The open hearing last week of the committee investigating the January 6 coup attempt plunged viewers back into the brutality and terror of that day. The committee featured footage of insurrectionists beating the law-enforcement officers who attempted to stop them from entering the Capitol, material disturbing enough that YouTube later labeled video of the hearing as “inappropriate for some users.” Caroline Edwards, a Capitol Police officer who testified about her injuries at the hands of the rioters, described “slipping in people’s blood.” Within the chamber, lawmakers who had escaped the violence watched the proceedings with tears in their eyes.
The second hearing, yesterday morning, was free from portrayals of violence but no less gripping. Using a combination of live witnesses and video footage from taped depositions, committee members walked through the evidence that President Donald Trump and his campaign knew the Big Lie about election fraud to be exactly that—yet continued to pursue these claims of a stolen election in the run-up to the insurrection. The overall impression was, as Trump’s own attorney general William Barr commented, of a man “detached from reality” and willing to use violence to bring his chosen reality into existence.
This is an ugly picture—one sketched with urgency and skill by the committee, in a format that doesn’t usually lend itself to such storytelling. Yet even before the hearings began last Thursday, the press had already begun warning that the committee’s slate of planned hearings would likely matter little. Previewing the proceedings earlier that week, The Washington Post reported that “Democrats aren’t counting on Jan. 6 committee hearings to help them with voters” in the upcoming midterm elections.
Democratic leaders may well be right about this. But regardless of whether the hearings help save the party from a wipeout in the midterms, the committee’s first two sessions have already made a powerful case for why this investigation matters. And there is every reason to think that the committee will continue to build that case in the subsequent hearings planned over the course of this week and next. The terror and violence of the riot, and the former president’s role in goading them on, demanded a political and a moral response—and Congress is providing it. In doing so, the committee is also demonstrating that it has learned some lessons from the failure throughout years of cascading scandals—beginning with the Mueller investigation—to attempt to bring about lasting accountability for Trump.
The revelations of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election interference in 2016 are, by now, a pandemic, an insurrection, and two impeachments ago. But there is a through line in the abuses Mueller uncovered in his report and Trump’s efforts to upend the peaceful transition of power in 2021. The president-to-be (and later president) sought to achieve and then hold on to authority by any means necessary. He tried to use that same authority to punish whoever defied him, demanding investigations of Hillary Clinton as the Mueller effort progressed and, years later, refusing to call off the rioters from their attack on the Capitol. Both scandals made abundantly clear that this was a man unfit to hold power.
The excitement that suffused coverage of the Mueller investigation, though, is a long way from the exhaustion and cynicism with which pundits initially greeted the January 6 hearings. “If you think you can find the magic moment that will finally discredit Donald Trump in the eyes of the electorate, you haven’t been paying attention over the last six years,” scoffed the New York Times columnist David Brooks before the hearings began. Compare this to the cheer after the special counsel’s appointment, when entrepreneurs sold T-shirts, beer koozies, and bobbleheads emblazoned with the slogan It’s Mueller Time—a statement of optimism that even made it into a New Yorker headline after news broke that the eponymous attorney had delivered his final report to the Justice Department. It’s hard to imagine anyone hawking gear like that around the January 6 investigation.
Partly this has to do with the brutality of the event itself, but it also speaks to the lasting disappointment of the lackluster response to the Mueller report on the part of the political class. The document was a damning chronicle of abuses by Trump and his campaign, yet the Democratic-led House of Representatives floundered when it came time to impeach the president on that basis. Then, when news of Trump’s extortion of the Ukrainian president forced the House’s hand into impeachment on separate grounds, the president escaped conviction in the Senate—a feat he repeated when the attack on the Capitol led to his unprecedented second impeachment. Given how much bad behavior on Trump’s part Republicans have forgiven and even embraced, perhaps pundits’ cynicism is warranted.
Democratic leadership in the House responded to the Mueller report with waffling, and to the Ukraine scandal with all the enthusiasm of the last person left holding the hot potato. The second impeachment, meanwhile, was self-consciously a pragmatic rather than a moral calculation: The chief thing motivating the House was not to condemn Trump’s role in the insurrection but to wield the threat of removal from office as a way to limit the amount of damage he could do on his way out the door. Once both impeachments began, though, the House representatives trying the case in the Senate showed a real commitment to their mission in the face of hopeless odds, and a dedication to telling the public the story of what had happened.
So far, the select committee has made itself a natural heir to those efforts. This time, members’ dedication to investigating January 6 and explaining the insurrection to a distracted public has remained admirably clear from the very beginning. On the opening day of the hearings, committee chair Bennie Thompson drew a straight line from the South’s secession in 1860 to the threat to democracy reflected by the Capitol riot: The current crisis, the implication ran, represents as great a danger and a moral urgency as did the Civil War. At the closure of her own remarks, vice chair Liz Cheney—the committee’s lead Republican—said to fellow members of her party still defending the president, “There will come a day when Donald Trump is gone, but your dishonor will remain.” She went on, “I ask all of our fellow Americans, as you watch our hearings over the coming weeks, please remember what’s at stake.”
