The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Inside the Jan. 6 committee, key questions remain as hearings loom

The committee is reckoning with how closely to focus on former president Donald Trump

Chairman Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss) and Vice Chair Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) speak at a meeting of the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol attack. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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When the House select committee investigating the Capitol riot of Jan. 6, 2021, gathered for a private retreat last month at the Library of Congress, two members engaged in a spirited debate over a question at the heart of the committee’s work.

One, Democratic Rep. Stephanie Murphy (Fla.), insisted the committee should focus less on former president Donald Trump and do more to examine the security and intelligence failures that led to the breach of the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob. She also urged the committee to look harder at what can be done to prevent another attack, according to people familiar with the matter.

The other member, Republican Vice Chair Liz Cheney (Wyo.), argued that the committee should keep an intense focus on the former president.

“Rep. Cheney’s view is that security at the Capitol is a critical part of the investigation, but the Capitol didn’t attack itself,” said Jeremy Adler, a spokesman for Cheney.

The tense discussion — which played out in a conference room tucked inside the world’s largest library, where members posed for pictures with historic texts such as the Gettysburg Address — reflected just one among numerous weighty questions the committee must resolve before nationally televised hearings kick off next month.

The House Jan. 6 investigation committee has conducted over 1,000 interviews with insurrectionists and Trump aides. Here’s what’s next. (Video: Blair Guild/The Washington Post)

With only weeks to go, panel members are grappling with how to synthesize a complex investigation into a cohesive narrative — and how best to tell the story of what went wrong on Jan. 6 in a way that captivates and moves a hyper-polarized American public.

On a committee dominated by Democrats after Republican House leadership withdrew its cooperation, partisan differences have emerged, though in somewhat unexpected ways.

Cheney, for instance, has proved more aggressive than even some committee Democrats in wanting to go directly after Trump. She has supported subpoenaing members of her own party and aggressively pressuring former Trump aides to cooperate.

In an interview with The Washington Post, Murphy, who arrived at the retreat late from a congressional delegation visit to Poland, denied any daylight between herself and Cheney.

“We need to look at this issue from all angles — inclusive of the role the president played as well as the security of the Capitol on that day,” said Murphy, the lone Democrat on the committee who is not running for reelection and a leader of the centrist Blue Dog Coalition.

But the degree to which the public hearings will focus on the legal significance of the committee’s findings — and the potential criminality of Trump’s actions — remains in question, according to Murphy and others involved with the investigation.

Lawmakers are undecided on whether the committee will ultimately make any criminal referrals and are unlikely to make a decision until after the hearings. They are still debating whether they will try to force Trump or former vice president Mike Pence to answer questions, with members knowing both are unlikely to appear willingly.

Some Democrats have expressed concern that if the public sessions are too prosecutorial and focused on Trump and his orbit, parts of the American electorate won’t listen to the broader story the committee is trying to tell. They worry fights over Trump will make it harder to pass legislative changes they want to the Electoral Count Act, the 1887 law governing the congressional certification process. Members regard the changes as needed protection against any possible future attempt to undermine presidential election results.

“The committee members and staff know the information they have and the challenge is presenting it in the most accessible way,” said a former congressional investigator who, like others interviewed for this report, spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid. “I can’t say whether [the hearings] should be done in prosecutorial style or not but it’s not a prosecution.”

Cheney’s unsparing and legal-minded approach toward Trump and the attack on the Capitol has distinguished her work on the panel. Colleagues say the lawyer by training is the most well-read and prepared lawmaker on the panel. Of the nine members, she has assumed the most aggressive posture toward the former president.

“Cheney has wanted to make sure we keep the focus on Trump and the political effort to overthrow Biden’s majority in the electoral college and to attack the peaceful transfer of power,” a committee member said.

The member said Cheney is not averse to also discussing preventive measures and changes to the law. But Cheney, who has become a top target of Trump’s ire and faces a difficult primary fight against pro-Trump challengers, does not want those issues that have “become a GOP talking point … to distract from the responsibility for what Trump did.”

In an interview with The Post, Trump said he was being told by lawmakers and others with knowledge of the committee that Cheney was the most aggressive member of the panel.

