The Jan. 6 select committee opened its case to the American public with one overarching conclusion about the violence that consumed the Capitol last year: It was carefully planned and orchestrated.
A pro-Donald Trump mob’s attack on Congress 17 months ago, threatening the transfer of presidential power, was the culmination of weeks of pre-planning by extremist groups and individuals, the panel communicated at its first major hearing Thursday night. Many of those extremists, as the committee sees it, decided to descend on Washington following a Dec. 19, 2020 tweet by Donald Trump himself.
“Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!” Trump said at the time.
The select committee played a video highlighting how that particular tweet ignited preparations by people who would later help orchestrate and drive forward the siege on the Capitol.
The panel’s first public hearing to unfurl the findings of its year-long investigation into the causes of the attack played out in primetime and will be followed by at least five other hearings over the course of June. As the panel focuses on premeditation, Thursday’s opening bid homed in on the role of the Proud Boys, the pro-Trump, far-right group whose members were highly visible throughout the riot.
Select committee chair Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) began the hearing with a sweeping statement: Trump attempted to thwart the peaceful transfer of power and spurred “a mob of domestic enemies of the Constitution” to attack the Capitol. And in a nod to doubters, he augmented his statement with an excerpt of video testimony from former Attorney General Bill Barr, who said he told Trump his claims of election fraud were “bullshit.”
“You can’t live in a world where the incumbent administration stays in power based on its view, unsupported by specific evidence, that there was fraud in the election,” Barr said, adding that it contributed to his decision to leave the Trump administration in Dec. 2020.
In her own opening statement, committee vice chair Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) confirmed reports that while members of the Jan. 6 mob chanted “Hang Mike Pence,” Trump said to aides, “Maybe our supporters have the right idea. Mike Pence deserves it.’”
Relying on video testimony from Barr, as well as Trump campaign advisers Jason Miller and Alex Cannon, Cheney laid out a case that Trump was repeatedly informed by his allies that his claims of fraud were wrong and insufficient to reverse the outcome of the election. But Trump persisted in making the public claims anyway, she noted. Cheney similarly played a brief video clip of Ivanka Trump’s testimony, in which she said she believed Barr when he said there was insufficient evidence of fraud to influence the outcome of the election.
Miller noted on Twitter that Trump responded to his advisers’ doubts by suggesting they were underestimating the prospect of winning some of their pending legal challenges.
Cheney also pushed back on some GOP lines of attack about Jan. 6, saying though the panel would present information on how the Capitol should have been better prepared, the U.S. Capitol Police should not be blamed.
“We will not blame the violence that day, violence provoked by President Trump, on the officers who bravely defended all of us,” she said.
The video about Trump’s tweet, narrated by a select committee investigator, showed how social media chatter about stopping the transition of power picked up following the then-president’s “wild” promise — and how extremists in the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers viewed it as a call to action.
One of the panel’s two live witnesses Thursday night, documentarian Nick Quested, was embedded with the Proud Boys before Jan. 6 and witnessed their discussions about the plan to descend on Washington. He told the select committee he watched the Proud Boys gather at the Washington monument and march to the Capitol, where they approached access points to the Capitol that were thinly guarded by police.
The other live witness, Capitol Police officer Caroline Edwards, was wounded in the first moment of violence after a rioter who’d just huddled with a Florida Proud Boy charged through a law enforcement perimeter.
Edwards described the confrontation with rioters, when she was briefly knocked unconscious but later returned to duty.
“What I saw was just a war scene,” she said. “There were officers on the ground. They were bleeding. They were throwing up. I saw friends with blood all over their faces. I was slipping in people’s blood. I was catching people as they fell. It was carnage. It was chaos.”
The panel focused on the Proud Boys’ behavior to foment the attack on the Capitol. Several of their leaders have been charged with seditious conspiracy, a crime that requires an intent to violently oppose the government.
The Justice Department has described Proud Boys as playing a leadership role within the mob that day, leading Trump supporters to the foot of the Capitol and ultimately inside. In court documents, prosecutors described Proud Boys discussions about using regular members of the mob — “normies,” as the group described them — to ratchet up the violence.
Enrique Tarrio, the group’s national chair, testified to the select committee in February. His attorney said in court papers Wednesday that Tarrio answered some of the committee’s substantive questions.
The committee also featured video testimony from some of the people who joined the mob that disrupted the certification of 2020 Electoral College votes, stoked by Trump’s false claims that the election was stolen.
That testimony lays the foundation for the committee’s series of hearings planned this month. The attack on the Capitol sent Congress and then-Vice President Mike Pence fleeing for safety and injured more than 140 police officers.
The select panel views Trump as singularly responsible for motivating the violence by propagating baseless election fraud allegations and embracing fringe theories about Pence’s ability to single-handedly overturn the election on Jan. 6, when he presided over a joint session of Congress to count electoral votes.
The hearing also featured video testimony from several members of the mob who have since pleaded guilty and expressed remorse about their role in the crowd that day. Committee investigators’ broad focus on the Trump “wild” tweet was first reported earlier this year by The New York Times.
Some are expected to attribute their actions to Trump himself. In court filings, several have described their closed-door depositions to the select committee, saying they told the panel that they bought into Trump’s falsehoods about the election.
One of them, Greg Rubenacker, was among the first wave of rioters who entered the Capitol and joined a mob that famously chased Capitol Police officer Eugene Goodman through the Senate wing of the building. Another, Annie Howell, told a judge she met with the select committee four times.
The audience for the hearing included Capitol Police and Metropolitan Police officers who fended off attackers, spouses of some Capitol and DC officers who died shortly after the riot and members of Congress who hid in the House gallery together to shelter from the mob.
Edwards is also slated to describe her experience amid the riot. Her testimony comes after a July hearing with four Metropolitan Police Department and Capitol Police officers who were at the Capitol on Jan. 6.
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