• Politics
  • January 6

How Bennie Thompson and Liz Cheney Turned the Jan. 6 Hearings Into Must-See TV

16 minute read

Six weeks ago, as the Jan. 6 committee was preparing to hold its first public hearing on its investigation into the deadly Capitol attack, one question loomed large: Would anyone care? That question was soon answered with a resounding yes.

The hearings have not only captivated the nation. They have produced new evidence that increases the possibility that former President Donald Trump may actually be prosecuted for his attempts to overturn the election.

That’s all in large part because of the highly effective leadership of an unlikely duo: Reps. Bennie Thompson, Democrat of Mississippi, and Liz Cheney, Republican of Wyoming.

The respective chair and vice chair of the committee are political opposites who have presented to the country a united front in their search for the truth. Each of the seven hearings so far has kicked off with opening statements from the pair, with Thompson setting the tone by presenting a 30,000-foot view of Trump’s multiple schemes to thwart the peaceful transfer of power, delivered in his trademark soft-spoken Southern accent. Cheney then follows up by delving into the specifics of what the hearing will cover and taking direct aim at Trump, usually offering strong soundbites that are, moments later, all over Twitter.

Together, they have turned what many had expected would be a historically valuable but politically inconsequential exercise into a riveting inflection point in American history. In the process, they have galvanized most of the country into acknowledging that the worst attack on the Capitol in over a century was not a spontaneous protest that spun out of control, but a premeditated attempted coup.

“Donald Trump summoned a mob of his supporters to Washington, spurred them to march on the Capitol and failed to take meaningful action to quell the violence as it was unfolding on January 6th,” Thompson said at last week’s hearing. And Cheney then excoriated efforts by Trump and his defenders to blame his confidants for pushing conspiracy theories about the 2020 election that he then chose to amplify to his millions of followers. “The strategy is to blame people his advisors called ‘the crazies’ for what Donald Trump did,” Cheney said. “This of course is nonsense. President Trump is a 76-year-old man, he is not an impressionable child.”

As the committee gears up for another primetime hearing on Thursday—likely its last one until the fall—Thompson and Cheney are preparing to tie a bow around the narrative they have pieced together for the public over the last six weeks. Committee members say it will be akin to the season finale of a gripping series, one that has documented the greatest crime an American president has ever committed against his own government.

Different Paths

The two lawmakers running the most high-profile congressional hearings in decades couldn’t have more different backgrounds. Thompson, 74, has been in Congress for nearly 30 years. He grew up in the tiny town of Bolton, Miss., at a time when the Ku Klux Klan was terrorizing its Black community. When he began seeking elected office in the early 70s, he regularly carried a gun for fear he would be the target of white-supremacist violence.

Cheney, 55, is the daughter of a former Vice President who was once one of the most powerful men in the Republican Party. She was born in Madison, Wis., where her parents were both studying at the local university. Her father, Dick Cheney, soon began working for Republicans in the federal government, working his way up to President Gerald Ford’s White House chief of staff. Cheney grew up splitting most of her time between the Washington, D.C. suburbs and Casper, Wyo., after her father won a House seat representing the Cowboy State in 1978. She graduated from a high school in Northern Virginia, where she was a cheerleader, before going off to college and law school.

Their professional lives also took noticeably different paths: Thompson was more focused on domestic issues, whereas Cheney more on foreign policy.

House January 6 Committee Holds Public Hearing
Rep. Bennie Thompson, left, Rep. Liz Cheney, center, and Rep Jamie Raskin exit following a hearing on July 12, 2022.Shawn Thew—EPA/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Thompson dived into local politics after graduating from two historically Black universities in Mississippi: a bachelor’s in political science from Tougaloo College and a master’s in education from Jackson State University. He was a school teacher and an alderman in his hometown of Bolton before being elected mayor in 1973, a role he served for seven years. He then moved up to a seat on the Hinds County Board of Supervisors, a position he held for 14 years. In 1993, he seized an opportunity to run for Congress when a seat opened up in Mississippi’s second district. After edging out his GOP challenger with 55% of the vote, Thompson became a fixture in the halls of Congress, and a longtime member of the House Homeland Security Committee. In 2019, he became chairman of the powerful committee.

Cheney graduated from Colorado College in 1988 and soon went to work for the State Department and United States Agency for International Development. Later, she earned her law degree from the University of Chicago, and practiced law for a few years before President George W. Bush, under whom her father served as Vice President, appointed her Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs. She took a two-year hiatus from the State Department to work on the Bush-Cheney reelection campaign, before going back to the agency during Bush’s second term.

After Bush left office in 2009, Cheney worked in conservative politics and became a contributor to Fox News. In 2014, she toyed with running for a U.S. Senate seat in Wyoming but dropped out of the race after getting pilloried over her hawkish foreign policy views, and a public spat with her sister. (Cheney opposed same-sex marriage at the time even though her sister was happily wedded to another woman.) Two years later, though, she caught a break when Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming retired from the House. Cheney jumped at the chance to become the state’s only House member, and easily won the election, with more than 60% of the vote.

