Jan. 6 committee's long-awaited hearings promise revelations. Will a divided US want to hear them?

The Jan. 6 committee's year-long investigation of the Capitol attack has been interrupted with bombshell leaks and blockbuster books. But lawmakers say there's still a lot more to reveal.

Bart Jansen
  • The House committee investigating the Jan. 6 Capitol attack begins first of eight hearings Thursday.
  • Former President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence not expected to testify.
  • Lawmakers will contrast Trump's inaction with steps by Pence, Justice Department officials.

WASHINGTON – The House committee investigating last year's attack on the Capitol hopes to explain what happened minute-by-minute Jan. 6, 2021, in public hearings starting Thursday, but the challenge is whether the tick-tock sets off alarms or the viewing public simply hits the snooze button.

Plenty of dramatic revelations have hinted at what the committee has found. Court records described the debunked legal strategy behind former President Donald Trump’s effort to reject votes in closely contested states. Texts illustrated panic about the violence among Trump’s relatives and aides, as Republican lawmakers discussed martial law. Closed-door testimony described Trump’s inaction for hours after the Capitol was breached.

A year and a half after the attack, the question is whether the public will stay tuned. Several members of the committee acknowledged it is crucial to make the hearings interesting for a national audience.

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“Our job is to tell the truth, it’s not to create the next Marvel movie,” said one committee member, Rep. Pete Aguilar, D-Calif. “Our job is to organize this in a way that people understand, that we hold their attention if they’re watching, and it’s our hope that people will understand that we want to fight for democracy, that this was an attempt to thwart a peaceful transfer of power. And that our job is to tell a story about that day.”

Aguilar and other lawmakers on the panel said more revelations are coming. More important, lawmakers said, the hearings will connect the dots of what is publicly known and provide a comprehensive description of what happened.

Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., acknowledged a risk in overselling the hearings. During a program at Georgetown University in April, he promised they would "blow the roof off the House."

Rep. Pete Aguilar, D-Calif., Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., and Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., participate in House Jan. 6 committee meeting on March 28.

"The proof will be in the pudding," Raskin said. "I do believe that we are going to tell this story of perhaps the greatest political crime or attempted political crime in American history. We have voluminous detail that is helping us put the whole story together.”

Raskin said he didn't know who leaked information about the committee's investigation, but he argued the leaks promoted rather than dampened interest in the probe.

"They are definitely whetting the public’s appetite for the hearings because we are going to tell a far more systematic and coherent story than the narrow leaks that are getting out," Raskin said. "The leaks obviously contain just a small proportion of information that is out.”

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Another committee member, Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Va., said her goal through the hearings is to paint a thorough picture of what led up to and what happened that day.

"People have gotten information in snippets over the course of a year plus, but the fact is that we’re going to tell the story in a coherent thread through the hearings," Luria said.

Rep. Pete Aguilar, D-Calif., says the job of the House committee investigating the Capitol attack Jan. 6, 2021, "is to organize this in a way that people understand, that we hold their attention if they’re watching."

Americans remain divided over the attack

The committee will present its findings Thursday to a country split over the attack and the panel itself. 

More than half the country (53%) said storming the Capitol was an attack on democracy that should never be forgotten, while 44% of respondents said too much was made of the attack and it was time to move on, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released in January.

The Quinnipiac poll found Americans supported the congressional investigation nearly 2-1 (61% to 33%), but results were starkly divided by party: 83% of Democrats backed the probe, and 60% of Republicans opposed it.

A Pew Research Center poll conducted in the same month found nearly two-thirds of Republicans (65%) said too much attention was paid to the attack, and 79% said they had little or no confidence in the fairness of the committee’s investigation. About half of Democrats (48%) said too little attention has been paid, and about two-thirds (65%) were at least somewhat confident the investigation would be fair and reasonable.

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates told CBS’ “Face the Nation” May 22 that the hearings are important because people need to understand what happened Jan. 6, 2021.

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“My worry is that everybody will retreat to their ideological corner, and so nobody will listen,” Gates said. “I think maybe the best thing to do is just to rerun the videos.”

Robert Gibbs, who was press secretary for President Barack Obama, told the “Hacks on Tap” podcast Tuesday Democrats could stoke interest in the midterm elections with hearings about the Capitol attack while debating gun control and abortion rights. Gibbs said those issues might get drowned out by concerns over the scarcity of baby formula and the high price of gas.

