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What we learned from the January 6 hearings

By Jeremy Herb, CNN

The House select committee investigating the Capitol Hill insurrection concluded its series of eight hearings this week with a presentation intended to be the final piece of its narrative puzzle that painted former President Donald Trump as responsible for the violent attack on the US Capitol — and more broadly, American democracy — on January 6, 2021.

Over the course of the two months’ worth of hearings, the committee tapped into the hundreds of taped depositions, as well as key witnesses who testified live, to present a devastating case that Trump sought multiple avenues to try to overturn the 2020 presidential election even after he was told he lost, that the former President knew ahead of time January 6 could turn violent, and that he chose not to act when his supporters attacked the Capitol and put the lives of lawmakers — not to mention his own vice president — in danger.

The most damning accounts came not from Trump’s political opponents but his inner circle at the White House, as multiple former Trump White House and campaign aides gave firsthand accounts of the President’s unwillingness to accept reality and abandon his delusions about the election. Even Trump’s own family members like Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner provided testimony that painted the former President in an unflattering light at times.

The committee, which consisted of seven Democrats and two Republicans, relied almost exclusively on testimony from GOP officials and nonpartisan civil servants during its set of hearings, in an attempt to rebut criticisms of partisanship.

The panel’s vice chairwoman Rep. Liz Cheney, a Wyoming Republican whose work on the committee could be her final act in Congress amid an uphill battle to win a primary against a Trump-backed challenger, ended Thursday’s primetime hearing by commending those who spoke up before the committee.

“The case against Donald Trump in these hearings is not made by witnesses who were his political enemies. It is, instead, a series of confessions by Donald Trump’s own appointees, his own friends, his own campaign officials, people who worked for him for years and his own family,” Cheney said. “They have come forward and they have told the American people the truth.”

The committee’s investigation isn’t done either, as Chairman Bennie Thompson, a Democrat from Mississippi, signaled that the committee plans to hold more hearings in September. But the panel’s set of eight hearings were remarkable for multiple reasons filling out the details about how the US Capitol came under attack on January 6.

All the President’s men (and women)

For two years, congressional Democrats ran into White House stonewalling while they tried to investigate all aspects of the Trump administration. Beyond some notable exceptions — notably the officials who came forward during Trump’s first impeachment — the blockade was successful at evading accountability.

Things have been different with the January 6 committee.

Former White House officials by and large came forward and spoke to the committee, which conducted more than 1,000 interviews in all. Some required a subpoena, but everyone from Trump’s former personal assistant Nick Luna to spokesman Jason Miller to former White House counsel Pat Cipollone testified before the panel in videotaped depositions.

Much of the story of January 6 was already known, both from reporting in realtime about what was happening in the West Wing and stories broken by CNN and others over the course of the investigation, like the 2,300-plus text messages turned over by White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and obtained by CNN.

But the testimony of those in the room with Trump at crucial moments allowed the committee to tell the story of January 6 from firsthand accounts. Former Attorney General Bill Barr said how Trump reacted when he told him the voter fraud claims were “bulls***.” Former Trump White House counsel Eric Herschmann said he warned the scheme to toss out electors on January 6 was “going to cause riots in the streets.”

And Meadows aide Cassidy Hutchinson, who testified live in a surprise hearing at the end of June, provided easily the most damning testimony about how she heard Trump say he did not care that the January 6 crowd was armed and was told Trump angrily lashed out at Secret Service when he was not allowed to go to the Capitol after his speech.

Some Trump aides still refused to testify before the panel, including Meadows and Trump adviser Steve Bannon. While the Justice Department opted not to prosecute Meadows, who did engage with the committee, Bannon was convicted by a jury Friday of being held in contempt of Congress after DOJ indicted him for defying the committee’s subpoena earlier this year. He’ll be sentenced in September.

The White House power vacuum

There was a consistent theme throughout the January 6 hearings: Trump was told over and over again that the election hadn’t been stolen and he couldn’t overturn it, but he ignored that advice and found confidantes who told him what he wanted to hear.

Instead of listening to Barr or Cipollone, he turned to Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell, lawyers who told him the election had been stolen. When Barr’s replacement, Jeffrey Rosen, also refused to embrace Trump’s baseless fraud claims, the President considered replacing him with someone who did, Jeffrey Clark.

Instead of taking the advice of Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell — who waited until the Electoral College affirmed Joe Biden’s victory on December 14 to declare Biden president-elect — Trump cut off communication with McConnell and embraced House Republicans plotting to reject electors through Congress on January 6.

No one, it appeared, was able to stand up to Trump and tell him he had to stand down.

The committee presented firsthand evidence of two wild meetings that took place in the Oval Office. The first happened in December 2020 when Trump brought Powell and Michael Flynn to the Oval Office, where Trump was presented with draft executive orders to seize voting machines. Herschmann said that the meeting got so heated between White House lawyers and Powell and Flynn that it turned into a screaming match.

“It was really unprecedented. … I thought it was nuts,” he said in a deposition video, adding that he told the outside allies to “shut the F up.”

Cipollone testified that he “did not understand how they had gotten in” in the first place.

The second Oval Office meeting took place several weeks later just days before January 6, when Trump pitted Rosen and Clark against each other in a meeting where he openly mulled installing Clark atop the Justice Department.

Trump only backed down after being told by his White House counsel and DOJ leaders that there would be mass resignations if Trump made such a move. The DOJ officials testified about how they forcefully argued that the arguments Clark was making to get DOJ involved in Trump’s efforts to overturn the election had no basis in law.

