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Yes, it’s been 74 weeks since a violent mob laid siege to the U.S. Capitol. No, the time has not made it any easier to watch video from that day, to hear testimony from those caught in the chaos, or to be reminded just how completely most of former President Donald Trump’s fellow Republicans remain committed to brushing off the facts from Jan. 6, 2021.
At its first major public hearing Thursday night, the bipartisan committee charged with investigating the events of Jan. 6—and, perhaps more importantly, the events leading up to it—unleashed a torrent of new evidence from body cameras, closed-circuit feeds, unaired documentary footage, depositions, and emails to lay the groundwork for their case in primetime. While the crimes of that day may be the most documented in history, the new presentation went well beyond what lawmakers were able to cobble together in early 2021, during a rushed impeachment of Trump for his alleged role in assembling a riotous crowd and urging them to march on the Capitol, where lawmakers were scheduled that day to affirm his electoral loss. Washington may have understood the broad events of the day, but zooming in, in miniature, revealed even more terrible details to a city that has not yet truly coped with the trauma.
The siege lasted just a few hours, but Washington has been living with the consequences ever since.
Those who spend so much time in that building—lawmakers, their aides, Capitol staff including its police force, and journalists—have been returning to the crime scene for the last 520 days, where small reminders remain of how life on Capitol Hill forever changed. Top security officials are pushing to ban lawmakers inside the Capitol complex from carrying weapons, as is currently allowed and remains more common than the public would expect. Metal detectors now police if House members are packing heat when they arrive for votes on the floor. Distrust is so pervasive that some lawmakers have even tried family therapy sessions in recognition of just how toxic the moment has become.
The committee’s presentation on Thursday amounted to examining an open wound. Lawmakers and their investigators threshed through more than 1,000 interviews to present a succinct two-hour opening evening replete with videos, maps, animations, radio calls, and live testimony. They reconstructed the lead-up to and execution of the violent day that saw the Capitol breached for the first time since 1814, painting a threat to democracy itself from not just right-wing extremists and their radicalized neighbors, but from a president desperately clinging to power.
In the committee’s emerging narrative, Trump first motivated extremist groups like the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers to organize the spine of an attack. He then dispatched his supporters to fall in line behind that military-style assault on the Capitol. For instance, the committee presented evidence that membership in the Proud Boys tripled after Trump told the group to “stand back and stand by” during a presidential debate. And a documentarian who had embedded with Proud Boys testified to the committee that the group scouted the Capitol and then went to have a lunch of tacos while waiting for the crowd to head their way, providing the force needed to overpower the Capitol Police.
And once there, it was, one officer testified, a “war scene.”
“I was slipping in people’s blood,” Capitol Police Officer Caroline Edwards told the committee. “It was carnage. It was chaos. I can’t even describe what I saw. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that as a police officer, a law enforcement officer, I would find myself in the middle of a battle.”
Edwards was among the roughly 140 officers injured in the attack, at one point hitting her head, blacking out, and returning to duty only to be blasted in the eyes with a spray just before being tear-gassed.
“I’m trained to detain a couple of subjects and handle a crowd. But I’m not combat trained,” she said. “And that day, it was just hours of hand-to-hand combat.”
So many people on the Hill barricaded themselves in offices and watched on live TV as the mob broke windows and roamed the Capitol, searching for specific lawmakers. It was a shared experience regardless of party.
Yet in the days and weeks after, it was clear that Trump’s hold on the Republican Party remained about as strong as ever. The 2021 impeachment in the Democratic House was always in the cards. So, too, was his acquittal in the Senate, where prosecutors needed 17 Republican votes to convict; they got seven. Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the Minority Leader who hopes to rise to Speaker, swerved from assuring colleagues on Jan. 6 that he would tell Trump to resign to visiting the ex-President on Jan. 28, just three weeks after the insurrection. In video from Jan. 6 shown Thursday night, McCarthy’s own staffers could be seen abandoning their desks and fleeing the office in terror.
Rep. Liz Cheney, a Wyoming Republican whose position as vice chair of the panel has helped turn her into a pariah among much of her party, challenged her colleagues protesting the very existence of the inquiry on Thursday to open their eyes. “There will come a day when Donald Trump is gone, but your dishonor will remain,” she said.
For his part, Trump on Thursday seemed to show no regret for what transpired. “January 6th was not simply a protest, it represented the greatest movement in the history of our Country to Make America Great Again,” he wrote in a statement.
Polls suggest the Big Lie has taken hold. A December poll from CBS News found 56% of Republicans associated the events of Jan. 6 with “defending freedom” and 47% with “patriotism.” The political violence, it seems, has been normalized.
Potential cracks in the footing, however, may start to become public as the Jan. 6 inquisitors start showing what they’ve been collecting for the last 10 months.
Lawmakers, as expected, cast Trump as a figure who will chase power at the expense of facts or justice. But the new specifics to that die were rather shocking. In recorded video, Trump’s Attorney General, William Barr, flatly calls Trump’s claims of electoral fraud “bullshit,” and suggests they were what prompted him to leave the administration early. Ivanka Trump, the President’s daughter and senior White House adviser, said in a separate taped interview that she “accepted” Barr’s diagnosis. And several campaign aides testified to investigators that they, too, had informed the President and his top aides that there was no truth in the claims Trump was spreading about rigged election systems or stolen results. Still, according to investigators, Trump told aides that “maybe our supporters have the right idea” when they were chanting death threats at Vice President Mike Pence, who wouldn’t join Trump’s illegal effort to countermand the results.
In the face of seemingly unified advice coming from his official circle, according to the House committee’s presentation, Trump opted to chase conspiracy theories. He pressed ahead, urging crowds to swarm Washington during his final days in power.
Hours before the hearing, reporters asked McCarthy five times in the span of a minute if Biden had been legitimately elected. Understanding Trump’s power, McCarthy would only say that Biden was currently the President. McCarthy also would not say that the events amounted to an insurrection, a nod to the martyr status that many of the more than 800 individuals charged with crimes enjoy in some circles, especially those crucial to Trump’s power. During a separate appearance on Fox News, Rep. Lee Zeldin, a New York Republican, seemed indifferent to the labels. “We still haven’t figured out what to call it,” he said of the events that took place on Jan. 6.
While some in the hearing room wept openly, the conservative echo chamber went into overdrive to deny the evening’s legitimacy. Fox News pointedly refused to take the hearings live but instead paraded a series of hosts and guests who savaged the evening with open contempt. Most were eager to blame House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser for the violence, arguing they failed to act to protect the Capitol. (A bipartisan Senate report, written by two committees, concluded that was not the case.) Others dared to blame the officers themselves, or an overzealous FBI and Department of Justice who have been ruining the lives of innocent folks like a candidate for Governor of Michigan, whom the FBI arrested on Thursday for his alleged actions at the Capitol. Yet others like Rep. Troy Nehls, who helped barricade the House door against the insurrectionists and was a Republican pick to serve on the very committee, decried violence against police before saying there were many people just walking around Capitol Hill that day.
The newly released body-cam footage from the police that day, however, paints a far more frightening scene for officers than tourists milling about. A 12-minute, move-by-move video charted just how the rioters overtook the Capitol, breaching spaces long assumed safe if not sacred. “We can’t hold this. There are too many f—ing people,” an unidentified and panicked officer says. “Look at it from this vantage point. We’re f—ed.”
The officer was realizing in real time that the Capitol had fallen to mob rule. And that dynamic may not have ended at nightfall on Jan. 6.
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