Take one of the most shocking attempts to subvert an election in recent history. Add a year-long investigation involving 1000 witnesses and 140,000 documents. Then package it into a prime-time TV event, choreographed by a master storyteller and former president of the American Broadcasting Company.
The result is the January 6 congressional hearings, which kicked off in the US on June 9. The public hearings, billed as the most important since Watergate, are attempting to get to the bottom of former president Donald Trump’s role in the attack on the Capitol in January 2021. The riot left several people dead, about 150 police officers injured and a nation shocked and divided.
In a hyper-partisan country where millions of Americans have already made up their mind about January 6 – and where Trump’s hold on the Republican Party remains stronger than ever – the question remains: how successful will these hearings be?
First, though: How do the hearings actually work?
What’s a congressional hearing?
A congressional hearing is an official meeting of a Senate committee, House committee or, in this case, a select committee, designed to acquire information about matters of public interest. They can be as stock standard as an examination of a bill or as gut-wrenching as the hearing into gun violence, which in June featured the heartbreaking testimony of victims and families involved in the Texas and Buffalo mass shootings.
Whatever form they take, they usually include oral testimony from witnesses, who can be compelled to appear before them, questioning of the witnesses by members of Congress and a final report or decision. These reports can lead to legislative amendments or recommendations for policy reform.
What’s the aim of these hearings?
The idea emerged in the immediate aftermath of the Capitol riots, when protesters stormed the building where members of the US Senate and House of Representatives meet, in an attempt to stop Congress from certifying Joe Biden’s election victory.
The breach took place shortly after Trump delivered a speech nearby, which ended with the words: “We fight. We fight like hell and if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore. So let’s walk down Pennsylvania Avenue.” The avenue connects the White House and the Capitol.
In the aftermath, shell-shocked politicians began discussing the need for a probe into what led to the event, how the Capitol building was breached so easily and what could be done to prevent it from happening again.
An independent commission modelled on the panel that investigated the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks was proposed but ended up being rejected by Republicans. House Democrats then opted for a special investigative panel. In June 2021, the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol was born.
Chaired by Mississippi congressman Bennie Thompson, a Democrat, the committee is made up of seven Democrats in total and two of the few Republicans who had earlier voted for Trump’s impeachment: Wyoming congresswoman Liz Cheney, the daughter of former vice president Dick Cheney, and Adam Kinzinger, a 44-year-old politician from Illinois who plans to quit politics later this year. Both have been sidelined by Republican colleagues for speaking out against Trump.
They have scheduled seven hearings for this month.
The committee’s claim is that Trump incited the January 6 attack and was central to a deliberate conspiracy to overturn the 2020 US election result.
Aided by the storytelling expertise of former ABC News president James Goldston, who has been brought in to produce some of the hearings, the committee is weaving a narrative focusing on several themes: Trump’s false claim of electoral fraud; the push to stop vice president Mike Pence from certifying the election; Trump’s attempts to stay in office by pressuring the Department of Justice; and how he directed his supporters to march to the Capitol and “fight like hell” against Joe Biden’s victory.
“There is no room for debate,” Cheney, the committee’s vice-chair, declared in her opening remarks. “Those who invaded our capital and battled law enforcement for hours were motivated by what president Trump had told them: that the election was stolen and that he was the rightful president. Trump summoned the mob, assembled the mob and lit the flame of this attack.”
What’s the most famous congressional hearing in history?
The best-known congressional hearing was conducted 50 years ago by the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities – known as the Watergate committee.
Those hearings began in 1973 to investigate “illegal, improper, or unethical activities” stemming from a break-in at the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in Washington DC, which was connected to Richard Nixon’s campaign aides.
Watergate was televised, allowing millions of Americans to tune in to hear the often shocking testimony of witnesses. Minds were changed and so, too, was the course of US political history. Tapes had revealed that Nixon had conspired to cover up activities that took place after the break-in and later tried to use federal officials to deflect the investigation. In August 1974, facing likely impeachment, he resigned.
Today, the audience for the hearings is much more fragmented thanks to the internet, although the prime-time opening did relatively well for a congressional address, with about 20 million Americans tuned in. (Biden’s State of the Union address drew an audience of 38 million people.)
Other high-profile congressional hearings have included the Senate Intelligence Committee investigation into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election; the investigations into the 2012 Benghazi attack against two US government facilities in Libya by members of the Islamic militant group Ansar al-Sharia; and the Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954 between the US Army and Senator Joseph McCarthy.
Who is appearing before these January 6 hearings?