In Congress, she gained a reputation as one of the most conservative members of the House. The news site FiveThirtyEight found that she voted in line with Donald Trump’s position nearly 93% of the time. But even before the Capitol attack, she had become an outspoken critic of Trump, targeting in particular his foreign policy decisions and his handling of the pandemic.

A Shared Mission

Both Thompson and Cheney were in the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, when thousands stormed the building to try to stop the congressional certification of the Electoral College. Many in the mob chanted “Hang Mike Pence” while searching for legislators throughout the halls of Congress, with the express intent of blocking Joe Biden’s election victory.

Almost immediately afterward, lawmakers began calling for the creation of an independent bicameral commission to investigate the Capitol attack. Styled after the 9/11 Commission, it was to have five Republicans and five Democrats—none of them current members of Congress. But the idea faced vociferous resistance from Republicans, who called it a “slanted and unbalanced proposal.” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell questioned whether such a commission could achieve anything that the Justice Department’s probe or the second impeachment process could not. “It’s not at all clear what new facts or additional investigation yet another commission could lay on top of the existing efforts by law enforcement and Congress,” he said at the time. Come June of that year, Senate Republicans filibustered the proposal.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi quickly switched gears and opted for a House select committee to investigate the Capitol riot. The resolution passed 222 to 190, with only two Republicans voting in favor, Cheney and Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois. Pelosi was to appoint eight members to the committee and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy would appoint five, in consultation with Pelosi.

House Select Committee On January 6th Holds Its 7th Hearing
Rep. Bennie Thompson takes questions from the media after the committee's seventh hearing on July 12, 2022.Tasos Katopodis—Getty Images

Within the Democratic caucus, scores of members vied to lead the panel. But Thompson had a powerful ally in his corner: Majority Whip James Clyburn, of South Carolina, one of his best friends. Clyburn urged Pelosi to pick the Mississippi Democrat as chair. He said he wanted Thompson in that role because the committee needed a leader who would be focused on the investigation, and not see it as an opportunity to grandstand or score political points.

“I know Bennie. You’ll never be able to determine anything from his facial expressions,” Clyburn tells TIME. “He has the kind of temperament needed for this.

Because a lot of times, when people ask their questions, it’s not always the question they ask but the way they look when they ask a question. I just thought he was the one.” Thompson’s work as chairman of the Homeland Security Committee also gave him experience dealing with domestic terrorism and working across the aisle, Clyburn notes. “I just thought we needed a real strong bipartisan presentation.”

In July, Pelosi announced the committee’s membership, with Thompson as its chair, and Cheney as the second in command. Cheney, Pelosi said, had “patriotically agreed to serve” as vice chair. Still, it was far from an easy choice for Cheney. House Republicans quickly stripped her of her leadership post and Trump mobilized a primary challenge against her. Her participation on the panel was the clearest sign yet that Cheney was willing, if needed, to sacrifice her political career to hold Trump accountable. It was also a boon to the committee. With her conservative bona fides, Cheney’s presence helped shield the panel against allegations that its work was part of a partisan witch hunt.

When McCarthy recommended five more Republicans, Pelosi took issue with two of them, Reps. Jim Jordan of Ohio and Jim Banks of Indiana, both of whom were close Trump allies who had questioned the legitimacy of Biden’s election victory. “The idea that you would put up Jim Jordan, who is a subject of the investigation, if not ultimately a target for the Justice Department, showed he wasn’t serious about any of this,” says Norm Ornstein, a Congressional expert and scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

Outraged, McCarthy quickly pulled all of his recommendations, forfeiting the minority leader’s opportunity to have any Trump supporters on the committee. In turn, Pelosi named the other GOP House member who supported the committee’s formation, Kinzinger, to join Cheney as the only two Republicans on the panel. That ended up being a fateful decision, Ornstein adds. There were now no Republicans in a position to sabotage the work of the committee. Instead, the members enjoyed a sense of cohesion and a shared mission. “This way, you have a committee that is completely dedicated to its task, and determined to make it work,” he tells TIME. “And that’s not always the case. In fact, it’s unusual.”

The committee went to work for 10 months—interviewing more than a thousand witnesses and gathering more than 130,000 documents—before opening the highly anticipated public hearings in June. Over the course of their probe, the members cultivated close bonds. Rep. Jamie Raskin, Democrat of Maryland, said he developed a friendship with Kinzinger, whom he barely knew before they each joined the panel, even though their lockers are next to each other in the House gym.

And Thompson was effective at maintaining an emotional equilibrium among the panel when difficult decisions were made, committee members emphasize. “He has a wonderfully insightful and relaxed and funny way of reducing conflict and keeping everybody focused on making progress together,” Raskins says.