“From what people tell me, from what I hear from other congressmen, she’s like a crazed lunatic, she’s worse than anyone else,” he said. “From what I’ve heard, she’s worse than any Democrat.”

The former president said he viewed Cheney as a bigger opponent than even Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), who served as the lead House manager in the first impeachment trial of Trump. He declined to say whether he would appear before the committee or answer any questions, but repeatedly claimed he had asked for the military to be ready in advance of the deadly attack on the Capitol.

Other panel members say they agree with Cheney’s implacable view of Trump and his role in the Capitol riot. But some have expressed worries about deepening partisan divides during an exercise that is primarily designed to lay out the facts about a day that has become among the American public yet another subject of intense partisan disagreement.

“The most important objective is the battle for the narrative over Jan. 6 and all that came before it and all that has happened after it,” a person close to the committee said.

Investigators are still wrapping up depositions and interviews with witnesses, while figuring out how to handle those who have not complied with the committee’s requests. Lawmakers have been told to brace themselves for a weeks-long sprint to prepare and execute eight hearings that will bring together information gleaned from more than 1,000 interviews and 125,000 records.

Committee Chairman Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.) and Cheney will co-lead the full set of hearings, along with a third lawmaker who will rotate by topic.

Reps. Elaine Luria (D-Va.) and Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), both military veterans, will potentially co-host a hearing focused on law enforcement and the military. And Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), a former constitutional law professor, could lead a hearing focused on domestic extremism.

The hearings will feature a combination of live witnesses and video footage. But it is unclear whether the committee has started asking individuals to participate in any of the sessions. Some possible witnesses whom the committee might consider include Marc Short, a top adviser to Pence; Richard Donoghue, a former senior official in the Justice Department; and Jeffrey Rosen, Trump’s last acting attorney general.

A person close to Rosen and Short say they have not been asked. Donoghue did not respond to a request for comment. All three sat for extensive interviews with the committee and were present during pivotal moments in the lead up to Jan. 6.

A final hearing is expected to take place in September to reveal the committee’s final report, which will outline a full set of findings and recommendations to prevent such an attack from happening again.

The attack: The Jan. 6 siege of the U.S. Capitol was neither a spontaneous act nor an isolated event

Even as the debate continues over a possible criminal referral — which would be a mostly symbolic and political statement carrying no legal requirement — the committee has recently ramped up its rhetoric. In public statements, the committee has started discussing the Jan. 6 attack as the result of a “criminal conspiracy,” indicating a shift in the tone and substance of the investigation.

After Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s former personal lawyer, withdrew from a scheduled committee interview, the committee called Giuliani an “important witness to the conspiracy to overthrow the government.”

Giuliani’s lawyer did not respond to a request for comment.

The Justice Department, which is carrying out its own investigation, has become a source of frustration for many committee members. Lawmakers have vented about an outstanding criminal contempt referral of former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows that Attorney General Merrick Garland has yet to act on. The Justice Department has charged nearly 800 people in connection with the Jan. 6 attack and recently expanded its criminal investigation into the deadly Capitol siege. Garland has repeatedly said his department will follow the facts.

In anticipation of the hearings, the committee is planning to put together a “boiler room” to stand up rapid response operations, according to two people involved with the investigation. The communications arm of the committee has said that it wants to expand press coverage beyond cable news and have members appear on early morning talk shows, local news, Spanish language television and late-night shows.

In some respects, committee members will have precedents to draw on: Trump was impeached twice, including once for his role in fomenting the Jan. 6 riot.

These hearings, however, will be different, with no predetermined objective or culminating vote in either the House or the Senate. (Trump was acquitted by the Senate twice.)

The marquee event of hearing preparations for both Trump impeachment trails were mock hearings in which staffers and others played key witnesses and adversaries to simulate the real hearings, according to those involved with the preparations. That could happen this time, as well.

One person involved with the first impeachment proceeding against Trump said Democrats grappled with a similar debate that the select committee is having now about how far to reach on Trump.

Referring to vulnerable Democrats up for reelection in conservative-leaning districts, the person said that front line Democrats “don’t want to feel like they’re being made to constantly rehash 2016, but rather there’s an actionable and present-day danger.”