June 10, 2022 | Reading Time: 6 minutes

On the J6 committee’s first round of roundhouse punches

Critics can sit down. Members seem ready to go all the way.  

Bennie Thompson, Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger.
Bennie Thompson, Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger.

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The J6 committee last night focused largely on the role of violent rightwing insurgents in the former president’s attempted coup d’état. The left-liberal reaction, if you’ll permit synthesis, had been convinced the Democrats once again botched it. Donald Trump should’ve been center stage, they said, not no-name already-indicted whack-jobs. 

Well, he was center stage, but even if he had not been, critics overlooked the utility of raising awareness of the lengths some Americans will go to repeal products of the democratic process.

I think critics underestimated the value of a national audience seeing evidence of the fact that some Americans prefer a dictator who will protect their privileges over the risk of democracy eroding them.

I think James Hohmann was right when the Post columnist said that Cheney’s opening statement seemed to be tailored made for an audience of one, which is to say, Attorney General Merrick Garland. 

And I think critics failed to appreciate, prior to last night, the dramatic effect on Americans of seeing evidence of the insurgents’ intentions.

“When I fell behind that line,” said Capitol Police Officer Caroline Edwards in testimony last night, “I can just remember my breath catching in my throat, because what I saw was just a war scene. 

“It was something like I had seen out of the movies. I couldn’t believe my eyes. There were officers on the ground. They were bleeding. They were throwing up. They were, you know, they had, I mean, I saw friends with blood all over their faces. I was slipping in people’s blood.”

Intending murder
The committee’s chair and vice chair, Bennie Thompson and Liz Cheney, respectively, established a timeline of cause and effect. 

They showed how the president broadcast messages, via television and social media, to his most extreme followers, the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers. Like every other goon, henchman and grifter in Trump’s lifetime of iniquitous inner circles, they understood what to do. 

We saw video footage of the groups’ leaders conspiring in the garage of a Washington hotel. We learned that they reconned the Capitol grounds in search of weak points. We learned that they marched to the Capitol prior to Trump’s speech on the Ellipse and before rallygoers followed. We learned that they first breached the Capitol barriers. 

The effect was powerful. 

Like you, I have seen plenty of video of the J6 insurgents sacking and looting the US Capitol. But not until last night was their intent so clear

My thinking had made room for the possibility that these people were hooligans looking for a fight. I thought it possible, as Deep Throat once said, that they weren’t “very bright guys and things got out of hand.”

But after seeing evidence of Trump having “summoned, assembled and lit the flame” under the violent mob, as Cheney said last night, it was unambiguous that they intended not only to pressure Vice President Mike Pence into completing the coup, but also intended to murder.

Before last night’s hearing, it was possible to believe that the makeshift gallows erected on Capitol grounds was mere symbolism. Not after last night. When we heard the insurgents again calling for Nancy Pelosi, or chanting “hang Mike Pence,” there was no more doubt. This was not gesture and theater. It was more than harassment and intimidation. 

They had a plan.

Yes, we care
As they have done before every other such occasion, the Republicans tried to make us think there was nothing new to see. They tried to make us think the hearings were but a splendid display, just more partisan pomp by the Democrats to score points before November.

If you have misgivings, consider reporting by the Post’s Rhonda Colvin. She was in the room. She could feel the room. She said the video presentation given after the opening remarks was “a reminder that we haven’t seen it all.” All eyes, she said, were on the screen. Some people were visibly shaken. Some were crying. Everyone was riveted.

At the end of the hearing, Colvin reported back to say no one’s attention flagged, as would be the case during a normal proceeding. There was special focus, Colvin said, on Liz Cheney. She outlined the coming weeks. Cheney described the J6 insurrection as a “seven-part plan” in order for Trump “to remain president of the United States.”

Cheney, Colvin said, seemed to “whet our appetite for more.”

No comparison to Watergate
The J6 committee has contended with endless comparisons to the committee that spent months holding public hearings into President Nixon’s role in Watergate. By comparison, the J6 panel is set to hold just a handful, including last night. Critics say that’s not enough.

