Jan 6 hearings: Four big things we've learned

Anthony Zurcher
North America reporter
@awzurcheron Twitter

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Chair Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS) swears in (L-R) former Acting Attorney General and Richard Donoghue, former Acting Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey A. Rosen, and Steven Engel, former Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Counsel for the fifth hearing held by the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol on June 23, 2022 in the Cannon House Office Building in Washington, DCImage source, Getty Images
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The Jan 6 special committee has completed its first five public hearings

Two weeks ago, there was considerable speculation about how the congressional committee investigating the 6 January attack on the US Capitol would be received by the American public.

Would there be an audience? Could the Democrat-led committee shed any new light on the attack and the actions by then-President Donald Trump and his associates?

It turns out the American public did tune in, with a viewership that topped 20 million for the first prime time hearing. In addition, the five public hearings have proven able to generate a steady stream of new revelations and headlines over the course of the past two weeks.

What's more, the proceedings have generated sufficient new leads and evidence that a number of additional hearings will be necessary once the process resumes in mid-July after recess.

In the meantime, here are some key takeaways from more than 12 hours of hearings held by the committee so far.

The hearings felt like a court trial

A minor dispute erupted last week when the committee chairman, Democrat Bennie Thompson, said his committee was not going to make any criminal referrals to the US Justice Department based on the investigation.

That prompted a quick response from the senior Republican, Vice-Chair Liz Cheney, that no such conclusion had been reached - sentiment echoed by several other members of the committee.

Back in April, Ms Cheney had gone even farther, saying that the committee had already gathered enough material to build a criminal case against the former president.

"It's absolutely clear that what President Trump was doing - what a number of people around him were doing - that they knew it was unlawful," she said. "They did it anyway."

Image source, Getty Images
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Republican Liz Cheney

One thing that has become clear is that, whether or not the committee actually makes a "formal" criminal referral involving Mr Trump - an act that would not have concrete legal implications - the entire structure of the proceedings has been to build a de facto case against the former president.

The hearings have been structured in the mould of a prosecution in a court trial presenting its case.

In his opening statement, Mr Thompson outlined the "charges", saying Mr Trump was at the centre of a "sprawling, multi-step conspiracy aimed at overturning the presidential election," and that he "spurred a mob of domestic enemies of the Constitution to march down to the Capitol and subvert American democracy".

The committee then outlined the classic elements of a criminal case - that the president had the means, motive and opportunity to commit unlawful acts.

It presented testimony from Mr Trump's own aides and advisers that he knew the claims he was making of election fraud were untrue and that steps he was taking to overturn the results were illegal.

Of course, there is one key difference between these hearings and a criminal trial. Mr Trump and his supporters have had no opportunity to offer their defence.

The president's allies in Congress, by their own choice, have side-lined themselves for the past two weeks, choosing not to participate in the hearings. And despite making plans to offer a counter-narrative on cable television and through social media, Republicans have found it difficult to compete with the committee's massive platform - reportedly much to the former president's dismay.

Human faces showed real consequences

Throughout the two weeks of hearings, some of the most powerful moments have come from the handful of witnesses who have appeared in person to discuss the personal toll Mr Trump's attempts to overturn his electoral defeat has taken on them.

In the first hearing, police officer Caroline Edwards spoke of the injuries she sustained as protesters stormed the Capitol on 6 January. She said she witnessed "carnage" and "chaos" reminiscent of a war movie, as her fellow officers bled and vomited on the grounds of the Capitol.

Republican officeholders who refused to go along with the president's plans described threats to themselves and their families. Rusty Bowers, the Arizona Senate Majority Leader, said protesters gathered outside his house and used loudspeakers to call him a paedophile and a pervert.

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Election workers describe threats after Trump targeting

Two Atlanta election workers, Shaye Moss and her mother, Ruby Freeman, spoke of facing death threats and being forced to leave their home after Mr Trump's lawyer Rudy Giuliani mentioned them by name, claiming they were "trying to steal the election".

"There is nowhere I feel safe," Ms Freeman said. "The president of the United States is supposed to represent every American, not to target one".

The committee used these moments to drive home its contention that these hearings weren't just an academic debate over election procedures.

The words of the president and his associates had real consequences.

New evidence about Trump's role

Throughout the five days of hearings, the committee presented evidence that Mr Trump was directly involved in attempts to reverse the 2020 presidential results - and not a mere bystander as allies took actions in his name.

Ronna McDaniel, chair of the Republican National Committee, testified that the president called her to discuss plans to organise "alternate" presidential electors who would claim that Mr Trump actually won their states.

Republican officeholders in Georgia and Arizona appeared to discuss Mr Trump's efforts to pressure them to take steps to reverse Mr Biden's victory in their states. Georgia Secretary of State Brian Raffensperger spoke in detail about a nearly hour-long phone call during which the president urged him to "find" the votes necessary to put him ahead in the state's vote tally.

Image source, Getty Images
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According to the committee, Donald Trump was at the centre of efforts to dispute the 2020 election results

Trump Justice Department officials testified that the president personally put pressure on them to issue findings of possible election fraud and encourage state legislatures to overturn their results showing Mr Biden won.

They were told by Mr Trump to "just say that the election was corrupt and leave the rest to me and the Republican congressmen," acting deputy attorney general Richard Donoghue testified.

When Mr Donoghue and his fellow Justice employees refused, the president considered naming a new attorney general, Jeffrey Clark, who would take action. But the senior Justice Department team threated to resign en masse.

Republicans requested presidential pardons

While the live testimony has provided some of the most powerful moments of the first five hearings, the committee has also made use of the hundreds of hours of recorded testimony from more than a thousand interviews it has conducted.

At the end of Thursday's hearing, the committee aired tape of senior White House staff recounting how members of Congress had requested presidential pardons for their involvement in attempts to overturn the 2020 presidential results. The list included Matt Gaetz of Florida and Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia.

"The only reason I know to ask for a pardon is because you think you committed a crime," said committee member Adam Kinzinger, a Republican.

Image source, Getty Images
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Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene allegedly requested presidential pardons

Throughout the hearings, former Attorney General Bill Barr proved to be one of the most effective witnesses in absentia, as he debunked - and at times ridiculed - many of Trump's claims of voting fraud.

Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, also made attention-grabbing appearances - the former, in particular, when she said she believed Mr Barr's conclusions about a lack of fraud evidence.