Ignoring what happened on January 6, in the committee’s telling, would be an abdication of profound duty. “We must confront the truth with candor, resolve, and determination,” Thompson said, arguing that “when the dangers to our Constitution and our democracy loom large, nothing could be more important.”
Likewise, members of the committee have been clear in conversations with the press that their work investigating the insurrection outweighs any potential risks to their reelection. Cheney, who has faced a constant stream of attacks from Trump and his allies, has stayed relentlessly focused on her work with the select committee despite the possibility that it might jeopardize her congressional seat. “I owe them honesty about how important this is,” she said of her constituents. Democrat Elaine Luria, who sits on the select committee and represents a Republican-leaning district in rural Virginia, told The New York Times, “If I don’t get re-elected because of this, that’s OK.” Luria’s frankness is a long way from the decision by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi in spring 2019 to evaluate impeachment not as a constitutional imperative but as a question of polling numbers, anxious about not getting too far out ahead of public opinion.
In potentially putting their own career on the line, members of the committee are demonstrating the strength of their own commitment to the idea that January 6 should matter. They’re insisting that the public should care too. And part of that insistence involves working to present the hearings in as digestible a way as possible in the hope of breaking through in a frenetic media environment. The Mueller report was a dense, 448-page legal document; when the special counsel finally appeared before Congress, his testimony was largely a dry back-and-forth of yes-and-no answers, interspersed with disruptions from House Republicans eager to derail the proceedings. This time around, the select committee hired a former president of ABC News to craft the January 6 hearings into, as The New York Times described, something akin to “a docudrama or a must-watch mini-series.” In an unusual move for Congress, the first and last hearings were scheduled for the prime-time 8 p.m. slot. So far, the gambit seems to be working: 20 million people tuned in for the initial hearing, a number roughly equivalent to the viewership for a game of Sunday Night Football.
Part of what distinguished Mueller’s investigation was the special counsel’s refusal to play the media game. He insisted that his report “speak for itself” and seemed to think that it was not his responsibility to present his findings in an accessible way—expecting Congress and the press to do that work for him, or perhaps failing to understand that dramatic changes in the nature of politics and journalism since Watergate meant that devastating news of presidential misconduct would no longer automatically reach Americans’ ears. In its embrace of prime-time coverage and gripping video footage, the select committee seems to have internalized this lesson. It’s also true, though, that a congressional committee—an explicitly political body not bound by the legal and policy constraints limiting the Justice Department—has greater freedom to focus on the business of public persuasion.
Perhaps ironically, the select committee has been aided in this effort by the GOP’s blockade of an independent 9/11-style commission investigating January 6 and the party’s refusal—apart from the presence of Cheney and her committee colleague Representative Adam Kinzinger—to engage with the House’s work. Republicans have pointed to the absence of pro-Trump voices on the committee as a means by which to undermine its credibility and paint it as a “partisan political weapon,” in the words of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. But the absence of a potentially disruptive minority on the panel has given the committee a great deal more control over how it conducts hearings. The committee’s current form has also freed investigators from having to soft-pedal their conclusions in an effort to bolster bipartisan credentials—leaving members with more leeway to assertively pursue the truth about the insurrection and the culpability of the former president.
There is another sense in which the committee seems to have learned from previous congressional attempts to hold Trump accountable: Congress is finally embracing its own responsibility. Mueller fashioned his report not as a prelude to a criminal trial but instead as an impeachment referral of sorts, passing the baton to Congress in light of Justice Department policies barring indictment of a sitting president. Yet the first branch of government was distinctly unenthusiastic about shouldering its own constitutional duty and began the impeachment process only when badgered into it by a separate scandal. This time around, the committee investigating January 6 is pursuing an aggressive investigation, on its own terms, into a horror perpetrated in the halls of the Capitol itself.
Mueller was a prosecutor who sought to persuade Congress to act. Today, in contrast, the January 6 committee seems to understand at least part of its work as building evidence to press Attorney General Merrick Garland for a criminal investigation into Trump himself. (“I can assure you that the January 6 prosecutors are watching all the hearings,” Garland said on Monday.) But the independent force of the select committee’s work is itself a reminder that the Justice Department is not the final arbiter of accountability when it comes to the insurrection. There’s a tendency to treat the elusive possibility of a criminal probe or prosecution of Trump as the ultimate prize—the achievement by which investigatory success can be measured. The select committee, though, is doing something different. Congress can’t bring a legal case against Trump—but it can build a case for liability in the moral and political sense. That is its own worthy project, and it’s one that the January 6 committee is proving itself more than capable of carrying out.