A U.S. congressional committee investigating the January 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol held its first public hearing Thursday evening, with dramatic footage of the violent riot and excerpts of interviews with members of former President Donald Trump’s inner circle.
The two-hour televised hearing, the first in a series of seven scheduled for the month, followed a wide-ranging probe into the attack by Trump supporters after Trump lost the 2020 presidential election to President Joe Biden.
While key details of the committee’s findings leaked in recent months, members of the committee used the hearing to offer what the panel’s chairman, Representative Bennie Thompson, called “a true accounting of what happened and what led to the attack.”
The attack, Thompson said during opening remarks, was “the culmination of an attempted coup.”
The violence resulted from a “sprawling, multistep conspiracy aimed at overturning the election” and Trump was at the center of the plot, Thompson said.
“And ultimately, Donald Trump, the president of the United States, spurred a mob of domestic enemies of the Constitution to march down to the Capitol and subvert American democracy,” he said.
The January 6 attack followed a speech Trump delivered earlier that day at a really near the White House, where he urged thousands of his supporters to march on the Capitol and “fight like hell.”
As members of Congress gathered inside the Capitol for a quadrennial ritual of the certification of the presidential election results, in this case, Biden’s victory over Trump, more than 2,000 Trump supporters breached the building to stop the proceeding.
Then-Vice President Mike Pence, who was presiding over the session, and members of Congress were evacuated to safety and did not return until later that evening to complete the certification of electoral votes.
Seven people, including one police officer, died as a result of the attack, according to a bipartisan Senate report, and more than 150 police officers were injured.
The attack was an unprecedented event in American history.
Encouraged by Trump, the rioters sought to stop the peaceful transfer of power, “a precedent that had stood for 220 years,” Thompson said.
Trump’s speech and the violence that followed led to his second impeachment, shortly before he left office, making him the only American president to be impeached twice.
Trump was spared ouster from office when most Republican senators voted against his conviction.
The panel’s vice chair, Republican Representative Liz Cheney, said Trump sought to overturn the election by alleging fraud despite being told by advisors that he had lost the vote.
In back-to-back video clips aired during the hearing, several former Trump aides said they did not believe the former president’s allegations of voter fraud.
Former Attorney General Bill Barr recalled telling Trump after the election that he thought his allegation of fraud was “bullshit.” Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, said she accepted Barr’s assessment.
Nevertheless, Trump relentlessly tried to get the Justice Department to declare electoral fraud, enlisting an official to draft a letter to states stating that the department had “identified significant concerns that may have impacted the outcome of the election.”
When rioters descended on the Capitol, instead of condemning the violence, Trump “justified it,” Cheney said.
“President Trump summoned the mob, he assembled the mob and he lit the flame of this attack, ” Cheney said.
Citing testimony by a former Trump administration official, Cheney said when Trump was informed on January 6 that his supporters outside the Capitol were chanting to hang Mike Pence, the former president said, “Maybe our supporters have the right idea. Mike Pence deserves it.”
Previewing the committee’s remaining public hearings, Cheney said the next session, scheduled for Monday, will focus on Trump’s claims of voter fraud despite knowing he’d lost reelection.
The nine-member House committee, made up of seven Democrats and two Republicans, was established by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi last July after Senate Republicans blocked a move to create a bipartisan, independent commission to investigate the Capitol riot.
Committee members and staffers interviewed more than 1,000 witnesses, combed through more than 140,000 documents, and issued nearly 100 subpoenas for testimony and documents.
Many in Trump’s orbit, including son Donald Trump Jr, daughter Ivanka Trump, and son-in-law Jared Kushner, testified before the committee.
Others, though, refused to answer questions, and at least two — former Trump trade adviser Peter Navarro and former White House strategist Stephen Bannon — have been charged with contempt of Congress for refusing to cooperate with investigators.
Republicans have repeatedly attacked the committee’s investigation as a partisan witch hunt designed to undermine Trump’s prospects as a presidential candidate in 2024.
“It is the most political and least legitimate committee in American history. It has used congressional subpoenas to attack Republicans, violate due process, and infringe on the political speech of private citizens,” said House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.
The hearing featured a timelined video of the riot and testimony by witnesses U.S. Capitol Police Officer Caroline Edwards, who was injured during the riot, and British documentary filmmaker Nick Quested, who filmed the far-right organization the Proud Boys.
Members of the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, an anti-government militia, have been charged with seditious conspiracy as part of the Justice Department’s sprawling investigation into the Capitol riot.
The department estimates between 2,000 and 2,500 people entered the Capitol on January 6, and Attorney General Merrick Garland has vowed to hold everyone involved in the attack accountable.
To date, more than 840 people have been arrested in connection with the January 6 attack, with about 305 pleading guilty, mostly to misdemeanor charges, the Justice Department said on Wednesday.
In a statement, the Justice Department said its “resolve to hold accountable those who committed crimes on Jan. 6, 2021, has not, and will not, wane.”
Jordan Strauss, a former Justice Department and White House official, called Thursday night’s hearing “an opening statement in a complex and sprawling criminal conspiracy case.”
“In terms of scale, the size and scope of this investigation is unprecedented,” Strauss, a fellow at the Kroll Institute, said. “The committee added color not seen before, and a timeline that was powerful and only possible with the benefit of hindsight and close study.”
In addition to the criminal investigation of the rioters, the department has reportedly stepped up its probe of efforts by political operatives and state lawmakers to overturn the 2020 election results.
That has not stopped politicians on the left from taking the Justice Department to task for “failing” to launch a criminal investigation of Trump’s role in the January 6 attack.
Garland has said prosecutors will “follow the facts wherever they lead.”