The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Finally, the dam is breaking against Trump

Flanked by Reps. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), left, and Elaine Luria (D-Va.), Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) presides over Thursday's hearing of the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection. (Tom Brenner for the Washington Post)

During Thursday’s prime-time session, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) summed up the explosive impact of this summer’s hearings by the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection.

“The dam,” she declared, “has begun to break.”

Cheney, the committee’s vice chair, was speaking largely of new investigative opportunities that a parade of witnesses has opened into President Donald Trump’s illicit effort to maintain power. But her statement had much broader implications.

The Jan. 6 committee has fundamentally altered public perceptions of Trump’s role in the violence at the Capitol.

Analysis: It's not only what Trump didn't do on Jan. 6. It's also what he did do.

It has increased the likelihood that he will be prosecuted for his efforts — from Election Day to Jan. 7, 2021 — to overthrow the outcome of a free election. It has made the attack on our democracy a central issue in this fall’s midterm elections, and will keep it there with the September hearings the committee announced.

It has also weakened Trump’s political position, within his party and with the broader electorate.

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The committee lived up to the promise made at the outset by Chairman Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.) that its evidence would demonstrate that the Jan. 6 attack was the “culmination of an attempted coup,” not the work of an out-of-control crowd. The riot was of a piece with Trump’s creation of slates of fake electors, pressure on GOP legislatures to throw out valid election results and even a request to a Republican election official in Georgia to “find” votes for him that didn’t exist.

Eugene Robinson: Trump's behavior on Jan. 6 was worse than you thought. Much worse.

Trump harbored hopes that the mayhem would block or delay Congress’s certification of his defeat, as Thursday’s hearing made clear. He was prepared to endanger the life of his vice president, Mike Pence, for refusing to act illegally in obstructing Joe Biden’s victory. Against the counsel of aides and family members, Trump let the criminal assault — by a horde he knew was armed — continue for hours. He did not (grudgingly) call off the invaders until it was clear his stratagem had failed.

The committee’s presentation also showed that Republican politicians could pay a significant long-term price for staying loyal to Trump.

Trump’s mastery of the Republican Party has been underscored by the reluctance of leaders who denounced him immediately after Jan. 6 to press the matter any further. They either resigned themselves to his power in the party and fell silent or, in the case of House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and so many of his colleagues, reverted to pro-Trump sycophancy.

Alexandra Petri: More outtakes from Trump's Jan. 7 speech

So it must have been very satisfying for Cheney and Rep. Adam Kinzinger, the Illinois Republican who co-led Thursday’s hearing with Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va.), to show footage of McCarthy denouncing Trump shortly after the attack. Since then, McCarthy has led the internal party persecution of Cheney and Kinzinger for continuing to insist upon a truth that McCarthy himself once acknowledged.

The committee also called the bluff of the GOP’s Ivy League Fake Populist Caucus. After showing a photo of Sen. Josh Hawley (Republican of Missouri and Yale Law School) going into the Capitol with a fist raised in solidarity with the pro-Trump mob, they ran video of him fleeing in terror as the violent crowd surged through the hallways.

Trump still has a hold on his party, and many of his election-denying candidates have prevailed in primaries. But recent polling in Michigan, New Hampshire and nationwide suggests that a large share of Republicans are searching for 2024 alternatives, growing weary of Trump and becoming exhausted by his refusal to let go of his 2020 election defeat. Footage of the taping of a Trump speech on Jan. 7 that captured his refusal to say “the election is over” brought home how lies about 2020 are now the heart of his political message.

By systematically calling on Republicans, including his former aides (not “his political enemies,” Cheney pointed out), to describe what Sarah Matthews, Trump’s former deputy press secretary, called his “indefensible” behavior, the committee sought to reach beyond a Democratic Party base that already despises the former president.

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This, along with the committee’s commitment to hold more hearings this fall, is a message to the roughly one-fifth of Republicans who have an unfavorable view of Trump as well as independent voters: The imperative this year is to defeat GOP politicians who refuse to face up to Trump’s crimes against democracy.

The word “crimes” is key to the other major effect of the committee’s work: If the Justice Department might once have worried that prosecuting Trump would appear “political,” it now has reason to be far more concerned about the message it would send if it fails to investigate and indict a former president so eager to trample the law and to welcome violence.

The committee’s task was to ensure that Trump is held accountable — morally, politically and legally. On all these fronts, the dam really has broken.

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.