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The January 6 Hearings: Was the Finals Just the Beginning?

We know how bad it was. We know how much worse it could have been. But an important question remained.

“How did one man cause all this?” Representative Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) asked in her deadly monotone, at the top of the Select Committee’s ninth public hearing to investigate the January 6 attack on the United States Capitol. In front of her stood a can of sugar-free Coke, and 141 minutes to answer this vital question of our modern reality.

For nearly 16 months, the commission has sorted through the grains of January 6, 2021, putting together a cohesive picture of a government nearly brought to its knees by a former reality TV star whose penchant for showmanship earned him the powers of the presidency. Seven Democrats, two Republicans and several dozen committee members searched gigabytes of data evidence and interviewed and deposed hundreds of witnesses.

Since June, the committee has used the 4,000-square-foot high-ceilinged Cannon Caucus Room—the site of the 1948 House Un-American Activities Committee hearings—as a showcase for everything: the comedy and the tragedy, the betrayal and heroism. , divided into a series of gripping episodes, over the summer and fall, suggesting a winter of the American experiment. The Jan. 6 commission hearings were methodical yet deeply rooted, like a PowerPoint presentation of a national near-death experience. Our terrifying past, precarious present and uncertain future – all seen through the fish-eye images of battered bodycams and the texted thumbs of powerful people with no good intentions.

Sometimes you could almost smell the bear spray. You could almost see the red dot of Cheney’s laser focus on the 45th president’s political future.

On Thursday afternoon, the auditorium was cold enough to send shivers down his spine. The curtains were drawn against the gray sky. The crystal chandeliers shone with a disinfecting brightness. The media had reported that this hearing — which was technically a “formal business committee meeting” — was likely to be the finale, but how could it be? Like most traumatic chapters in American history, the story of January 6 and the Trump era will never really end, especially now that the former president has been subpoenaed by the commission.

There has been drama since June, but no climax. There have been revelations, but no catharsis.

“We don’t know where we are in Donald Trump’s story,” said author and historian Garrett M. Graff, who has researched and written about Watergate and 9/11. “We don’t know yet whether the Jan. 6 committee will be seen as a turning point in our national history, or a warning that was ignored.”

We to do know what the hearings have been trying to tell us in precise, persistent fashion: that Donald J. Trump, his associates and his acolytes – through both chaos and coordination – tried to undermine American democracy, that they failed because the right people took their oaths right moments, but that they otherwise managed to fool the minds, loot the Capitol and stop the peaceful transfer of power for the first time in US history. They destroyed lives and careers of the public service. They sent the nation into a vortex of pain, paranoia and revenge that, barring intervention and reform, can lead to the deterioration of the republic.

Or, to use the shorthand heard by police officers responding to the uprising: The United States is in a code 10-33. An emergency.

“Donald Trump and his allies and supporters pose a clear and current threat to American democracy,” a grave and solemn J. Michael Luttig, a former Republican judge, said during the second hearing on June 16.

Democrats are “doubling and tripling their partisan theatrics,” Trump communications director Taylor Budowich tweeted 45 minutes after Thursday’s hearing ended. Trump “will not intimidate” [sic] by their worthless rhetoric or un-American actions. Trump-approved candidates will win the Midterms and America First’s leadership and solutions will be restored.”

Does the American public care about this? According to a Monmouth University poll, Trump’s favorable assessment this summer was about the same as it was after the 2020 election. According to a Marquette Law School poll in September, about half of Americans heard little or nothing about the previous hearings.

“I didn’t watch,” Rusty Bowers says on the phone from his home in Mesa, Ariz. And why would he? He’d seen enough, from the front row, starring in the fourth hearing, where he read a December 2020 diary entry in the Congressional record: “I don’t want to be a winner by cheating.”

As the Republican Speaker of the House in the Arizona legislature, Bowers, who says he will vote for Trump in 2020, has rejected the Trump team’s plan to wrest the state from its rightful winner, Joe Biden. Six weeks later, Bowers lost a Republican state Senate primary by 30 points to a man insinuating that Trump’s defeat is part of a metaphysical conspiracy perpetrated by “the devil himself.”

Bowers, an artist, has vacated his office in Phoenix. He will turn 70 next week. He paints and sculpts and hopes the hearings will revive the consensus that has united states, subtle as it may be, since the Civil War. His 20 grandchildren inspire him to take that long look, stretching back to the founders’ struggle to bring us together, and then reaching beyond Trump’s crusade to tear us apart.

