the mob to help facilitate the loony plans.

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Finally, the committee offered a sense of how Trump’s public words spurred the mob. His “stand back and stand by” comment to the Proud Boys goosed membership in the far-right organization.

3

The evidence of Trump’s ‘corrupt’ intent

If Trump is ever to be held criminally accountable for the coup attempt, prosecutors will have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he knew what he was doing was wrong and unjustified. Here, the committee demonstrated there may be ample evidence of that.

Trump was repeatedly told his claims of voter fraud were bogus. New video of former attorney general William P. Barr’s testimony to the committee showed that he told Trump his fraud claims were “bulls--t” and “complete nonsense.” In addition, a sample of testimony from other Trump officials showed claims of fraud were repeatedly debunked and ridiculed. Justice Department officials and the White House counsel threatened to quit if Trump persisted in deploying the lie to retain power. Officials told Trump it was illegal to pressure former vice president Mike Pence to throw the election to him.

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In the words of former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows regarding voter fraud, “There is no there, there.” Trump persisted anyway. The array of witnesses who will attest to Trump’s willful disregard of all his aides’ admonition is powerful evidence, previously unknown, that he knew he had no legitimate claim to the presidency.

Other anecdotes solidified the image of a president fixated on remaining in power. Trump reportedly declared of calls to hang Pence: “Maybe our supporters have the right idea. Mike Pence deserves it.” Cheney’s retelling was bone-chilling — an indication of a dangerous character bent on overthrowing an election.

And in failing to lift a finger to stop the mob (he “placed no call to any element of the United States government to instruct the Capitol be defended,” Cheney said), Trump’s corrupt intent was laid bare. The conclusion is obvious: He wanted the violence to play out because he thought it might stop the transfer of power. By contrast, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley testified that Pence urged him to get the National Guard down to the Capitol.

4

The shocking violence on Jan. 6

To this day, Republicans have downplayed or dismissed the extent of the violence on Jan. 6. The committee showed beyond a reasonable doubt that this was not “legitimate political discourse,” as the Republican National Committee described it.

Seeing new video, and hearing audio of desperate police describing the attack, was nothing short of terrifying. The cruelty and lawlessness of the mob are indisputable. Trump’s words insisting that “love was in the air” was a powerful reminder of his capacity to lie.

Testimony from Capitol Police Officer Caroline Edwards, who was abused and injured on that day, made clear that no reasonable person could doubt the crowd’s viciousness and anger. Filmmaker Nick Quested testified that the mob appeared well organized. This was no spontaneous uprising.

5

The cooperation of so many Republicans

Americans must understand that evidence against Trump comes from people who worked for him right up to the bitter end. These lifelong Republicans’ accounts are required to tell the story, and their presence at the hearings via video should dispel the notion that this was all cooked up by Democrats. If the MAGA crowd has a beef with the facts, they will need to take it up with Republican witnesses including Barr, former White House adviser Ivanka Trump, Trump campaign adviser Jason Miller and others.

It was remarkably powerful to hear people who spun and even lied on behalf of Trump soberly tell the truth. Their testimony attesting to the bogus fraud claims, and to the consensus within the White House that Trump’s actions were illegal, was the most effective rebuke imaginable to the “big lie.”

6

Government at its best

Americans have become so accustomed to combative hearings hijacked by MAGA zealots that the committee’s coherent and dignified proceeding serves as a reminder that responsible, sane governance is possible. And Cheney cemented her role as an honorable patriot, a living rebuke to her spineless and deceitful fellow Republicans. She and the entire committee’s diligence help restore our faith in democracy.

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