The meaning of the Jan. 6 committee hearings
For nearly 16 months, the committee has sorted the smithereens of Jan. 6, 2021, and reassembled a coherent picture of a government nearly brought to its knees by a former reality TV star whose penchant for showmanship won him the powers of the presidency. Seven Democrats, two Republicans and a few dozen committee staffers sifted through gigabytes of data evidence and interviewed and deposed hundreds of witnesses.
Since June, the committee has used the 4,000 square feet of the high-ceilinged Cannon Caucus Room — site of marquee hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1948 — as a showcase for it all: the comedy and the tragedy, the treachery and heroism, portioned into a series of gripping episodes, over the summer and fall, that suggest a winter of the American experiment. The hearings of the Jan. 6 committee have been methodical yet visceral, like a PowerPoint presentation of a national near-death experience. Our scary past, precarious present and uncertain future — all glimpsed through the fish-eye footage of battered body cams and the texting thumbs of powerful people who were up to no good.
Sometimes you could almost smell the bear spray. You could almost see the red-dot sight of Cheney’s laser focus aimed at the political future of the 45th president.
On Thursday afternoon, the hearing room was cold enough to send shivers down spines. The drapes were drawn against the gray sky. The crystal chandeliers beamed with a disinfectant brightness. The media had reported that this hearing — which was technically a “formal committee business meeting” — was probably the finale, but then how could that be? Like most traumatic chapters of U.S. history, the story of Jan. 6 and the Trump era will never really end, especially now that the former president has been subpoenaed by the committee.
Since June, there has been drama but no climax. There have been revelations but no catharsis.
“We don’t know where we are in the Donald Trump story,” says author and historian Garrett M. Graff, who has researched and written about Watergate and 9/11. “We don’t know yet whether the January 6th committee will be seen as a turning point in our national history, or a warning that went ignored.”
We do know what the hearings have tried to tell us in precise, persistent fashion: that Donald J. Trump, his partners and his acolytes — through both chaos and coordination — attempted to subvert American democracy, that they failed because the right people upheld their oaths at the right moments, but that they otherwise succeeded in deluding minds, sacking the Capitol and halting the peaceful transfer of power for the first time in U.S. history. They wrecked lives and careers of public service. They flushed the nation into a vortex of pain, paranoia and vengeance that may lead, barring intervention and reform, to the deterioration of the republic.
Or, to use the shorthand heard by police officers responding to the insurrection: The United States is in a Code 10-33. An emergency.
“Donald Trump and his allies and supporters are a clear and present danger to American democracy,” said a grave and solemn J. Michael Luttig, a Republican former judge, during the second hearing, on June 16.
Democrats “are doubling and tripling down on their partisan theatrics,” Trump communications director Taylor Budowich tweeted 45 minutes after Thursday’s hearing ended. Trump “will not be intimidate [sic] by their meritless rhetoric or un-American actions. Trump-endorsed candidates will sweep the Midterms, and America First leadership & solutions will be restored.”
Does the American public care about any of this? Trump’s favorability rating this summer was about the same as after the 2020 election, according to a poll by Monmouth University. About half of Americans heard little or nothing at all about the previous hearings, according to a Marquette Law School poll in September.
“I have not watched,” says Rusty Bowers, on the phone from his home in Mesa, Ariz. And why should he? He’d seen enough of it firsthand, from the front row, in a starring role in the fourth hearing, where he read a diary entry from December 2020 into the congressional record: “I do not want to be a winner by cheating.”
As the Republican speaker of the House in the Arizona legislature, Bowers, who says he voted for Trump in 2020, refused to abet the Trump team’s scheme to wrest the state away from its rightful winner, Joe Biden. Six weeks later, Bowers lost a Republican primary for state Senate by 30 points to a man who insinuated that Trump’s defeat is part of a metaphysical conspiracy perpetrated by “the devil himself.”
Bowers, an artist, has cleared out his office in Phoenix. He turns 70 next week. He paints and sculpts and hopes that the hearings revive the consensus that has united the states, however delicately, since the Civil War. His 20 grandchildren inspire him to take that long view, stretching back to the Founders’ struggle to put us together, then reaching beyond Trump’s crusade to break us apart.
“They’ll be able to say: ‘My grandpa did the right thing.’ ”
Doing the right thing has cost some Americans dearly, the hearings have shown, in physical and emotional ways. Bowers, like many other public servants, was buried in digital hatred: tens of thousands of hideous emails, voice mails and texts that besmirched his patriotism or promised him injury or execution.
