The 1-6 hearings begin

[This article is being written before and possibly during the second hearing, which started at 10 a.m. I will cover that material, together with Wednesday’s and Thursday’s hearings, next week. As I’ve repeated many times, this is not a breaking-news blog.]

The committee kicked off its public hearings Thursday night [video transcript]. Remembering Bob Mueller’s testimony to Congress about his investigation, I had worried that these hearings would be dull and legalistic, or that they would rehash details that, however damning they might be, had already been widely discussed by people who were open to knowing what happened. Worst of all would have been one of those talkfests where each committee member gets five minutes to audition for national attention.

I should have had more faith. The other committee members were content to let Chair Bennie Thompson and leading Republican member Liz Cheney carry the ball, and they carried it well, particularly Cheney.

The first hour of the hearing consisted of Thompson and Cheney laying out the story that the rest of the evidence will nail down, backing up their claims with short videos of testimony that the public had not seen before — mostly from people in Trump’s inner circle: Bill Barr, Jason Miller, and even Ivanka. In the second hour the committee heard from live witnesses: Capitol Police officer Caroline Edwards (who was injured battling rioters at the barricades) and documentary film-maker Nick Quested (who spent the day following Proud Boys leader Henry Tarrio).

The key points in the Committee’s narrative are:

  • Trump knew that he had lost the election, and that his claims of fraud were baseless. Trump campaign advisor Jason Miller testified that (as the votes were still being counted) the campaign’s data analyst told Trump that he would not win. Trump lawyer Alex Cannon investigated the election-fraud claims, and already in November had reported to Mark Meadows that “we weren’t finding anything that would be sufficient to change the results in any of the key states”. To which Meadows replied: “So there’s no there there.” Attorney General Bill Barr said he told the President within weeks of the election that his charges of fraud were “bullshit”, and in particular that his claims about Dominion voting machines were “complete nonsense”. Ivanka was shown testifying that she believed Barr.
  • The attack on the Capitol was planned and organized. This wasn’t a protest that spontaneously spun out of control. In response to Trump’s tweet that 1-6 would “be wild”, the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers made plans to storm the Capitol. Before Trump even began his speech, about 200 Proud Boys had left his rally to scout the Capitol’s defenses. After Trump sent the crowd in their direction, they spearheaded breaching the barriers and leading the mob into the Capitol. (A key question going forward: Were these Trumpist militias just intuiting what their leader wanted, or does some figure — Roger Stone, say — connect them more directly with the White House’s plans?)
  • The rioters engaged in a bloody battle against law enforcement. If the videos of the attack didn’t make this obvious enough, Officer Edwards’ testimony brought the point home: “I saw friends with blood all over their faces. I was slipping in people’s blood. You know, I — I was catching people as they fell. I — you know, I was — it was carnage. It was chaos. I — I can’t — I can’t even describe what I saw. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that, as a police officer, as a law enforcement officer, I would find myself in the middle of a battle. You know, I — I’m trained to detain, you know, a couple of subjects and — and handle — you know, handle a crowd, but I — I’m not combat trained. And that day, it was just hours of hand-to-hand combat, hours of dealing with things that were way beyond any — any law enforcement officer has ever trained for.” This contrasts with Trump’s characterization of the mob as “loving” and Rep. Andrew Clyde’s comparing the rioters to tourists.
  • The riot was part of a larger plan to reverse the voters’ decision and return Trump to office for a second term. Cheney quoted conservative Judge Michael Luttig: “If Dr. Eastman and President Trump’s plan had worked, it would have permanently ended the peaceful transition of power, undermining American democracy and the Constitution.” Trump pressured the Justice Department to spread his lies about election fraud. (“Just say the election was corrupt and leave the rest to me and the Republican Congressmen,” Trump told DoJ officials.) He pressured state election officials to commit fraud. (Cheney: “You will hear additional details about President Trump’s call to Georgia officials urging them to ‘find’ 11,780 votes – votes that did not exist, and his efforts to get states to rescind certified electoral slates without factual basis and contrary to law. You will hear new details about the Trump campaign and other Trump associates’ efforts to instruct Republican officials in multiple states to create intentionally false electoral slates, and transmit those slates to Congress, to the Vice President, and the National Archives, falsely certifying that Trump won states he actually lost.”) He pressured Vice President Pence to refuse to count electoral votes certified by the states, based on a theory he had been told was illegal.
  • Trump cheered the violence and refused to take action to stop it. Cheney: “Not only did President Trump refuse to tell the mob to leave the Capitol, he placed no call to any element of the U.S. government to instruct that the Capitol be defended.” General Milley testified that orders to get soldiers to the Capitol came from Vice President Pence, not from Trump. When told that the rioters were chanting “Hang Mike Pence”, Trump said Pence “deserves” it. (The source of that quote — which Trump denies — has still not been revealed.)
  • At least a few Republican members of Congress were complicit. This was the evening’s most tantalizing and least-fleshed-out point. Cheney floated this: “Representative Scott Perry, who is also involved in trying to get Clark appointed as Attorney General, has refused to testify here. As you will see, Representative Perry contacted the White House in the weeks after January 6th to seek a Presidential pardon. Multiple other Republican Congressmen also sought Presidential pardons for their roles in attempting to overturn the 2020 election.”