Richard Donoghue, then-acting deputy attorney general, said in a video deposition that he told Clark at the meeting: “You’re an environmental lawyer. How about you go back to your office, and we’ll call you when there’s an oil spill.”

The toll of January 6 on civil servants

At several points across the hearings, the January 6 committee made a point to illustrate how Trump’s attacks on the election and the violence that occurred at the Capitol had impacts that went far beyond the political realm.

At the committee’s opening hearing, Capitol police officer Caroline Edwards testified about the injuries she suffered at the hands of rioters. The committee brought in state officials like Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers and Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, both Republicans, who received numerous threats after Trump had lashed out at them.

One of the most heart-wrenching moments came from the testimony of Wandrea “Shaye” Moss and her mother Ruby Freeman, who were volunteer election workers in Atlanta during the 2020 election.

They were falsely attacked by Giuliani for passing a USB drive (it was a ginger mint), and both described how it turned their lives upside down, forced into hiding. Moss testified that she felt “helpless,” gained 60 pounds and stopped giving out her business card because “I don’t want anyone knowing my name.”

Her mother, whose video deposition was shown alongside her daughter’s testimony, testified that she stopped using her name even though she was well known as “Lady Ruby.”

“I have lost my sense of security, all because of a group of people, starting with (Trump) and his ally Rudy Giuliani, decided to scapegoat me, and my daughter, Shaye, to push lies about how the election was stolen,” Freeman said.

The Trump aides who testified faced their own backlash. Trump’s allies have gone on an all-out campaign to try to discredit the testimony of Hutchinson, whose hearing was announced just a day in advance due to concerns about harassment and threats.

Sarah Matthews, the former deputy press secretary who testified publicly Thursday, was attacked by the House GOP Twitter account during Thursday’s hearing, though the tweet was later deleted. She currently works for a House GOP committee.

GOP lawmakers played a significant role in Trump’s scheme

Trump’s allies in Congress played a significant role on January 6 by objecting on the House floor to certifying Biden’s electors in two states, forcing the debate that the mob abruptly interrupted.

But behind the scenes, the January 6 committee’s hearing showed how significant a role many Republicans in Congress played helping Trump’s scheme.

Pennsylvania Rep. Scott Perry, for instance, brought Clark to the White House in December 2020 to introduce him to Trump, setting in motion the push to replace DOJ leadership with a loyalist.

Rep. Andy Biggs, an Arizona Republican, was lobbying Arizona’s House speaker Rusty Bowers on the morning of January 6 to sign onto a letter supporting de-certification of the state’s electors to Biden, Bowers told the committee during his testimony last month.

And an aide to Sen. Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican, texted a Pence aide on January 6 asking whether Johnson could hand-deliver to Pence the slates of fake Trump electors from Michigan and Wisconsin. The aide said no and the delivery was not made, but questions still linger over why Johnson was trying to deliver the fake electors for Trump.

After January 6, the House select committee obtained emails and testimony that showed multiple House Republicans seeking pardons. That included an email Alabama GOP Rep. Mo Brooks sent to the White House in January 2021 suggesting general pardons to multiple groups, including “every congressman and senator who voted to reject the electoral college vote submissions of Arizona and Pennsylvania.”

The committee also highlighted on several occasions the role that House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy played during and after January 6, including McCarthy angrily confronting Trump as the riot was unfolding, declaring a week later that the President had some responsibility — and then going to Mar-a-Lago to make amends not long after Trump had left office.

The focus on McCarthy is all the more notable because the committee issued unprecedented subpoenas to McCarthy and four other House Republicans (the GOP lawmakers have not turned over any documents or sat for interviews).

Of course, the two Republicans on the select committee, Cheney and Rep. Adam Kinzinger, have been ostracized from McCarthy’s House GOP conference, and the GOP leader is openly supporting Cheney’s primary opponent.

The Jan 6. committee re-imagined a congressional hearing

It’s safe to say that the January 6 committee’s set of hearings looked unlike any congressional hearing before them — and they’re unlikely to be replicated anytime soon.

The committee weaved together live testimony with snippets from depositions and lengthy video presentations to make the hearings a tightly produced affair. That’s no surprise given that the committee hired former ABC News President James Goldston to produce the hearings.

The committee made several choices before they began to maximize the impact for viewers: Instead of having every committee member speak at each hearings: only one or two lawmakers led each day’s presentation. Even the live witnesses were asked questions while the committee also played videos from their previous testimony.

It all added up to a package that felt more like a television show at times than a congressional hearing — one intended to keep viewers’ eyeballs tuned in and to convince them of the argument that was presented.

There was hardly ever a dissenting viewpoint. Some of the most devastating testimony came from witnesses like Barr, whose live testimony may have gone off script if he had been given such a forum.

The biggest reason why the hearings were so unique was the makeup of the panel itself: Its seven Democrats and two Republicans all shared the same belief that Trump needed to be held accountable for January 6.

That was because McCarthy pulled the Republicans he had placed on the panel after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi rejected two of his five picks, Reps. Jim Jordan of Ohio and Jim Banks of Indiana. Had McCarthy replaced them with other Republicans, Trump’s allies could have tried to mount a defense during the hearings themselves, much like what happened during the compelling House hearings before Trump’s first impeachment in 2019.

The Republican argument at the time was that the panel’s work would ultimately be dismissed as a political attack on Trump. But not long afterward, Cheney and Kinzinger joined the committee, giving it a bipartisan makeup.

And after the committee’s eight hearings, it was Republicans, not Democrats, who provided the most damning evidence of Trump’s culpability over January 6.

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