The chairman of the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 Capitol breach and Donald Trump’s alleged role in it opened Thursday’s prime-time hearing declaring that a series of election falsehoods led to the attack and put “two and a half centuries of constitutional democracy at risk.”
Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., said “the world is watching” the U.S. response to the panel’s yearlong investigation into the Capitol riot and the extraordinary effort by many protesters on that day in 2021 to stop Congress from certifying Joe Biden’s election victory over former President Trump.
“America has long been expected to be a shining city on a hill. A beacon of hope and freedom,” Thompson said. “How can we play that role when our own house is in such disorder? We must confront the truth with candor, resolve and determination.”
The committee was presenting what it billed as never-before-seen video and a mass of other evidence, aiming to show the “harrowing story” of the violence that day. It has also been trying to gain traction with the narrative that Trump, the defeated president, tried to overturn Biden’s election victory. (Recent polls on prospective candidates for 2024 suggest Trump’s popularity, and supporters’ confidence in his leadership, remain undiminished despite the long-running investigation.)
There was no plan for any cross-examination or contradictory testimony, circumstances that drew the ire of many who say the entire inquiry is a partisan exercise rather than any sort of quest for truth.
Certain to rankle many, for instance, was co-chair Liz Cheney’s insistence that Trump “did not condemn the attack.”
In fact, in a 62-second video on Twitter from what appeared to be the Rose Garden, he had this to say as the breach was unfolding: “I know your pain. I know you’re hurt. We had an election that was stolen from us. It was a landslide election. … But you have to go home now. We have to have peace. We have to have law and order. We have to respect our great people in law and order. We don’t want anybody hurt.”
A week later, Trump condemned the violence even more directly in another tweet: “”It angered and appalled millions of Americans across the political spectrum. I want to be very clear — I unequivocally condemn the violence that we saw last week.”
With such contradictions in mind, Trump and allies have dismissed the inquiry and Thursday’s hearing as a politically biased smear aimed at savaging the ex-president in particular and spoiling his potential bid to run again in 2024.
In his latest comments, Trump preemptively slammed the investigation anew hours before the public hearing, declaring on social media that Jan. 6 “represented the greatest movement in the history of our country.”
Onetime Trump attorney general Matt Whitaker told Newsmax Thursday night, during its live coverage of the hearing, that the highly publicized public event amounted to campaign fundraising for Dems.
He said: “This is not the system working. This is the Democrats trying to score political points to curry their favor.”
Witnesses and Evidence
Thursday night’s hearing offered up eyewitness testimony from the first police officer pummeled in the riot, and from a documentary filmmaker who tracked the extremist Proud Boys while the breach unfolded.
The hearing also featured accounts from Trump aides and family members, interviewed behind closed doors.
Among those in the audience: several current and former police officers who fought the crowd of protesters at the Capitol, and lawmakers who were trapped together in the House gallery during the siege.
“We want to remind people, we were there, we saw what happened,” said Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn. “We know how close we came to the first non-peaceful transition of power in this country.”
The committee chairman, civil rights leader Thompson, opened the hearing with a sweep of American history saying he heard in those denying the reality of Jan. 6 his own experience growing up in a time and place “where people justified the action of slavery, the Ku Klux Klan and lynching.”
In the weeks ahead, the panel is expected to detail what it has characterized as a public “Stop the Steal” campaign by Trump and private pressure he’s been accused of putting on the Justice Department to reverse his election loss over allegations of widespread, systemic election fraud.
Panel’s Problematic History
The panel faced obstacles from its start. There was, for instance, no consensus on the formation of an independent body that could have investigated the Jan. 6 assault the way the 9/11 Commission probed the 2001 terror attack.
Instead, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., ushered the creation of the 1/6 panel through Congress over the objections of Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell. She rejected Republican-appointed lawmakers who had voted on Jan. 6 against certifying the election results, eventually naming seven Democrats and two Republicans — both of whom have been derided by GOP supporters as Republicans “in name only.”
The 1/6 panel’s findings aim to show that America’s tradition of a peaceful transfer of presidential power came close to slipping away.
Biden, in Los Angeles for the Summit of the Americas, said many viewers were “going to be seeing for the first time a lot of the detail that occurred.”
“I think it was a clear, flagrant violation of the Constitution,” he said.
The result of the coming weeks of public hearings may not change hearts or minds in politically polarized America. But the committee’s investigation with 1,000 interviews is intended to stand as a public record for history, its proponents insist, waving off claims of partisanship. A final report aims to provide an accounting of the most violent attack on the Capitol since the British set fire to it in 1814, and to ensure such an attack never happens again.
The riot left more than 100 police officers injured, many beaten and bloodied, as the crowd of rioters, some armed with pipes, bats and bear spray, charged into the Capitol. At least nine people who were there died during and after the rioting, including a woman, Ashli Babbitt, who was shot and killed by police.
Her husband, appearing on Newsmax Thursday night, said he had no interest in watching the hearing and would likely “watch my grass grow” instead.
“Every time something big [about] Jan. 6 pops up, I can count on two things: Complete BS from the left and then Ashli trends on Twitter,” the widower told host Greg Kelly minutes before the public hearing opened.
Newsmax staff contributed to this report.