The January 6 Committee Is Going to Have the Final Word

By establishing an official record of the insurrection, the members are creating clarity in a political moment fogged with lies.

January 6 committee hearing
Jabin Botsford / The Washington Post / Getty

During its astonishing Tuesday hearing about Donald Trump’s actions on the day of January 6, the House select committee investigating the insurrection made clear that the integrity of its work is under threat. “The same people who drove the former president’s pressure campaign to overturn the election are now trying to cover up the truth about January 6,” warned committee chair Bennie Thompson. “But thanks to the courage of certain individuals, the truth won’t be buried.” The main individual he seemed to have in mind was Cassidy Hutchinson, once an aide to White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, who testified to the former president’s violent and bizarre behavior—demanding that rally-goers with guns and knives be allowed onto the Ellipse to hear his speech and exploding in rage when his security detail refused to drive him to the Capitol, as rioters there began to overwhelm law enforcement.

At the hearing’s end, the committee displayed messages received by some of those interviewed by investigators, apparently in an effort to push them to toe Trump’s party line rather than speak honestly. (Reporting has since revealed that one of those messages was sent to Hutchinson herself.) Speaking again of Hutchinson, Thompson declared to witnesses who had bowed to such threats or participated in making them: “Because of this courageous woman and others like her, your attempt to hide the truth from the American people will fail.”

As Thompson’s comments suggest, the January 6 committee has made the work of uncovering truth the lodestar of its public hearings. In a sense, of course, every congressional hearing is an effort to establish facts: Witnesses commonly swear, as Hutchinson did, to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”; false statements before Congress can be prosecuted even if they’re not made under oath. And as a committee established to uncover what happened on January 6, naturally the panel would be focused on the truth of the matter. But the January 6 committee’s hearings have so far been unusually powerful as a paean to the value of facts. The committee seems to take seriously its responsibility to establish an official record of the insurrection, and to communicate that record to the public in as accessible a manner as possible. That clarity is bracing in a political moment fogged with lies.

Almost from the beginning of this series of blockbuster hearings, the committee has been up-front about its intention not just to tell the truth, but to do so bluntly and directly. During the committee’s first open session in June, Thompson attempted to cut through “legal jargon” that might be off-putting to viewers, telling them that all discussion of arcane criminal statutes and legal culpability “boils down to this: January 6 was the culmination of an attempted coup.” Trump and his supporters, Thompson argued, had tried to “rewrite history” by playing down what happened. And so, Thompson said, it was crucial that the committee “remind you”—the public—“of the reality of what happened that day.”

The absence of pro-Trump Republicans on the committee—thanks to an early decision by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy that the GOP leadership reportedly now regrets—has allowed investigators an unusual degree of freedom in pinning the blame for January 6 exactly where it belongs: on Trump himself. Each of the six public hearings convened so far has zeroed in on different aspects of Trump’s personal involvement with the Big Lie and efforts to overturn the 2020 election. This is a notable shift from the very first congressional report on January 6, released last year by the bipartisan Senate Rules and Administration Committee and Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. That document cataloged a cascade of failures across the Capitol Police, the Pentagon, and the Justice Department, but pulled its punches when it came to the question of the former president’s involvement—reportedly, according to The New York Times, because “Republicans have refused to ask questions about the riot that could turn up unflattering information about Mr. Trump or members of their party.”

No such soft-pedaling was evident during the select committee’s Tuesday hearing, when Hutchinson testified again and again about Trump’s enthusiasm for the riot. “He thinks Mike deserves it,” she remembered Meadows saying of Trump’s response to insurrectionists’ chants of “Hang Mike Pence.” Likewise, previous January 6 hearings were brutally blunt in displaying the disturbing violence of the insurrection and its lasting effects on the Capitol Police officers who were injured—and the ugliness and racism of the threats leveled by Trump supporters against election officials who were trying to do the essential work of counting votes.