The hearings present a roll-call of people in the former president’s orbit who were either worried about what was happening and resisting Trump’s “stolen election” conspiracy or seemingly fuelling it. Among the star witnesses is former attorney-general Bill Barr, who testified that he thought Trump’s claims of election fraud were “bullshit” and that he tried, unsuccessfully, to convince him not to pursue them.
“I was somewhat demoralised because I thought, boy, if he really believes this stuff … he’s become detached from reality,” Barr told investigators in one of the key lines of the hearings so far.
The committee has also met with key members of Trump’s family. His daughter Ivanka Trump endorsed Barr’s view that there was no election fraud and believed her father’s decision to claim victory on election night was premature, as most of the votes had not been counted. So did other key witnesses, including Trump’s campaign manager, Bill Stepien, senior adviser Jason Miller and top White House lawyer Eric Herschmann.
There are some notable names not on the list. The main one is Donald Trump.
Retired federal judge Michael Luttig, an adviser to Pence at the time, also testified the plan was unlawful. He said that if Pence had accepted Trump’s demands, it “would have plunged America into what I believe would have been tantamount to a revolution within a constitutional crisis”.
The committee has also called witnesses outside Trump’s inner sanctum to help make its case, such as a documentary maker who was embedded with right-wing militia group the Proud Boys on the day of the attack; a Capitol police officer who was knocked unconscious as she tried to ward off Trump supporters; and election officials whose families have been threatened for counting votes in battleground states that ended up falling to Joe Biden.
There are, however, some notable names not on the list. The main one is Donald Trump who, if called to testify, would be compelled to give truthful evidence under oath – something that many in Washington believe him to be incapable of doing. As chairman Bennie Thompson told reporters: “We’re not sure that the evidence that we receive can be any more validated with his presence.”
Former vice president Mike Pence also hasn’t been called by the committee, which had previously suggested it may not do so given the high level of co-operation with the committee from his top advisers.
Meanwhile, the House has voted to pursue contempt charges against four people who refused to comply with subpoenas: former Trump aides Steve Bannon and Peter Navarro (who are now being prosecuted by the Department of Justice) as well as White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and Trump aide Dan Scavino. The panel also subpoenaed five Republican politicians, including House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy, but none have complied so far.
What are the powers of the hearings?
Inciting an insurrection or riot is a federal crime in the US. However, if the committee uncovers criminal activity by Trump, it will need to be referred to the Department of Justice, which will have to prove that Trump intentionally whipped up his supporters and intended for them to break into the Capitol and cause harm.
The department, headed by Attorney-General Merrick Garland, has spent months conducting its own investigation into the Capitol insurgency, charging more than 800 people with crimes related to the riot. Among them is Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio, charged with seditious conspiracy; and Michigan candidate for governor Ryan Kelley, charged with misdemeanours such as knowingly entering a restricted building and engaging in an act of physical violence against a person or property.
The hearings are also a reminder, in the lead-up to the November midterm elections, that there is a broader issue at stake: the health of democracy.
But it’s yet to indict anyone in Trump’s immediate orbit. Garland has simply maintained his longstanding pledge to “hold all perpetrators who are criminally responsible for January 6 accountable, regardless of their level, their position and regardless of whether they were present at the events on January 6”.
To that end, the committee will focus on making its case by producing evidence that could potentially lead to a referral – if the majority of members agree to do so. Separately, a final report of findings and recommendations will be released in September.
What else is the point of the hearings?
They’re designed to grab the attention of a hyper-partisan public and highlight the sheer violence of the event, which Biden has described as one of the darkest days in US history. But beyond the shock and awe, the hearings are also a reminder, in the lead-up to the November midterm elections, that there is a broader issue at stake: the health of democracy. The final report is expected to recommend how to safeguard elections.
After all, despite losing dozens of legal challenges centred on the baseless claim of a fraudulent result, Trump has been working all year to elect proponents of his “rigged election” myth to powerful positions at state and national levels. If enough of these candidates are elected as governors, secretaries of state, or members of Congress, they could have significant sway to help overturn the next presidential election result if it doesn’t go Trump’s way.
To that end, there is every reason to think that the Capitol attack was just the beginning for Trump and his allies. Only next time, they may be much better organised.
But as the hearings continue, another purpose is apparent too: to convince Republicans that if they don’t find a way to move past Trump, they’ll be written into the history books as defending the indefensible.
Part of the committee’s intention is clearly to ensure that Trump does not run for president again in 2024. As Cheney warned Republicans kowtowing to his every whim: “There will come a day when Donald Trump is gone, but your dishonour will remain.”
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