Cheney and Kinzinger, in particular, helped with what the committee knew would be a powerful obstacle toward reaching ordinary Americans—the counterprogramming coming from Fox News and other right-wing media.

The Democrats on the committee “don’t live in the world of conservative conversations and narrative,” Rep. Stephanie Murphy, Democrat of Florida, tells TIME, which was why the Republicans on the committee were so helpful. “Sometimes they played a role as translator while flagging for us what’s being said.”

Thompson and Cheney in particular developed a mutual respect and friendship through their leadership of the committee. “Working alongside the public servants on this dais has been one of the greatest honors of my time in Congress,” said Thompson at the first hearing June 9. “It’s been a particular privilege to count as a partner in this effort, and to count as a friend, the gentlewoman from Wyoming, Ms. Cheney. She is a patriot, a public servant of profound courage, a devotion to her oath and the Constitution.”

The goal of the hearings, according to members of the committee, was to provide the most comprehensive account of Jan. 6 and the days and weeks leading up to it. At the same time, it was to tell a compelling story that would play out like a docuseries. They did this through subject-focused hearings that all carried a single narrative thread. But as those initial hearings garnered widespread praise and strong interest, more people started coming forward. And when former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson testified, everything changed. She told the panel that the Secret Service warned Trump that his supporters attending his rally near the White House on Jan. 6 were heavily armed , yet he instructed them to go to the Capitol anyway. She also said that he tried to march to the Capitol with them, even though his White House counsel said he would be “charged with every crime imaginable” if he did.

While Hutchinson’s explosive testimony drew more attention to the committee’s work, so, too, did another effective tactic employed by Cheney. At the end of each hearing, she offered a cliffhanger during her closing statement, teasing out new information that would be further fleshed out in a future hearing. At the end of the first session, she told the country how multiple members of Congress sought pardons for their roles on Jan. 6, but waited later to disclose most of their identities. At the dramatic hearing where Hutchinson testified, Cheney dropped a final bombshell near the end, detailing attempts of witness tampering from Trump and his associates.

It’s a strategy that Cheney’s supporters say has amped up interest in the hearings, while sending a message to the MAGA faithful. “She’s going to put country above party. She believes passionately that people need to be held to account for the attack on the Capitol,” says Charlie Dent, a former Republican Congressman from Pennsylvania who was friends with Cheney when they served together.

“She doesn’t back down.”

The Final Hearing, For Now

On Thursday night, the committee will conduct what’s expected to be the final session in its first tranche of hearings. The panel will present a minute-by-minute deconstruction of the 187 minutes when the Capitol was under siege—and document how Trump made no attempt to stop the violence. The questioning will be led by Luria and Kinzinger. Two former Trump White House officials who resigned in the immediate aftermath of the Jan. 6 attack—former Deputy National Security Adviser Matthew Pottinger and former Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Matthews—are set to testify.

Luria said that she and Kizinger were chosen to lead this hearing because they are the only veterans on the committee. The two of them will emphasize Trump’s “dereliction of duty” and violation of the “take care” clause in the Constitution, which requires the president to ensure the laws are faithfully executed.

In preparation for her work on the committee, Luria said she studied the Watergate hearings in 1973, when legislators were investigating the cover-up of a burglary that went all the way to the Oval Office. “I think people forget that these hearings took place about a year after the break-in, and people also had similar remarks like, ‘Do you think that this will move the needle?’” Luria tells TIME. “There was a lot of doubt in the hearings, until the tapes came out.”

House Select Committee On January 6th Holds Its 7th Hearing
Rep. Bennie Thompson gavels closed the seventh hearing held by the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol on July 12, 2022.Shawn Thew—Pool/Getty Images

There will be one noticeable absence in the committee room Thursday evening: Thompson, who announced on Tuesday that he tested positive for Covid, but who directed the committee to proceed with the primetime hearing anyway.

Committee members are planning to hold one or two more hearings in September, around the time they will release a preliminary report with their recommendations to ensure that nothing like Jan. 6 ever happens again.

But committee members emphasize that their investigation is ongoing, and if they obtain new information the public needs to know, like with Hutchinson, they may abruptly schedule another hearing later this summer.

No matter how Thursday night goes, or what revelations come of it, it’s fair to say that far more Americans are thinking about Jan. 6 than they were a few months ago. And there are signs that Trump’s stature may be is diminishing. Some of the most influential figures on the American right, such as podcast star Joe Rogan and Tesla CEO Elon Musk, have signaled they would support Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis over him for the Republican ticket in 2024. And a recent New York Times-Siena College poll found that half of GOP voters are ready to move on from the former president.

Ultimately, though, it’s too early to tell what the committee’s work will mean for Trump’s future, whether he is too damaged to run for president again, or whether he might face criminal prosecution. But the picture has changed so dramatically over the last six weeks, that those outcomes seem more plausible. Which is far more than most Washington insiders thought Bennie Thompson and Liz Cheney could pull off.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com