“They’ll be able to say, ‘My grandfather did the right thing.’ ”

Doing the right thing has cost some Americans dearly, the hearings show, in physical and emotional ways. Bowers, like many government officials, was buried in digital hatred: tens of thousands of horrific emails, voicemails, and texts that tainted his patriotism or promised him injury or execution.

“They tortured me,” police officer Michael Fanone said at a committee meeting last year, describing the barbaric behavior of the rioters, who were armed with all kinds of weapons: tasers, rebar, hammers, mace. . .

“I slipped in people’s blood,” Capitol Police Officer Caroline Edwards said during the commission’s first public hearing, on June 9, adding, “It was a massacre. It was chaos. I can’t even describe what I saw.”

In December 2020, Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, publicly stated that two black election workers in Atlanta were “passing USB ports as if they were vials of heroin or cocaine.” At the behest of the FBI, one of the workers, Ruby Freeman, fled her home to evade threats. During a telephone conversation with Georgia’s foreign minister, Trump discredited her name 18 times.

“I don’t feel safe anywhere. Nowhere,” Freeman told the committee in a taped interview shown on June 21. “Do you know what it feels like to have the President of the United States attack you?”

Barbara Byrum, the chief election official in Michigan’s Ingham County, sees the commission’s findings manifesting itself in her life and that of colleagues. Conspiracy theorists have flooded election offices with pointless file requests and infiltrated their staffs at the direction of party activists, Byrum says. The siege of democracy is underway, but in a nonviolent and administrative manner. Michigan’s Republican candidates for governor, attorney general and secretary of state have embraced election denial. As of 2020, nearly two dozen of Michigan’s 83 clerks have chosen not to stand for re-election, many because of stress and intimidation.

“It’s death from 1,000 cuts,” says Byrum, on the phone from Mason, Mich. Her grandparents were a teacher, a nurse, a police officer. Both her parents held elective positions in Michigan.

“Public service is exactly what I knew,” Byrum says, “and how I was raised.”

She has served as city clerk for 10 years and oversaw 30 elections. Her takeaway from the January 6 hearings?

“Public trust is easy to lose. And it’s harder to get back.”

Thirty years ago, in his class, political scientist Robert Lieberman described the American system as a complex mechanism that, like clockwork, curbed extremism and pushed the nation toward moderation, consensus, and incrementalism. In 2020, he co-wrote a book that listed four major threats to democracy: political polarization, growing executive power, deep and growing economic inequality, and racial and ethnic conflict over who belongs in a society.

Over the course of its history, the United States has gone through multiple crises in which one or more of these conditions prevailed.

“But so far we’ve had all four of them at once,” said Lieberman, who calls the Jan. 6 hearings a “hypnotic” indication of our predicament. They have painted “a pretty convincing picture of a president who was actively subverting the law.”

And where do the hearings suggest we are as a nation?

“On the edge of the knife.”

But for now, our systems are grinding along. On Thursday, about 3,000 feet from the legislature’s disclosures, the judiciary was still processing the Jan. 6 defendants. In U.S. District Courtroom 23A, the trial of a group of oath officers against a group of oath officers had begun on the seventh day. At least six other civilians charged in connection with the uprising had video meetings with the court. A man from New Jersey – who reportedly wrote on his Facebook page on January 6, “Living at home. History made. I walked through Pelosi’s office. I should have been in her chair” – was found guilty of obstructing official proceedings, among other crimes. A father and son, from Utah and Illinois, agreed to plead guilty to parading, demonstrating, or picketing inside the Capitol in exchange for the government’s dropping of trespasses and disorderly conduct.

When the judge asked him if he was happy with his lawyers, the father said in a tone of remorseful gratitude, “They are best after sliced ​​bread.”

Cheney had these suspects and criminals in mind on Thursday. “Our nation cannot punish only the foot soldiers who stormed our Capitol,” she said in her closing remarks. Since January 6, 2021, Cheney, whose great-great grandfather fought for the Union under General William Tecumseh Sherman, has been on her own march to the sea. Her conference left her for Trump. Daring to defend the integrity of the US election, her voters voted her out.

“There remains an important task,” Cheney said on Thursday, confirming that this was not a final. “We have to seek the testimony of the central player of January 6 under oath.”

That player, or a surrogate for him, posted a response to Truth Social about 55 minutes later: “Why didn’t the Unselect Committee ask me to testify months ago?”

What would the president’s testimony reveal? Will there be a climax? A catharsis? Or just another final?

Camila DeChalus contributed to this report.

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