Key pieces of the plan to recreate the madness and fear of January 6, 2021, when American democracy itself was on the brink, began to fall into place Thursday as details of key witnesses for an upcoming hearing emerged – as well as new and powerful evidence that saw the light of day for the first time.
It’s now clear that the committee investigating the Capitol Hill insurrection – which said the first of its series of hearings this month will take place next Thursday night – plans to showcase the horror of the crazed day when supporters of then-President Donald Trump tried to stage a coup after the 2020 election and to prevent the certification of President Joe Biden’s victory.
New glimpses of the mountain of evidence piled up by the committee suggest the panel will take viewers deep into Trump’s inner circle before and during the insurrection to pose the question of why he didn’t try to stop it as hours passed.
But the committee faces a critical task in next week’s first prime-time hearing: To be effective, it must quickly grab a TV audience with a chilling picture of a president abusing power in an illicit bid to keep it.
A trove of shocking texts sent to Mark Meadows, for instance, shows that ex-aides, supporters and even family members pleaded with the then-White House chief of staff to persuade Trump to intervene. A former Republican congressman who acted as a consultant to the committee, meanwhile, told CNN he was so disturbed by the messages – and what they revealed about the conspiracy-fueled mania boiling inside Trump world – that he had to get up and leave his screen several times.
News on Thursday that former Attorney General William Barr testified to the committee suggests another strand of the panel’s narrative. Barr concluded and said publicly that there had been no significant electoral fraud in 2020, much to Trump’s reported fury.
The then-President’s refusal to heed his counsel could help the committee contend that he is guilty of a knowing dereliction of duty as he went ahead with his nefarious scheme to steal power regardless. This series of extreme schemes culminated in Trump’s incitement of the crowd that marched to the Capitol and invaded it, sending lawmakers running for their lives in a historic attack on US democracy that remains barely believable.
The House select committee was set up by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, after efforts to create a bipartisan commission on one of the most notorious days in history collapsed when Republicans who have tried to whitewash the former President’s role pulled out.
The panel includes two Republicans, Reps. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, both of whom have been ostracized by colleagues for breaking with the Trump personality cult that has consumed the GOP conference.
Committee member Rep. Jamie Raskin vowed in April that the hearings will tell a story “that will really blow the roof off the House. It is the story of the most heinous and dastardly political offense ever organized by a president and his followers.”
But the Maryland Democrat is setting a high bar of anticipation amid comparisons between the January 6 committee’s showpieces and Senate hearings that pried open the Watergate scandal that felled President Richard Nixon 50 years ago.
These hearings will cover events that took place 17 months ago in a moment that, though horrific, is beginning to fade in the public consciousness. So much has happened since then – the war in Ukraine, new waves of Covid-19 and a spike in the cost of living and gasoline – that it may be tough to get viewers to focus, not to mention the series of deadly mass shootings occupying airwaves and Congress’ attention. Add in the power of the conservative media machine, which can ignore or skew the findings of the committee, and Republicans who have worked overtime to discredit it, and there are reasons to question just how impactful the hearings will be.
In many ways, the committee will be trying to do the impossible: Shock open-minded Americans with new details of a presidency that included two impeachments and confounded credulity almost every day.
Still, despite the multiple crises competing for voters’ attention, the hearings mark an important moment in American national life. Nothing is more fundamental to solving the nation’s challenges than the survival of its democracy. And there were clear signs on Thursday that the committee plans to build a case that the ex-President and some key lieutenants still represent a clear and present danger to the republic should he go ahead and run for the presidency again and win in 2024.
Some of the evidence emerging about Trump’s conduct on January 6 is staggering. Texts sent to Meadows, for instance, show members of Trump’s family, ex-aides and people in his wider political orbit pleading with the then-chief of staff to intervene and get Trump to call his mob off the Capitol.
“He’s got to condem (sic) this shit. Asap,” Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., texted at 2:53 p.m. The ex-President’s first chief of staff, Reince Priebus, texted Meadows about 10 minutes later, saying: “”TELL THEM TO GO HOME !!!”
“POTUS should go on air and defuse this. Extremely important,” Tom Price, former Trump health and human services secretary and a former GOP congressman from Georgia, texted at 3:13 p.m., according to the messages seen and reported exclusively by CNN. The texts are important because they show that many people around Trump knew how terrible the assault on the Capitol was and believed he could and should have stopped it. Such evidence may help the committee if it seeks to prove that Trump was derelict in his duties as president in its final report.
Denver Riggleman, a former Republican representative from Virginia who worked for the House select committee as a technical adviser, told CNN’s Anderson Cooper on Wednesday night that the messages helped to show the intense and even depraved nature of the efforts to overthrow the election.
“It’s almost a road map to what happened. And a lot of the texts haven’t come out,” Riggleman said. The former congressman said that the material, including YouTube videos and conspiracy theories sent to Meadows about nonexistent voter fraud, was sickening and had frightening implications.
“It is horror, because these are people that are serving our government. And you can see, you know, almost QAnon and other conspiracy theories had inundated the Republican Party all the way up to the top levels. … It’s absolutely stunning that these individuals enter a position of power – making policy.”
The texts sent to Meadows, obtained by CNN, are among 2,319 such messages that he selectively handed over to the committee in December before he stopped cooperating with its investigation. They can be viewed on CNN.com.
Fresh clues about the committee’s intentions became clear on Thursday with its announcement that the first prime-time hearing will take place next Thursday at 8 p.m. ET.
The panel said it would present previously unseen material and provide the American people with a summary of the “coordinated, multi-step effort” to overturn the results of the 2020 election. The first meeting is intended to set the table for further hearings and will provide an overview of the committee’s case after it heard from hundreds of witnesses and collected massive amounts of evidence – often without the cooperation and against the downright obstruction of the former President’s team.
The first witness list has not yet been announced. But CNN has learned that two people directly tied to then-President Mike Pence – who was presiding over the certification of Biden’s election victory when the insurrection erupted – are among those who received invitations to appear. Former Pence chief counsel Greg Jacob and former federal Judge J. Michael Luttig have received outreach from the committee about their possible testimony.
In addition, CNN has learned that former Pence chief of staff Marc Short is expected to be called to testify.
If these witnesses speak out with credible testimony about Trump’s behavior during the near three-hour period when the riot was going on, they could lead the public to an explosive new understanding of the events of the terrible day of January 6, 2021. It will be up to voters to decide whether what they learn is a disqualifying factor for the former President, who is showing no desire to end his political career.
This story and headline have been updated with additional details on Friday.
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