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At First Hearing, Jan. 6 Panel Uses Trump’s Allies to Lay Out Case Against Him

7 minute read
Updated: | Originally published:

The House Select Committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol began making its case for Donald Trump’s culpability for the deadly riot Thursday night, using testimony from members of his own administration to argue that the former president was behind a coordinated conspiracy to overturn the 2020 election and block the transfer of power to Joe Biden.

Within minutes of the start of the primetime hearing, which all but one of the major broadcast networks aired live, Rep. Bennie Thompson, Democrat of Mississippi and the committee’s chairman, showed the first footage from a former Trump White House official explaining under oath that they had informed the president that his claims of widespread voter fraud were false.

“I made it clear I did not agree with the idea of saying the election was stolen and putting out this stuff, which I told the president was bullshit,” former Attorney General William Barr told committee investigators in taped testimony, referring to a December 2020 meeting with Trump. “And I didn’t want to be a part of it.”

The committee later aired footage from a deposition with the president’s own daughter and special adviser, Ivanka Trump, who was present for that meeting and told the committee she took Barr’s comments seriously. “It affected my perspective,” she said. “I respect Attorney General Barr, so I accepted what he was saying.”

The revelations were among the most explosive and significant of the evening. Legal experts and former prosecutors have said that any evidence that Trump was informed that he was spreading a lie to prevent Congress from certifying Biden’s election victory could implicate him on charges of intent to defraud. “It’s really important if you can prove he knew he lost, that helps bolster claims of corrupt intent and fraudulent intent,” Barbara McQuade, a former U.S. attorney and now a law professor at the University of Michigan, told TIME in April.

Other testimony from former administration officials demonstrated how Trump and his closest confidants were actively looking for ways to subvert the election outcome. Alex Cannon, Trump’s top campaign lawyer, recalled a December 2020 conversation with the president’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, who asked what they had dug up to challenge the election results of decisive swing states. “We weren’t finding anything that was sufficient to change the results in key states,” Cannon said he told Meadows. “So there’s no there there?” Meadows replied, according to Cannon.

The committee also sought to provide evidence that Trump did not take action to stop the Capitol attack as it was unfolding, even expressing approval as the mayhem ensued. The crowd in the Cannon House Office Building hearing room collectively gasped when Rep. Liz Cheney, Republican from Wyoming and vice chair of the panel, shared testimony from inside the White House over what Trump told his staff after the mob started chants to hang Vice President Mike Pence. “Maybe our supporters have the right idea,” he said. “Mike Pence deserves it.”

Committee members have said the six hearings would play out almost like a Netflix series. On Thursday night, Thompson and Cheney telegraphed threads of a conspiracy they intend to bring to light over five subsequent hearings, showing how members of two far-right groups, the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, were working well in advance to prepare for the Capitol invasion, with much of those efforts spurred by Trump’s statements. On Tuesday, the Justice Department indicted five members of the Proud Boys on counts of seditious conspiracy—a charge that carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in jail.

One of the most evocative moments of the first hearing was when the committee showed harrowing documentary footage of the Jan. 6 attack, interspersed with clips of Trump’s speech at a rally near the White House and screenshots of his tweets throughout the day. As the Capitol was under siege—and the building was breached by violent insurrectionists—Trump refused to call in the military or National Guard to protect Congress, leaving the vice president to do so instead.

“Trump gave no order to deploy the National Guard that day, and made no effort to work with the Department of Justice to coordinate and deploy law enforcement assets,” Cheney said. “But Mike Pence did each of those things.”

The video footage stirred many of the Capitol Hill police officers who attended the hearing and had to relive the trauma of the attack. “I can’t say I’m surprised anymore,” one of the officers, Harry Dunn, told TIME after the hearing, referring to the revelation of Trump’s refusal to call for reinforcements. “You’ve got a job to protect not just us but this country and you didn’t.”

Cheney said there was evidence presented to the committee that Trump was aware that the crowd that showed up to support him that day was likely to turn violent. But he chose to whip them up anyway. “The White House was receiving specific reports, including during Trump’s Ellipse rally, that elements in the crowd were preparing for violence.”

Committee members wanted to convey that these were intentional choices by the president to prevent Biden’s election certification, triggering a failure in the Electoral College that Trump hoped would lead to a contingent election in the House of Representatives. It was through that scenario that Trump’s allies, such as law professor John Eastman, intended to bring in a new slate of electors who would reinstall Trump as president.

“All Americans should keep in mind this fact,” Cheney said. “On the morning of Jan. 6, Donald Trump’s intention was to remain President of the United States despite the lawful outcome of the election.”

The video presentation also showed how Trump’s remarks in the first 2020 presidential debate—telling the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by”—led to increased membership in the far-right extremist group and energized its leaders to fight against a Trump election loss.

The violent role of the Proud Boys took center stage during the final portion of Thursday’s hearing, when two witnesses testified in person. Caroline Edwards, a U.S. Capitol Police Officer who sustained a brain injury from the riot, described the moment when insurrectionists moved to breach the Capitol as a “war scene,” providing vivid and at times graphic details of the onslaught. “It was something like I had seen out of the movies,” she said. “I couldn’t believe my eyes. There were officers on the ground. They were bleeding, they were throwing up. I mean, I saw friends with blood all over their faces. I was slipping in people’s blood.”

Filmmaker Nick Quested, who followed the Proud Boys in the days and hours leading up to the attack, was the second witness. Much of the documentary footage the committee screened was shot by him. “I documented the crowd turn from protestors, to rioters, to insurrectionists,” he told the House panel.

Thompson told reporters after the hearing that the aim of the first session was to stick with the facts the investigation uncovered. “We made a conscious effort to only put on what we could prove,” he said. Yet that is unlikely to sway the majority of Republican leaders who continue to downplay the severity of the attack, leaving the door open, some committee members have said, for such an episode to repeat itself.

Toward the end of the 11-minute video presentation—as insurrectionists could be seen beating police officers and breaking through the windows of the Capitol—the montage reached its dramatic climax by playing audio from remarks Trump made months later. “They were peaceful people. These were great people,” he said of the rioters. “The love in the air—I’ve never seen anything like it.”

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