An infamous day. A search for answers. Will America tune in?
WASHINGTON (AP) — In a time of agonizing over other things, the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol — and democracy itself — returns in sharp focus as a special House committee opens hearings this week on the insurrection and Donald Trump’s part in it. Will Americans care?
The committee’s aggressive investigation is producing a spool of plot lines that together will tell the tale of a violent uprising fueled by the venom and lies of a defeated president.
But Americans are processing the nightmare of the slaughter of children in Texas, the racist murders in Buffalo, New York, and the other numbingly repeated scenes of carnage in the United States.
They're contending with what feels like highway robbery at the gas pump, nagged by a virus the world can't shake and split into two hostile camps over politics and culture — the twin pillars of the nation's very foundation.
And they've already been through the wringer on all things Trump.
Beginning in prime time on Thursday, the committee is setting out to establish the historical record of an event damaging not only to a community or individual families but to the collective idea of democracy itself.
After more than 100 subpoenas, 1,000 interviews and 100,000 documents, the committee promises to tell a story for the ages.
Dozens of the insurrectionists have been brought to justice. But the committee's goal is larger: Who in a position of power should also be held to account?
There are so many layers of inquiry. Did Vice President Mike Pence refuse to leave the besieged Capitol because he suspected the Secret Service at the behest of Trump was trying to take him away to stop him from certifying Joe Biden's victory? Did Trump flush incriminating papers down the White House toilet?
One aim: to establish whether Trump's acts are criminal, as one judge has mused they may be, and whether that might mean prosecution of an ex-president.
More broadly, the effort addresses who might be punished in the large circle of Trump enablers. Some of them are lawmakers who sided with his effort to overturn an honest election only to huddle in fear with everyone else in a Capitol hideout when the rioters swarmed the Capitol in service of that goal.
Rep. Jamie Raskin, a Maryland Democrat on the committee, set high expectations as the panel tries to renew interest in machinations that are nearly 18 months in the rearview mirror.
The hazards in that mirror are closer than they appear, as committee members see it.
“The hearings will tell a story that will really blow the roof off the House," Raskin said in April. “Because it is a story of the most heinous and dastardly political offense ever organized by a president and his followers and his entourage in the history of the United States.”
That offense? “An inside coup” coupled with a violent attack by “neo-fascists," he said.
Trump is not expected at any of the hearings, but his words and actions will hang heavy over the proceedings as lawmakers look to place him at the center of the chaos. It seems highly plausible he will find a way to rail against them that does not involve being under oath.
The panel, free from the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt standard, is likely to try to show that the riot was not a spontaneous gathering but part of a broader conspiracy.
Yet much is already known because the attack played out on TV and Trump exhorted supporters to “fight like hell” in shouts for the world to hear.
“In quieter times, the hearings would have a stronger hold on public attention,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. “But, as is, they will be competing for attention with topics with greater immediate relevance in our lives."
Hungry babies lacking formula. Soaring prices. Rising COVID-19 hospitalization among the vaccinated. The threat that Russia's Ukraine invasion will escalate to something nuclear. Monkeypox.
“If the hearings are to do anything other than reinforce our existing political biases," Jamieson said, "they will have to reveal previously covered-up goings-on that threatened something that Democrats, independents and most Republicans can agree should be sacrosanct.”
Seven Democrats and two Republicans make up the panel. Among them is Rep. Liz Cheney, the deeply conservative but fiercely independent Wyoming lawmaker who is practically alone in the GOP in assailing Trump while also seeking reelection to Congress.
Once an embodiment of the Republican establishment, she is now a renegade in a new order dominated by Trump, who wants her unseated in her primary in August.
Dartmouth College historian Matthew Delmont said Jan. 6 cast such an ominous shadow that he expects Americans, for all of their preoccupations, to be drawn to the inquiry.
“They want to understand how our democracy reached this precipice,” he said.
Jan. 6 shares certain distinctions with other traumas of history. As with 9/11, you can shorthand the date and people know. Like Watergate, it speaks to corrupt acts in the highest office. The attack brought so much visceral shock that many people remember where they were and what they were doing when they saw it.
To the far right, the historical analogy is the Boston Tea Party, with liberals, Democrats and the Washington establishment as the redcoats.
Trump-friendly Republicans sanitized what happened that day, once the shock that nearly all felt on Jan. 6 subsided. In measurements of public opinion, Republican voters in the main said they believe the 2020 election was rigged, when by all measures — the courts, nonpartisan and even Republican state officials, and the Trump administration's own election monitors — the election was purely fair.
Trump won the 2016 election with a minority of voters, lost the House to the Democrats in 2018 and lost in 2020 by a decisive margin — not a glowing electoral record.
Still he holds sway over his party, thanks to supporters whose loyalty seems immovable. They won't be easily dislodged by whatever a congressional committee reveals.