“They tortured me,” police officer Michael Fanone said during a committee session last year, while describing the barbaric behavior of the rioters, who were armed with all manner of weapon: tasers, rebar, hammers, mace . . .
“I was slipping in people’s blood,” Capitol Police officer Caroline Edwards said in the committee’s first public hearing, on June 9, adding: “It was carnage. It was chaos. I can’t even describe what I saw.”
In December 2020, Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal attorney, publicly raved that two Black election workers in Atlanta were “passing around USB ports as if they’re vials of heroin or cocaine.” At the urging of the FBI, one of the workers, Ruby Freeman, fled her home to evade threats. Trump disparaged her name 18 times in a phone call to Georgia’s secretary of state.
“There is nowhere I feel safe. Nowhere,” Freeman told the committee in a recorded interview shown June 21. “Do you know how it feels to have the president of the United States target you?”
Barbara Byrum, the chief election official in Michigan’s Ingham County, is seeing the committee’s findings manifest in her life and the lives of colleagues. Conspiracy theorists have swamped elections offices with inane records requests and infiltrated their staffs at the direction of party activists, Byrum says. The siege of democracy is ongoing, but in a nonviolent and administrative manner. The Republican candidates for Michigan governor, attorney general and secretary of state have embraced election denialism. Since 2020, nearly two dozen of Michigan’s 83 county clerks have opted not to run for reelection, many because of stress and intimidation.
“It’s death by 1,000 cuts,” says Byrum, on the phone from Mason, Mich. Her grandparents were a teacher, a nurse, a police officer. Both of her parents held elective office in Michigan.
“Public service is just what I knew,” Byrum says, “and how I was raised.”
She has been county clerk for 10 years, overseeing 30 elections. Her takeaway from the Jan. 6 hearings?
“Public trust is easy to lose. And it’s harder to regain.”
Thirty years ago, in his classroom, political scientist Robert Lieberman described the American system as an intricate mechanism that, like clockwork, restrained extremism and nudged the nation toward moderation, consensus and incrementalism. In 2020, he co-wrote a book that listed four key threats to democracy: political polarization, growing executive power, high and rising economic inequality, and racial and ethnic conflict over who belongs in a society.
Over its history the United States has undergone multiple crises in which one or some of these conditions prevailed.
“But not until now have we had all four at the same time,” says Lieberman, who calls the Jan. 6 hearings a “mesmerizing” indication of our predicament. They’ve painted “a pretty compelling picture of a president who was actively engaged in trying to subvert the law.”
And where do the hearings suggest we are, as a nation?
“On the knife’s edge.”
But for now our systems grind along. On Thursday, about 3,000 feet from the revelations of the legislature, the judiciary was still processing Jan. 6 defendants. In courtroom 23A of U.S. District Court, the seditious-conspiracy jury trial of a group of Oath Keepers was in its seventh day. At least six other citizens charged in connection with the insurrection had video appointments with the court. A New Jersey man — who on Jan. 6 allegedly wrote on his Facebook page: “Home alive. History made. I walked through Pelosi’s office. I should have s— on her chair” — was found guilty of obstructing an official proceeding, among other crimes. A father and son, from Utah and Illinois, agreed to plead guilty to parading, demonstrating or picketing in the Capitol, in exchange for the government dropping trespassing and disorderly conduct charges.
When asked by the judge if he was satisfied with his attorneys, the father said, in a tone of penitent gratitude: “They’re the next best thing to sliced bread.”
Cheney had these defendants and criminals in mind Thursday. “Our nation cannot only punish the foot soldiers who stormed our Capitol,” she said in her closing remarks. Since Jan. 6, 2021, Cheney, whose great-great-grandfather fought for the Union under General William Tecumseh Sherman, has been on her own march to the sea. Her conference abandoned her for Trump. For daring to defend the integrity of U.S. elections, her constituents voted her out.
“A key task remains,” Cheney said in closing Thursday, confirming this was not a finale. “We must seek the testimony under oath of January 6th’s central player.”
That player, or a surrogate for him, posted a retort on Truth Social about 55 minutes later: “Why didn’t the Unselect Committee ask me to testify months ago?”
What, if anything, would the president’s testimony reveal? Will there be a climax? A catharsis? Or just another finale?
Camila DeChalus contributed to this report.