It was already clear on Jan. 6, 2021, that then-President Donald Trump had incited a riot at the Capitol in an attempt to overturn his election loss.
Now almost a year and a half later, and following more than 1,000 interviews and 140,000 collected documents, the House select committee investigating the riot is finally ready to present its findings on how exactly that occurred, who else was involved, and how the threat to American democracy he created has yet to subside.
The question is whether they can effectively remind enough Americans of what they saw with their own eyes—thousands of pro-Trump rioters sacking the U.S. Capitol after he spent months whipping them into a frenzy with lies about the 2020 election, then sent them marching to the building—and whether the committee has uncovered truly new bombshells that can change the minds of voters who don’t believe the facts, or have decided the event doesn’t matter all that much.
In short: If the insurrection itself didn’t make enough voters care about the ongoing existential threat to democracy, can a House investigation?
The House Select Committee to Investigate the Jan. 6 Attack on the United States Capitol will kick off a series of six made-for-TV public hearings Thursday night, with a goal of conveying that threat.
“We will be revealing new details showing that the violence of Jan. 6 was the result of a coordinated multi-step effort to overturn the results of the 2020 election and stop the transfer of power from Donald Trump to Joe Biden, and indeed that former President Donald Trump was at the center of that effort,” one committee aide told reporters Wednesday afternoon.
It’s clear committee members know it’s as much about the storytelling as the content itself. The committee’s first hearing will take place at 8 p.m. EST—primetime TV hours—and the committee has hired former ABC News President James Goldston to produce the event.
The first night’s hearing will be focused on the insurrection itself—and specifically the Proud Boys, the far-right street-fighting gang whose leaders were hit with federal conspiracy and sedition charges earlier this week.
“Our aim is to tie this all together in a comprehensive narrative,” said another committee aide.
The first hearing will feature U.S. Capitol Police officer Caroline Edwards, who was among the first officers attacked on that day and suffered a concussion while defending the Capitol, as well as British documentarian Nick Quested, who was embedded with the Proud Boys in the leadup to and day of the attack and shot hours of footage never before publicly revealed.
Committee aides also promised plenty of footage from their thousands of hours of on-camera depositions—including from senior White House officials and Trump’s own family members. Both Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner have met with the committee.
It’s long been clear what happened: Trump attempted a bloodless coup. When that failed, he incited a mob to storm the Capitol. And ever since then, he’s been trying to get his lackeys elected in swing states and Congress so that if he tries another coup in 2024, it will have a better chance of success.
A bleak midterm election environment for Democrats means they expect to lose control of Congress. And with Trump-backed candidates who push his election lies winning a number of key GOP primaries, this fall could usher in a fleet of Trump-aligned Republican officeholders who can’t be trusted to support free and fair elections in 2024.
Trump spent the months leading up to the 2020 election spreading the lie that mail voting was prone to widespread fraud, spinning states’ bipartisan expansion of mail voting at the height of the coronavirus pandemic as a plot against him. He repeatedly refused to condemn white supremacist and militia groups that backed him, telling the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” during a late-September debate.
He declared victory on election night when millions of votes had yet to be counted, and immediately started claiming voter fraud when those counts predictably turned against him. His campaign spent the next month filing more than 60 legal cases to try to prove voter fraud, and lost nearly every one of them.
As it became clear that he had no hope to overturn his election loss in the courts, Trump increasingly leaned into extralegal, unconstitutional, and conspiratorial plots.
The president and his allies tried to convince GOP-controlled state legislatures in states Biden won to instead give their electoral college votes to him. He called Michigan’s GOP legislative leaders to the White House and tried to bully them into doing so, to no avail. He demanded that Georgia Republican Secretary of State John Raffensperger “find” enough votes to swing that state’s election his way. And when these efforts failed, Trump adopted a flimsy legal theory promoted by attorney John Eastman that Pence could overturn the election himself when Congress met to certify the results on Jan. 6. When Pence refused to go along with the plot Trump tried to strong-arm him for days.
On Jan. 6, as Congress convened to certify Biden’s victory, Trump held a massive rally on the National Mall, encouraged his supporters to march on Congress, and sat back for hours as they ransacked the Capitol building and endangered the lives of his own vice president, lawmakers, and hundreds of police and staff. Five people died, and more than 140 officers suffered serious injuries. As some of his rioting supporters chanted “Hang Mike Pence,” Trump reportedly said they might have the right idea.
Trump never showed remorse. He’s continued to push conspiracy theories that the election was stolen from him, that the riot wasn’t that bad, that it wasn’t his people rioting. Republicans have largely backed him up: A majority of House Republicans voted against certifying the 2020 election even after the riot, and they soon forced Wyoming GOP Rep. Liz Cheney, the Jan. 6 Committee’s co-chair, out of House leadership. Since then, Trump has backed a bevy of fringe candidates, many with ties to the QAnon conspiracy theory movement, for offices like governor and secretary of state.
Who will listen?