This stands in contrast to the sheer volume of election lies produced by Trump and his campaign. The committee emphasized how the Trump campaign “sent millions of fundraising emails to Trump supporters” between Election Day and January 6, built on false claims of fraud. Likewise, the former Justice Department official Richard Donoghue testified that “there were so many of these allegations” of voter fraud that even when officials provided Trump with “a very direct answer on one of them, he wouldn’t fight us on it, but he would move on to another allegation.” As a colleague, the former Lawfare managing editor Jacob Schulz, observed to me, the committee has presented Trump and his campaign’s approach to selling the Big Lie as essentially a project of spamming: drowning out the facts of what really happened, and the possibility of understanding that truth, with an endless barrage of falsehoods.

Sorting through this flood of information (and disinformation) to figure out what’s really true is a difficult task—which is why the committee’s focus on providing viewers with a clear, easy-to-follow narrative is so valuable, especially after a year and a half of intentional obfuscation by Republicans about what happened. The panel is reestablishing the facts in a fashion that leaves the GOP with little room to confuse people once again. Investigators have been aided by former ABC News President James Goldston, who has helped produce the hearings as something more akin to an engaging television series than a typical congressional panel. “With each day’s hearing, the Jan. 6 committee has committed to a single story with a narrative arc,” NPR’s media critic, David Folkenflik, wrote. One television producer told The New York Times, “For the first time since Trump became president, there is a clarity of message and a clear story that is being told.”

The committee’s use of journalistic tools points to something important. In recent years, many discussions of the falsehoods drowning out American political discourse have framed the battle for attention as a fight between a dwindling number of media organizations committed to the facts, on one side, and shameless liars pursuing their own self-interest, on the other. But as the committee is vividly demonstrating, other institutions can have a commitment to the truth as well—even a political institution such as Congress.

The legislative branch is not usually known as a temple to candor. Yet the committee’s work shows just how much Congress can be capable of when it tries. As Thompson; the committee vice chair, Liz Cheney; and others on the committee have emphasized, as members of Congress they have all sworn an oath to “support and defend the Constitution.” “That oath,” Cheney declared during the committee’s first hearing, “must mean something”—arguing for the significance of the committee’s work and the integrity of the democracy it seeks to protect. The committee is creating a definitive record and insisting on the importance of the values that Trump sought to undermine, truth among them.

Trump himself seems to recognize the effectiveness of the panel’s approach, reportedly complaining about how the absence of pro-Trump Republicans on the committee makes it difficult to complicate the story with his version of events. But the former president and his allies are still doing their best to muddy the waters. In response to Hutchinson’s damning testimony, Trump seized on her memory of being told that the president had lunged for the steering wheel of the SUV carrying him away from the Ellipse, grappling with a Secret Service agent to try to direct the car toward the Capitol. “Her Fake story … is ‘sick’ and fraudulent,” he wrote on his Twitter look-alike, Truth Social. After anonymous sources “close to the Secret Service” suggested to reporters that the altercation hadn’t taken place, the far-right Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene argued that Congress should focus its energy on taking apart the SUV story.

There seems to be at least some degree of legitimate confusion about what happened in the SUV. But in large part, these criticisms are bad-faith attacks by people uninterested in what the committee has to say. They intentionally ignore the fact that the Secret Service reportedly does not dispute that Trump wanted to go to the Capitol after his speech on the Ellipse—which is far more relevant in evaluating Trump’s intentions to gin up the riot than a tussle over a steering wheel. By focusing on one minor if salacious anecdote, they also draw attention away from the volumes of other incriminating and undisputed material in Hutchinson’s testimony about Trump’s role in engineering the insurrection. Meanwhile, committee members have expressed confidence in what Hutchinson had to say, noting that she swore an oath to tell the truth in front of millions of viewers—unlike many of those challenging her testimony in anonymous comments to reporters.

All the same, this odd sideshow underlines just how difficult creating a definitive factual record is—particularly of an event that involved so many different narrative threads, and in which so many liars were involved. It’s easier to confuse than to clarify, and it’s easier to lose trust than to regain that trust after a mistake is made.

So the committee’s investigators are engaged in a perilous high-wire act. But so far, they haven’t fallen.