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Impressions from the January 6 Committee Prime Time Hearing

Updated: Jun 11, 2022

Last night we were treated to a rare and welcome display of our elected representatives comporting themselves in a manner befitting the high office they hold. Committee chair Bennie Thompson (D–MS) and vice chair Liz Cheney (R–WY) were the faces of the January 6 Committee, the only members who spoke in the prime time introduction to a series of public hearings that will lay out the findings of their investigation into the events of January 6. Their words were measured, their voices calm but firm. There was no nonsense, no grandstanding, no playing to audience or camera. The proceeding was conducted with dignity and gravitas appropriate to the moment.

Readers who come regularly to this space know where I stand on the events of January 6: The assault on the Capitol was an attempt to overthrow the government of the United States. The effort is ongoing. There is ample evidence in the public domain to support that conclusion. Even so, I was impressed, moved, and at times shaken by video, testimony, and other evidence presented at last night's hearing.

Some take a less charitable view. Elise Stefanik (NY), the number 3 ranking House Republican, dismissed the hearing as a political circus.* Other critics downplay the hearing with the more guarded claim that nothing was revealed that was not already known. This is accurate to a considerable degree but disregards the committee's role in documenting much that was already known, demonstrating that this common knowledge is factual, and stitching it together into a coherent narrative that makes a compelling case as to what was at stake on January 6 and who bears responsibility for it.

Video that had not previously been made public shows clearly the violence and destruction committed by the rampaging mob. It should put to rest, though we know it will not, any claim that this was a peaceful demonstration. The mob overran barricades, battered police who were woefully outnumbered, and smashed windows to get inside. Maybe some did come with innocuous intent only to be caught up in the the mob's fury and do things they would not have done under other circumstances. Others came with conscious intent, premeditated and planned, to seize the Capitol, prevent a peaceful transfer of power, and install Trump as maximum supreme leader.

Testimony by Capitol police officer Caroline Edwards was compelling. It could have been understood if she became emotional while watching video of herself being assaulted as she tried to hold the line outside the Capitol. She did not. Her composure and dignity rendered her testimony all the more powerful.

What I saw was just a war scene. It was something like I had seen out of the movies. I could not believe my eyes. There were officers on the ground. They were bleeding. They were throwing up. I saw friends with blood all over their faces. I was slipping in people's blood. I was catching people as they fell. It was carnage. It was chaos.

Never in my wildest dreams did I think that as a police officer and as a law enforcement officer, I would find myself in the middle of a battle. I am trained to detain a couple of subjects and handle a crowd, but I'm not combat trained. And that day, it was just hours of hand-to-hand combat. (Caitlin Yilek, Capitol police officer says "It was carnage, it was chaos" during Jan. 6 public hearing testimony, The Washington Post, January 10, 2022).

Edwards is believed to be the first police officer injured by the mob. The bike rack she was pushing against to hold them back was pushed over on her. She was knocked down and lost consciousness when her head hit a concrete step as rioters trampled past. When she regained consciousness, she returned to duty, defending the Capitol and aiding colleagues who had been attacked with chemical sprays. She witnessed the attack on Officer Brian Selnick, who died from two strokes the next day:

All of a sudden, I see movement to the left of me. I turned, and it was Officer Sicknick with his head in his hands and he was ghostly pale, which I figured at that point, he had been sprayed and I was concerned. My cop alarm bells went off. Because if you get sprayed with pepper spray, you're going to turn red. He turned just about as pale as this sheet of paper.

Edwards herself was sprayed in the eyes with a chemical and was teargassed. Trump called the mob great patriots.

Other takeaways:

  • Thompson and Cheney minced no words about Trump's responsibility. "President Trump summoned the mob, assembled the mob and lit the flame of this attack."

  • White House officials and advisers told Trump in December that the election was neither stolen nor rigged. William Barr before he resigned as attorney general told the president the allegations were bullshit.

  • Trump's December 20 tweet "Big protest in DC on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!" and his incendiary remarks to the rally on that morning incited the insurrection.

  • The Oath Keepers and Proud Boys checked all the boxes for seditious conspiracy.

    • seditious conspiracy : a crime that is committed when two or more persons conspire to forcibly: a. destroy or overthrow the U.S. government; b. create obstacles or prevent the execution of U.S. laws; c. oppose the authority of the U.S. government; or d. unlawfully possess or take property that belong to the nation. (USLegal)

  • White House officials and family members asked Trump to call off the mob. He declined. The president of the United States watched television while the Capitol was occupied by a mob that violently assaulted police officers and threatened members of Congress and his own vice president.

  • Cheney reported that Rep. Scott Perry (R–PA) and other Republican representatives sought pardons in the waning days of the Trump presidency. The Washington Post reported that Perry denied the charge, calling it "an absolute, shameless, and soulless lie." I anticipate that evidence for Cheney's allegation will be forthcoming in a future hearing.

  • Police officers showed remarkable restraint as they tried to hold back the mob.

Jonathan V. Last poses an obvious question: Why didn't Capitol police use deadly force against the insurrectionists? He is quick to add that he is glad they did not. They "managed to protect the lives of those who worked in the Capitol without firing on the aggressors, with the exception of a single round discharged from within the House Chamber that killed Ashli Babbitt as she attempted to breach the door" (The Essence of Trumpism Is the Avoidance of Consequences, The Bulwark, January 10, 2022). To note that this is not the norm, as Last did, goes beyond modest understatement.

If you or I assaulted a random cop, we might reasonably expect to be shot. Yet the people who stormed the Capitol did all of that and much worse—and were treated instead with forbearance and professionalism. The Capitol Police seemed to understand the gravity of the moment, they understood the consequences of escalation even when their personal safety was under threat. The very system that the Trumpists were trying to undermine and overthrow, saved these people from experiencing the same immediate consequences that most people would experience in an attack against the police.

And that’s a theme running through Trumpism. It’s all about gaslighting and cos-play and never admitting a mistake and never saying sorry. Which combines to give permission to people who never want to take responsibility for their actions.

The committee's work may not change hearts and minds. It is nonetheless worthwhile. Thompson, Cheney, and their colleagues are compiling a coherent, prosecutorial narrative that will be part of a record that might be used to hold people to account, even if only in the light of history at some time after our present moment of mass hysteria and madness passes. Maybe the committee's example as they carry out their duty will prove salutary in our troubled present.

The investigation is ongoing. There will be more hearings this month. The committee plans to release a final report in September.

*Full disclosure department: The editorial desk prevailed upon the author to refrain from going for a cheap shot with the observation that a clown might be expected to know a circus when she sees one, but in Stefanik's case, maybe not.

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