The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Heroes on Jan. 6, law officers became truth seekers about who was responsible for the Capitol attacks

Capitol Police officer Harry Dunn, left, D.C. police officers Daniel Hodges and Michael Fanone, and Capitol Police Sgt. Aquilino Gonell rise to be sworn in to testify as the House select committee hearing begins on July 27. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)
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The opening day of the House select committee investigation into the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol proved to be as clarifying as it was compelling, with emotionally powerful testimony from four officers who felt the fury of the mob and who called for a full examination of the role that former president Donald Trump played in fomenting the riot.

Republicans have resisted this investigation from the start. They deep-sixed the creation of an independent, 9/11-style commission and have tried to turn the House investigation ordered by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) into one more partisan mud fight. They have tried to shift the focus and to call into question the motives of those supporting the investigation. They threaten to punish as heretics the two members of their own party who are on the select committee.

With their appearance on Tuesday, the four officers swept much of that away. They reminded everyone why the events leading up to and including Jan. 6 demand a thorough and nonpartisan investigation, not the pettiness that has marked the run-up to Tuesday. As important, in their individual ways, the officers were demanding that those responsible be held accountable.

Their testimony provided clear marching orders for the committee: to find out what happened, how and why it happened and, not incidentally, what Trump and those close to him did to offer aid, comfort, organizational support and encouragement to the mob.

The four who testified — D.C. police officers Daniel Hodges and Michael Fanone and Capitol Police officer Harry Dunn and Sgt. Aquilino Gonell — were rightly hailed by committee members as heroes, along with the others who defended the Capitol against thousands of Trump loyalists.

The outlines of their stories were known, but over the course of nearly four hours, they brought home the horrors of what it was like to be in the thick of the battle, at times fighting for their lives amid threats of death, racial slurs and insults and accusations that they, not the attackers, were traitors to democracy.

Gonell described the fury as being like a medieval battlefield, with officers engaged in hand-to-hand combat and the attackers armed with flagpoles, clubs, hockey sticks, bear spray and other crude weapons.

The defense of the Capitol that day was in fact a defense of democracy at a perilous moment when a defeated president sought to disrupt the constitutionally mandated tallying of the electoral vote and the final ratification of President Biden’s victory. The attack followed months of false accusations (which continue today) by Trump that the election had been rigged or stolen or rife with fraud. When democracy was threatened, law enforcement held the line and allowed the elected officials to finish their work.

Now Republicans want to ignore what happened, or worse, to muddy the truth with more false claims about who were the patriots and who were not. They don’t want to know more. They want to forget history. The four officers who testified on Tuesday showed the folly of that thinking. In their descriptions, they provided reasons the investigation is worth the time and money and, yes, the political battling that will accompany it.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) would like to make the investigation about the House speaker — what did she know and when, and why was the Capitol vulnerable to attack? Questions about the security of the Capitol are legitimate, as are questions about the interaction of various law enforcement agencies and the Pentagon response as the mob breached the Capitol and questions about any intelligence breakdowns.

These questions have been asked and partially answered by investigations that already have taken place. But no investigation so far has taken on the more sprawling mandate that includes the role of Trump, his loyalists, his inner circle and any other elected officials who may have been party to what happened that day.

It was Officer Dunn, in the closing moments of the day, after Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.), the committee chair, had asked the officers what questions they wanted answered, who put it most bluntly. Someone, he said, had hired a hit man. The hit man was the mob that attacked him and his fellow officers. He wanted to know who hired the hit man. “I want to get to the bottom of that,” he said.

Hodges said the committee can do what he and his fellow officers cannot. “I need you guys to address if anyone in power had a role in this, if anyone in power coordinated or aided and abetted or tried to downplay, tried to prevent the investigation of this terrorist attack, because we can’t do it.”

Republican Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.), a committee member who condemned Trump immediately after the attack and who later voted to impeach him for what happened that day, has never shrunk from this kind of investigation. Her goal, as she stated Tuesday, is for the committee to try to account for “what happened every minute of that day in the White House — every phone call, every conversation, every meeting leading up to, during and after the attack.” Among those in contact with Trump that day was McCarthy, reportedly pleading to an indifferent president to try to call off the rioters. He has never told his story.

The committee also will seek to discover what happened before that day — the planning that brought Trump supporters to the Ellipse for a rally where he exhorted the crowd even as some of his loyalists were already marching on the Capitol. Testimony will be sought from reluctant witnesses, including those closest to the president. On Tuesday, the Justice Department said that those officials are free to testify and that there will be no use of executive privilege to shield them.

The process ahead will be slow and laborious. Subpoenas will be issued and resisted. Partisanship outside the committee’s inner workings will continue to affect the climate surrounding the investigation and, no doubt, how its findings are received.

There is no way to tamp all that down. But the officers brought things back to basics on Tuesday with their testimony about what it was like in that moment and since, but more importantly with the questions they see as most vital to be answered. Heroes on Jan. 6, they served as truth seekers on July 27.

In her opening statement, Cheney put the stakes for the nation this way: “Will we adhere to the rule of law? Will we respect the rulings of our courts? Will we preserve the peaceful transition of power? Or will we be so blinded by partisanship that we throw away the miracle of America? Do we hate our political adversaries more than we love our country and revere our Constitution?”

Thanks to all the officers who defended the Capitol and the four who bore witness on Tuesday, those questions have been pushed back into the forefront and now await the committee’s work and ultimate findings.

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