Conservative counter-programming. Almost as interesting as the hearing itself was how Trump and his minions dealt with it.

Fox News went to great lengths to shield their audience from any of the information the committee presented. The network not only refused to air the hearings, but went without commercial breaks for two whole hours, so that none of their viewers would be tempted to check out one of the news channels that was actually covering the news. Comedian Stephen Colbert nailed this:

Do you understand what that means? Fox News is willing to lose money to keep their viewers from flipping over and accidentally learning information. … But I’m not surprised. That’s the first rule of any cult: Never leave the compound.

Robert Reich estimates the lost revenue at around $400K. Chris Hayes describes the next level of technical detail: How Fox made sure none of the videos of Trumpist violence would make it through to their viewers, even as a picture-in-picture with Tucker Carlson talking over it.

Truth Social, Trump’s Twitter-clone, reportedly has been banning users who try to discuss the Committee’s evidence, making a mockery of the free-speech rhetoric it was founded on. This also should not be surprising: Reciprocity is not a fascist value. Fundamentally, fascism is an us-and-them worldview, where the fascists themselves have God-given rights, but their enemies do not.

Trump himself lashed out, calling the hearings a “witch hunt” and the committee members “hacks”. He attacked Bill Barr as “weak”, and said that Ivanka had “checked out” of looking at election claims. (Unaddressed question: Why shouldn’t Trump’s other supporters check out too?) He repeated his long-debunked claims of “an Election that was Rigged and Stolen”, and praised the January 6th rioters as representing “the greatest movement in the history of our Country to Make America Great Again”.

Direct criticism. If the don’t-look-behind-the-curtain defense failed, the next line was to smear the proceedings as “propaganda” or a “show trial” or “kangaroo court”, without addressing any of the evidence presented.

The Lawfare blog will be doing next-day podcasts where people call in questions about the hearings. The final question in Friday’s podcast was whether this criticism has merit. Host Benjamin Wittes answered this himself, and made a few key points:

  • First, the committee is not a court at all, in that no ruling will be made and no punishment will be assessed. So accusing it of being a kangaroo court conducting a show trial is a category error.
  • Beyond that is the question of whether the hearings are presenting accurate information, and as far as we can tell at this point, it is.
  • Finally, and harder to judge, is whether the committee is ignoring or omitting information that would argue against the points the committee is making. Wittes is not aware of any such information.

It’s worth pointing out that if any of the quoted witnesses feel that their testimony has been misrepresented, nothing stops them from saying so. Ivanka still has her Twitter account, for example, but hasn’t posted since May 30. Bill Barr and Mark Milley would have no trouble getting attention if they had comments to make.

Finally, it should go without saying that if what you are presenting is true, you have no responsibility to “balance” it by presenting lies. So Trump’s complaint that the Committee “refuses to talk of the Election Fraud and Irregularities that took place on a massive scale” has no merit. The evidence says not only that Trump’s claims about the election are false, but that they are conscious lies. He has known from the beginning that they are false.

