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The January 6 Hearings Changed My Mind

The day was one of the most covered in American history. What more could we possibly learn? A lot.

When I first learned that the January 6 Committee was planning to air its hearings on primetime, I was deeply skeptical. The gross spectacle of that day wasn’t some secret scandal that, like Watergate, required deep reporting to uncover the truth. We had all watched it. Anyone who wanted to relive it could stream the documentary on HBO.

Then there was the fact that so many Americans that I know are struggling under the double whammy of rising crime and runaway inflation. I could think of few things less urgent than actions committed a year and a half ago by a president who no longer holds public office at a time when so many are making agonizing decisions like whether to buy meat for dinner or use the money for gas and settle for rice and beans instead. 

For months now, I’ve been pointing out how self-indulgent it was for these politicians to demand that we endlessly empathize with the trauma they suffered on January 6 because of the danger posed by a riotous mob—while they refuse to do anything about the life-threatening danger that their constituents have learned to live with. (The week the hearings began, there were 11 mass shootings in cities across America that left 17 dead and 62 injured. This past weekend, 24 people were shot in Chicago. A five-month-old baby was among the casualties.)

It also felt wrong to me that there were no Trump supporters on the committee to cross-examine witnesses, and I was deeply put off by the highly produced nature of the spectacle, which seemed designed to electrify a moribund base. It lent credence to the idea, held by many on the right, that the committee’s real aim was to bar Trump from the ballot box in 2024.

Reader, I was wrong. 

I had thought: January 6 was one of the most covered days in American history. What more can we possibly learn?

The answer is: a lot.

For starters, there was a lot that the committee was only able to uncover through its subpoena powers, and the revelations have been substantial. There has been significant evidence presented to suggest that Trump knew he had lost the election, or at the very least, that many of the people closest to him who really wanted him to win repeatedly told him he’d lost and that there was no real evidence of fraud. And yet, Trump continued to tell his supporters that he won the election and per the committee, proceeded to defraud them of $250 million that he said would go to an official election defense fund, which didn’t exist.

At one time, Trump spent his rallies talking about jobs and NAFTA and the abandonment of the working class by a contemptuous elite. They stole everything from you, he told his supporters, over and over. The January 6 Committee hearings are revealing in great detail who Trump became in the wake of his loss (or maybe always was): a man singularly focused on a new message. They stole everything from me.

We also learned about President Trump’s callous disregard for the safety of his vice president, Mike Pence. As the rioters at the capitol chanted “Hang Mike Pence” and erected a gallows outside the Capitol, President Trump said “Mike deserves it,” according to Tuesday’s testimony by Cassidy Hutchinson, a former aide to Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows. Trump fanned the flames by tweeting about Pence’s cowardice. “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution, giving States a chance to certify a corrected set of facts, not the fraudulent or inaccurate ones which they were asked to previously certify. USA demands the truth!” the President tweeted. Hutchinson was horrified. “As an American, I was disgusted. It was unpatriotic, it was un-American,” she testified.

I’m glad I know about that, and I’m glad I know how brave Vice President Pence was to go ahead with certifying the election, knowing that he’d been abandoned by the president, who should have been a bulwark standing between him and the mob, but instead was an accelerant to their rage. 

We learned more things from Hutchinson’s testimony. She testified that Trump demanded to be taken to the Capitol to join the rioters, and when his security detail started driving him back to the White House, he tried to grab the steering wheel, then lunged at his Secret Service detail. (Trump has denied that this happened on his social media platform, Truth Social, and sources are suggesting that the Secret Service may dispute the story in front of the committee.)

Most explosively, Hutchinson also testified that President Trump was informed that there were people armed with AR-15s among his supporters and demanded that they be allowed to join the crowd outside the White House. “You know, I don’t effing care that they have weapons. They’re not here to hurt me,” President Trump said, according to Hutchinson. “Let my people in.”

If true, it was a breathtaking abdication of leadership that could have endangered his family, his supporters, and everyone around him. 

Me, me, me.

I’m still not convinced that January 6 was an insurrection. It still seems to me that, beyond a handful of extremists, January 6 was a riot that got out of hand, and that a selfish President Trump hoped he might profit from the chaos. (Hutchinson’s testimony from Tuesday reveals only that Trump’s team knew there might be a riot and it might get ugly, not that they helped plan it.)

I’m also not convinced that his actions on January 6, however heinous, are enough to erase Trump’s policy legacy—getting rid of NAFTA, the First Step Act, taking on NATO and China, and Operation Warp Speed. But I know I’m not alone in thinking he is not suited to carry it further.

I still believe that the Democrats are hoping these proceedings save them from having to compete with Trump on the campaign trail. And I still feel sickened by the fact that many of these politicians tweeting endlessly about that day are not lifting a finger to help their own constituents, who are living daily with the kind of chaos and violence they supposedly abhor.

And yet, I’ve come to believe that the question of what exactly happened on January 6 matters. It matters because there is a lot of talk flying around about the weakness of our democracy. Most people making that argument point to the violence of January 6 as Exhibit A. But the picture that’s emerging from these hearings is quite the opposite: Institutions, staffed by patriotic Americans, held against a massive onslaught from without and perhaps a greater one from within.

Many of the testimonies played during the hearings have been delivered by people who faced down the president’s wrath by relying on their faith and patriotism. There were some among them—like an “apparently inebriated Rudy Guliani,” as Liz Cheney put it—who told the President what he wanted to hear. But many more told the truth, calling upon the oaths they took. 

None stood out more than Rusty Bowers, the Speaker of the Arizona House of Representatives. “It is a tenet of my faith that the Constitution is divinely inspired,” he testified. To break his oath, as Trump requested, would be “foreign to my very being.” It would betray “my most basic foundational beliefs.” It’s worth watching the whole thing:

January 6 was a horrifying day. But the hearings have exposed more than just more awful details. They’ve revealed the courage of people like Bowers. To watch the hearings is to remember that those better angels Lincoln talked about are a constant choice—one many good Americans made even as a braying mob was demanding fealty to false gods.

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