“You hope that energizes the base a bit more," Gibbs said. "But I don’t know that it’s in any way going to trump – no pun intended – gas prices or inflation."

Thousands of Donald Trump supporters storm the U.S. Capitol after a "Stop the Steal" rally on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington. The protesters broke windows and clashed with police.

The committee plans eight hearings. A coalition of 150 advocacy groups announced Tuesday they would organize watch parties for the hearings in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin.

“This is a criminal conspiracy that has been unfolding for more than a year, not just another blip in the news cycle," Lisa Gilbert, executive vice president of Public Citizen, said in a statement. "It’s a top story that includes the fragility of our democracy and the ongoing threats to its integrity."

Though lawmakers haven’t outlined what each hearing will focus on, the first session will provide an overview for hearings that delve into specific subjects. A final report is expected in the fall.

“The first hearing will lay the case and talk about the path ahead to the next seven,” Aguilar said.

One likely theme of the hearings will be Trump’s responsibility. The Capitol attack, when 140 police officers were injured as a mob ransacked the building, temporarily halted Congress counting Electoral College votes certifying Joe Biden’s victory over Trump in the 2020 presidential election.

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Trump argued he was fighting election fraud in challenging the results of the election, urging his supporters Jan. 6 to march on the Capitol and “fight like hell.” Rioters cited Trump’s invitation to Washington and his rally speech that day to try to justify their actions. The Justice Department found no evidence of fraud, and several courts rejected the claims as baseless.

The hearings will probably lack the marquee witness: Trump. The committee chairman, Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., said the panel doesn't expect to call Trump because of uncertainty he would provide more information than what it's collected.

"I think the concern is whether or not he would add any more value with his testimony," Thompson said.

The committee continues discussions with former Vice President Mike Pence, who has distanced himself from Trump, though he might not be called because of cooperation from his advisers, Thompson said.

Other witnesses likely to miss the hearings are five Republican House members who spoke with Trump or his chief of staff in the days leading up to and on Jan. 6, 2021. The committee subpoenaed them, but each lawmaker said he would fight the investigation, which they all called partisan.

Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Va., a member of the House committee investigating the Capitol attack Jan. 6, 2021, is preparing for eight hearings starting June 9.

The lawmakers are House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California, who spoke with Trump on Jan. 6, and Reps. Andy Biggs of Arizona, who helped plan to bring protesters to Washington; Mo Brooks of Alabama, who spoke at Trump's rally; Jim Jordan of Ohio, who spoke with Trump on Jan. 6; and Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, who discussed replacing the attorney general with Trump's chief of staff.

Even without key players, the committee hopes to shine a spotlight on the three hours between Trump's speech at 1:10 p.m. and his tweeted video urging rioters to go home at 4:17 p.m. Live television that day showed the crowd surrounding the Capitol, battling police and breaching the building at 2:13 p.m.

Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., the committee’s vice chair, said Trump's silence spoke volumes. The panel has firsthand testimony that Trump watched the attack on television in the dining room next to the Oval Office without acting, she said.

“While the attack was underway, President Trump knew it was happening” and “took no immediate action to stop it,” Cheney said on the House floor. “This appears to be a supreme dereliction of duty by President Trump, and we are evaluating whether our criminal laws should be enhanced to supply additional and more severe consequences for this type of behavior.”

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Trump's silence will be contrasted at the hearings with officials who took action.

Pence, in his role as Senate president, refused to reject electors from contested states, as one of Trump’s lawyers, John Eastman, urged during an Oval Office meeting Jan. 4, according to court records. Eastman continued sending messages Jan. 6 to Pence’s counsel, Greg Jacob, who concluded the legal reasoning was “essentially entirely made up,” according to court records.

Trump considered ousting acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen during his final weeks in office, to replace him with someone who would contest the election results. Trump relented after top Justice Department officials threatened to resign as a group if Rosen were removed.

Luria said the hearings will show who took the right action leading up to and including Jan. 6. She said what stood out for her was Trump’s duty under a clause in the Constitution that says the president “shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.”

“It essentially says that the president has the duty to ensure that the laws are faithfully executed,” said Luria, a former Navy commander. “To me, that is something that can be woven through all of this because the president has an explicit duty in the Constitution.”