Political impact. About 20 million Americans watched the hearings live, not counting those who watched it later online. Millions more have seen highlights or have heard summaries presented by journalists, comedians, or their friends. A few key facts have probably penetrated MAGA’s darkest sanctums: Not even Ivanka believes Trump’s stolen-election bullshit.

It remains to be seen whether the hearings will fade or pick up momentum. Today’s hearing undoubtedly will get a smaller audience, simply because it’s in the morning rather than prime time. But we’ll see what kind of buzz it generates.

The most effective Republican talking point against the hearings is not that the Committee’s case isn’t true, but that 1-6 is ancient history, and that Americans are much more worried about immediate issues like inflation (which the GOP has presented no plan for stopping).

The right answer to the put-the-insurrection-behind-us talking point is: You first. As long as top Republicans are still promoting the Big Lie, running for office based on it, and trying to get people in position to mount a better coup next time, 1-6 isn’t behind us. As long as Trump is the leading candidate for the 2024 Republican nomination, and 99% of the GOP’s elected officials are afraid to criticize him, 1-6 isn’t behind us.

Democrats have offered Republicans many opportunities to put 1-6 behind them: They could have voted to convict Trump in his second impeachment, and made him ineligible for future political office. They could have supported a bipartisan commission to investigate 1-6 and rallied behind its conclusions. They could still denounce Trump’s insurrection, denounce the Big Lie, and denounce Trump for continuing to promote it.

In short: They could take their party back from the fascist demagogue who has dominated it these last six years.

But they won’t unless public opinion forces them. That’s why these hearings are necessary.

Rumblings. The path of least resistance going forward is for the GOP to do to Trump what they did to their last failed president, George W. Bush. Bush left office in 2009, and by the 2010 election Tea Party candidates were running away from him almost as hard as they were running against Obama. In the early days of the Iraq invasion they had seen Bush as the next face on Mount Rushmore, but by 2010 the Tea Party line was that he had never really been a conservative.

Current Republicans could do something similar to Trump: claim that they are “constitutional conservatives” as opposed to the guy who tried to overthrow the Constitution after he lost the election. If they do, then the midterm elections can be about inflation or critical race theory or immigration or transgender-kids-in-your-daughter’s-locker-room or Biden’s-gonna-take-your-guns or pretty much whatever they want. If they don’t, then Trump and the Democrats will conspire to make the midterms about Trump, which is one of the few ways Republicans can blow this election.

Some conservatives grasp this logic. Fox News may be lining up behind Trump, but the rest of the Murdoch media empire is not so sure. The Wall Street Journal recognizes the basic facts of the Committee’s case, and only defends Trump against criminal liability.

The President spread falsehoods about the election. He invited supporters to Washington on Jan. 6, tweeting on Dec. 19 that it ‘will be wild!’ He riled up the crowd and urged it to march on the Capitol. After violence began, he dawdled instead of sending help. Mr. Trump bears responsibility for the mayhem. But inspiring followers to march is not the same as leading a criminal conspiracy.

Murdoch’s New York Post takes a more purely partisan angle. It shrugs off the broader threat to democracy, but wants to jettison Trump’s 2020 claims so that Republicans can focus on more effective issues and less tainted candidates.

Trump has become a prisoner of his own ego. He can’t admit his tweeting and narcissism turned off millions. He won’t stop insisting that 2020 was “stolen” even though he’s offered no proof that it’s true. … Trump can’t look past 2020. Let him remain there. Look forward! The 2024 field is rich.

Elected Republicans could follow that lead. They could choose to jump off the Trump Titanic before it sinks. But will they?

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  • By Never Leave | The Weekly Sift on June 13, 2022 at 12:16 pm

    […] This week’s featured post is “The 1-6 hearings begin.“ […]

  • By The hearings, week two | The Weekly Sift on June 20, 2022 at 11:19 am

    […] The daytime hearings have been fleshing out the case presented in the opening prime-time hearing on June 9th, which I covered last week. […]

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