No matter how well the committee tells the story of Jan. 6, no matter what new facts they uncover, a segment of Americans won’t be moved—and they don’t want to be.
Trump diehards began pushing conspiracy theories about Jan. 6 even as the riot was still taking place, and they’ve been egged on by Trump and right-wing media ever since.
While most network and cable TV networks plan to carry the hearings live, Fox News will instead go ahead airing Jan. 6 conspiracy theorist Tucker Carlson’s show to its approximately 3 million nightly viewers, followed by an hour from Sean Hannity, who privately tried to get Trump’s team to rein him in heading into Jan. 6 even as he remained publicly loyal.
Fox had bled viewers to further-right networks when it briefly attempted to stick to the facts about the 2020 election, and it didn’t take long for the network to kowtow to its viewers.
“They’re all upset that Fox isn’t covering it live. We actually do something called, you know, cater to our audience,” Fox News host Laura Ingraham, whose show will air around the time the committee’s first hearing wraps up, said Tuesday night.
The text onscreen as she talked said it all: “Jan. 6 theater designed to stigmatize Americans.”
Many voters have forgotten about these details and could use a refresher. But it’ll be a tall task for the committee to present the information in a way that’ll stick any better than actually living through the horror of that day.
One big outstanding question is whether Trump or his team played a direct, premeditated role spurring the riot itself. It’s still not clear whether Trump had any direct or indirect contact with the militia members who instigated the riot. The Proud Boys and Oath Keepers both acted as bodyguards for a number of Trump hangers-on, however, including informal Trump adviser Roger Stone and former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who played a key role in pushing lies and conspiracy theories about the 2020 election.
Maryland Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin, a member of the select committee, told the Washington Post on Monday that the committee “has found evidence about a lot more than incitement” related to Trump and his team’s role on Jan. 6.
Another potential bombshell could be testimony from former Vice President Mike Pence. It’s unclear if he’ll testify, though top Pence aides have been closely cooperating with the committee and Politico reported on Wednesday that former Pence adviser Greg Jacob will testify publicly at one of next week’s hearings.
It’s been more than a year since the committee first formed—and nearly a year since it held the one and only hearing to date. That hearing was packed with emotional testimony from four cops who sustained long-term physical and psychological injuries from the rioters while defending the Capitol on Jan. 6.
That came after President Trump’s second impeachment trial, which laid out much of what happened that day in searing detail.
But while both made-for-TV events received heavy coverage from mainstream media outlets they was mostly ignored on the right, and polls showed they did little to nothing to shift public opinion.
Trump’s first impeachment trial, like almost everything else in his presidency, didn’t move his poll numbers much either.
The Jan. 6 riots themselves are about the only thing that really hurt Trump’s poll numbers in his entire presidency. He left office two weeks after the riot with a dismal 58 percent disapproval rating and a 38 percent approval rating, the lowest point in his presidency and about 10 points worse than his poll numbers for most of his presidency.
But polls show some voters’ fury with Trump has subsided—and that the committee has its work cut out for itself to remind some Americans why they were so upset with Trump. His poll numbers have since bounced back to right about where they were for the majority of his presidency. Trump is still unpopular, but not so unpopular that he couldn’t win another election—Biden’s numbers are just as bad.
A recent NBC News poll found that 45 percent of voters thought Trump was solely or mainly responsible for the Jan. 6 riot, while 55 percent thought he wasn’t responsible or was only somewhat to blame. That’s a drop from their polling two weeks after the attack, which showed that 52 percent found Trump solely or mainly responsible and just 47 percent didn’t hold him responsible for the attack.
That same poll found, however, that 54 percent of registered voters said they’d be less likely to vote for a candidate who said Trump won the 2020 election, with just 19 percent saying it’d make them more likely to vote for that candidate.
Democrats are hopeful that new information and outrage around Jan. 6 could help them motivate their base voters who have been disappointed with Biden’s presidency—as well as woo back swing voters.
The Democratic super PAC Priorities USA recently polled swing voters in seven key swing states and found that 72 percent of those persuadable voters had an unfavorable opinion of the Jan. 6 rioters, including 61 percent who had a very unfavorable opinion. Three-quarters of these voters said they’d hold unfavorable opinions of candidates who participated in the Jan. 6 rally that preceded the riot, while two-thirds felt unfavorably towards candidates who said the Jan. 6 riot was “legitimate political discourse.”
That’s where the committee can help.
“It's actually important that we get to the bottom of what happened on Jan. 6, and that we effectively communicate it to the voters,” Priorities USA President Guy Cecil told reporters on Tuesday. “It's useful in terms of raising the stakes of the election.”
These momentous hearings will undoubtedly reveal new details about Trump’s plot to overthrow America’s democracy, and the violence it unleashed. The real test, however, will be whether it penetrates with enough voters to keep Trump-aligned, anti-democratic candidates from winning office this fall and setting up a 2024 election that could make 2020 look like it was just the prologue.