There is no comparison, though. 

The Democrats seem to understand the media climate today is fundamentally different from what it was in Nixon’s time. Mass audiences no longer sit around a TV to watch world events. Instead, news is atomized for consumption at the consumer’s convenience.

The J6 panel might appear to be too slow, but in the absence of hearings has been the slow and steady drip drip drip of news bits thoughtfully leaked to a press corps eager for scoops. These bits are then circulated and consumed before they are recirculated and re-consumed. After running their course, they have probably had as much effect as months’ worth of hearings for a mass TV audience.

More importantly, I suspect that the Watergate hearings challenged the ability of TV viewers to put the pieces together on their own. The J6 committee, which seeks to make an airtight case for the American people, is not trusting the American people to do that labor. Good.

Last night’s hearing presented opening arguments, a menu of things to come and “a clear story arc,” as we like to say in newsrooms. There was an easy-to-follow beginning, middle and end. There were breaks in the narrative to fill in gaps in knowledge. The prosecution, as it were, stopped occasionally to address complaints by Republican critics.

It was good TV.

Trust the J6 committee
There’s an attitude prevalent on social media according to which the Democrats can’t do anything right. As I said, critics blasted the committee after news of its focus on violent rightwing insurgents.

The critics should open their eyes. 

The committee landed one roundhouse after another. 

Trump was the main protagonist in a story about how “ultimately, Donald Trump—the President of the United States—spurred a mob of domestic enemies of the Constitution to march down to the Capitol and subvert American democracy,” said Chairman Bennie Thompson.

But Thompson didn’t stop with links to domestic enemies. 

He said that Trump and his team had been planned for weeks after losing the election. He explained that the legal jargon that the public will hear is dense but can be reduced to a single concept. “Any legal jargon you hear about – ‘seditious conspiracy,’ ‘obstruction of an official proceeding,’ ‘conspiracy to defraud the United States’ – boils down to this: January 6th was the culmination of an attempted coup.”

Let’s have more faith, mmm-kay?

Admission of guilt
Vice Chairwoman Liz Cheney threw the hardest.

She revealed for the first time that Pennsylvania Congressman Scott Perry, a Republican who helped try to replace Acting Attorney General Jeff Rosen with a toady, “contacted the White House in the weeks after January 6th to seek a presidential pardon.” He had company, she said. 

“Multiple other Republican congressmen also sought presidential pardons for their roles in attempting to overturn the 2020 election.”

Just to be clear, that fact alone is an admission of guilt to committing a crime punishable to the fullest extent of federal law. Perry, who is up  for reelection this fall, has a lot of explaining to do to his constituents. So do the other Republicans whom the committee promises to name.

A sincere goal
Details about the pardons established a criminal context for what appears to be the committee’s sincere goal – seeing the Department of Justice bring a criminal indictment against a former president.

I think James Hohmann was right when the Post columnist said that Cheney’s opening statement seemed to be tailored made for an audience of one, which is to say, Attorney General Merrick Garland.  

Cheney used a telling word: “corruptly.” 

“In our third hearing, you will see that President Trump corruptly planned to replace the attorney general,” she said. “In our fifth hearing, you will see evidence that President Trump corruptly pressured state legislators and election officials to change election results.”

She’s used that word before. 

Amid the committee’s vote in December to hold in contempt of Congress former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, she said that his testimony would have provided insight into whether Donald Trump did, “through action or inaction, corruptly seek to obstruct or impede Congress’ official proceeding to count the electoral votes?”

I’m not the first to point out “corruptly” can be found in the federal statute outlawing the obstruction of an official proceeding. 

From 18 U.S. Code § 1505:

Whoever corruptly, or by threats or force, or by any threatening letter or communication influences, obstructs, or impedes or endeavors to influence, obstruct, or impede the due and proper administration of the law … shall be fined under this title, imprisoned not more than 5 years or, if the offense involves international or domestic terrorism, imprisoned not more than 8 years, or both.

Committee members appear ready to go all the way. 

I hope Garland has the guts to go with them.

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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