The Jan. 6 Hearings: Powerful Inquiry into an Attempted Coup

Any American troubled that our troubled American democracy seems unable to fix its troubles — and what conscientious citizen is not? — can take heart, lots of it, at the rescue work being done by the U.S. House select committee investigating January 6, 2021, the coup-that-almost-was.

The Jan. 6 committee’s public hearings, launched last week and unspooling over the rest of this month, is mapping out — in crystal-clear detail, in objective but riveting manner — the actors, the methods and plans, and, importantly, the motivation behind this most serious threat to American democracy: to overturn the peaceful transfer of power via a violent coup.

“Peaceful transfer of power”: It sounds anodyne, but isn’t. Its absence is…January 6, 2021. Its absence is Chaos.

While Donald Trump, the former President, figures centrally, these hearings are by no means a Trump-bash. The focus, instead, is on the attempted coup, with Trump cast as instigator. Coups do not take place spontaneously, but require minute planning: How else explain how ladders and gallows — and thousands of armed insurrectionists — turned up the very day the electoral count certifying Joseph R. Biden as President was to take place at the U.S. Capitol, with the sole aim to stop the count?

To paraphrase Sen. Howard Baker’s famous line at the Watergate hearings 50 years ago that investigated President Richard Nixon’s depredations — “What did the President know and when did he know?” — the Jan. 6 committee’s through-line question is: “What did the coup-maker know, when did he know it — and what did he do about it?”

On that point about knowledge, one of many surprises revealed in the first hearing: Trump knew he lost the 2020 election — and more individuals than heretofore known tried to persuade him he lost: former Attorney General William Barr (in his deposition Barr says he told Trump his fraud claims were “bulls***”), even Trump’s daughter Ivanka (she cites Barr); White House counsel Pat Cipollone, manager of Trump’s first impeachment, threatened to resign. Nor was Trump shown evidence of voter fraud in the balloting, because: 2020 was “the most secure” election ever in American history, per election officials. Nevertheless, and against many advisers pleading otherwise, Trump pushed the “stolen election” scenario. And thus the seed of a coup was planted.

Especially helpful in tracking the attempted coup’s myriad moving parts is the testimony of key actors and the Committee’s timeline of cause-and-effect. For example, how Trump’s shout-out to the militia group The Proud Boys at a presidential debate — “Stand back and stand by” — was heard by them (“Standing by sir”); how that shout-out drove up their numbers “exponentially,” as testified by a Proud Boy. How Trump’s post-election call for a rally in D.C., promising it “will be wild,” was heard as a “call to arms,” as testified by the leader of another militia group, The Oath Keepers; this leader is shown saying, “We aren’t getting through this without civil war.” This group formed “quick reaction forces” with weapons stashed outside D.C., in case Trump invoked the Insurrection Act. These two groups coordinated. Thus a coup is conspired.

Once the coup was in motion, the Committee shows the coup-maker, in full knowledge, did nothing to stop it. Told the crowds were chanting “Hang Mike Pence,” Trump is quoted saying: “Maybe our supporters have the right idea. Mike Pence deserves it” — an astonishing thing to say: The intent toward his Vice-President who defied his illegal pleas to stop the electoral college count is, ala “Macbeth,” murderous. And when the insurrectionists’ mayhem is unfolding on TV, which Trump watched in the White House, the Commander-in-Chief made no move either to call in his troops (federal) or to call off his insurrectionists. Why would the coup-maker stop what he started?

Video — much of it never seen before — shows even more vividly than what we saw in real-time how the Capitol police battled the insurrectionists. My heart fell at an officer crying out, “We’ve lost the line, we’ve lost the line!” Testimony of Caroline Edwards, an officer who suffered a concussion in the melee (we see that moment), made visceral what battle felt like: the blood on fellow officers’ faces, the white face of one (Brian Sicknick) who died of his wounds next day, the hand-to-hand combat lasting hours. A coup as recounted by the frontline defenders.

America came so close to losing its democracy that day…. It all comes back, and then some.

In hearings to come, we will learn more of Trump the coup-maker’s “7-point plan” (the Committee’s formulation) to upend American democracy and (cough, cough) steal the election: how he pressured the Department of Justice to support his claim of a fraudulent election (6/15); how he pressured the Vice-President to stop the electoral count (6/16); how he pressured state legislators and election officials in his scheme (6/21); more on how he summoned the mob and directed them to march on the U.S. Capitol (date TBD). Tomorrow morning (6/13), focus is on Trump’s campaign of disinformation of a stolen election. (Schedule and TV venues here.)

Adhering to this theme of attempted coup, chair Bennie Thompson (D-MS) and vice-chair Liz Cheney (R-WY) stick scrupulously to script. This script is dictated by History and not politics — by factual evidence gleaned from over 1,000 interviews and over 140,000 documents. Underscoring the sanctity of a peaceful transfer of power, Thompson in the first hearing invoked Abraham Lincoln who, facing re-election in the midst of the Civil War, wrote a memo, sealed, vowing to cede power if he lost the election. Cheney cited George Washington who surrendered control of the Continental Army, after winning the revolution, back to Congress.

The only partisan note: Cheney, one of two Republicans agreeing to serve on the Committee, admonished fellow party members, who in continuing to defend Trump were “defending the indefensible”: “There will come a day when President Trump is gone, but your dishonor will remain.” Rather than strictly partisan, this statement seemed more profile in courage: Cheney is not predicted to keep her seat in November’s election. She also revealed “multiple” Republican members of Congress, sensing their legal jeopardy, pre-emptively sought presidential pardons from Trump; she named Rep. Scott Perry (PA). She also noted members of Trump’s cabinet considered invoking the 25th Amendment, to remove him from office because of incapacity.

There’s a saying in Washington, “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu”: While Republicans were not at this table — by choice — still they were not the menu; the attempted coup was. Chair Thompson noted that all his colleagues preferred an “outside independent commission” to do the investigation, like the 9/11 Commission, “but Donald Trump’s allies in Congress” did not agree — “Apparently they don’t want January 6 investigated at all” — recasting it as a “tourist visit” and “legitimate political discourse.” Republicans are now busy condemning the hearings. Of all TV venues, only conservative FOX News is not airing them, calling them “propaganda.”

The prime audience of these historic hearings is the American people, the stakeholders of our democracy. Those troubled that our troubled democracy seems unable to fix its troubles will see a select Congressional committee, bipartisan in composition, working resolutely and soberly on our behalf to make sense of Chaos. Also in the audience, of course, is the Attorney General, Merrick Garland: Will he determine Trump committed the crime of seditious conspiracy? Or other crimes?

We Americans tend to view our democracy as an immersive environment, in which we freely go about our business and lives. We don’t always recognize the structure and institutions — unique in human history — that distinguish democracy, a system of self-government, from History’s general run of strongmen rulers, brutality, misery, un-freedom. But on January 6, 2021, we glimpsed just how vulnerable the whole edifice is, when a would-be strongman, deploying his violent cohorts, sought its capture: to retain power, the Holy Grail. Let us, resolutely and soberly, track these hearings — and the Truth — and try to save American democracy.

For the first hearing, in full (2 hrs.), at ABC News, see here.

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