“They were peaceful people. They were great people,” President Donald Trump said. “Love in the air – I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Thursday’s prime-time congressional hearing — the first of the House Select Committee created to investigate the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol — was unlike any Capitol Hill had ever seen. Far from a dry examination of established facts or a bare-knuckle partisan dismissal, Thursday’s presentation was carefully calibrated to tell a story – one imbued with equal patriotism, action, tension and heroism. American audiences might find this side of “Top Gun: Maverick.”
The story was told in the Delta drag of President Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.), who described in surgical terms how Trump “incited a host of national enemies of the Constitution to descend the Capitol and overthrow American Democracy,” and Vice President Liz Cheney’s (R-Wyo.) no-nonsense standoff, which left no responsible party unscathed, let alone her fellow Republicans.
“There will come a day when Donald Trump will be gone. But your dishonor will remain,” she said.
There was no instant rebuttal on Thursday night, no counter-programming inside the room — a fact that was largely done by Republicans. The select panel was created last year after GOP leaders chose to reject a bipartisan commission to investigate the Jan. 6 attack, then, after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) decided to slap some Republican appointees to the select committee, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) chose to step down entirely.
So while most congressional hearings on heavily partisan issues give viewers a split-screen account of the case at hand, Thompson, Cheney and their fellow panelists were free to weave a seamless, unpunctuated narrative — at least for the duration of the hearing – by hostile voices.
This story featured a succession of special guests: characters from the saga that began in the hours after Trump’s defeat in the 2020 presidential election, who played varying roles in the losing president’s attempts to snatch victory from defeat. Some were presented as heroes, others as villains.
Cast as Cassandra, former Attorney General William P. Barr made a first appearance – seen on video during Thompson’s opening statement, delivering a candid assessment of Trump’s quest to undo his loss.
“I made it clear that I disagreed with the idea of saying the election was stolen…what I said to the president was bullshit,” he said.
There was General Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, heard on tape dismissively recalling a conversation where White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows pushed him to intervene in the brewing crisis: “Politics, politics, politics – red flag.” Later came presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner, seen in recently released deposition footage summarizing his attitude to White House attorney Pat Cipollone’s repeated threats to resign: “I sort of took that to whine, to be honest with you.”
And then there was the voice of Stephen K. Bannon, the former Trump strategist and off-and-on Svengali, as heard on his podcast on January 5, 2021: “Hell is going to break loose tomorrow. Just understand this. All hell is going to break loose tomorrow.
The 11-minute video was purely cinematic, beginning with the foreshadowing of a lone protester caught on video that morning near the Washington Monument: “I’m not allowed to say what’s going to happen today because everyone’s just going to have to look for themselves, right? now. But it will happen.”
The words of Trump from the Ellipse, urging his supporters to action, are heard across the mall as the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers march off: “You will never take back our country weakly.”
Cameras mounted high on the Capitol rotunda captured the horde breaking through police lines and rampaging towards the Capitol. Chants of “Hang Mike Pence” were juxtaposed against an image of the model gallows that had been erected on the eastern front.
A Capitol police officer is heard bursting out in panic: “Too many people,” he shouted. Inside, staff members flee McCarthy’s office as rioters in the hallway pour into Pelosi’s office with a menacing mantra: “Nancy!” Nancy! Nancy! Nancy!”
Amid the wickedness, Thompson and Cheney cited acts of heroism. Justice Department officials who pushed back against Trump’s plot. Vice President Mike Pence and his aides kept their oath despite fierce pressure. And the soldiers who flocked to Washington in the aftermath of the attack, garrisoning inside the Capitol’s breached grounds.
Some lay beneath paintings inside the Capitol depicting early scenes of American democracy – including John Trumbull’s famous portrait of George Washington resigning from his commission, Cheney said, “voluntarily relinquishing power, surrendering control of the Continental Army in Congress”.
“With this noble act, Washington has set the much needed example of the peaceful transfer of power,” she said. “The sacred obligation to uphold this peaceful transfer of power has been honored by all but one of America’s presidents.”
Like all great leads, Thursday’s hearing ended in a cliffhanger. Cheney outlined the series of hearings to come – each describing, step by step, piece by piece, every element of the conspiracy to steal the 2020 election and its terrible and violent consequences.
And even that, Cheney promised, wouldn’t necessarily be the end of it: “Keep two things in mind,” she told Americans watching: The House investigation is still ongoing, as is the Department of Justice criminal investigation.