During the course of its landmark summer of hearings, the House select committee investigating the deadly insurrection at the US Capitol has sought to show that Donald Trump was at the center of a multi-layer conspiracy to seize a second term in office, accusing him of having “summoned the mob, assembled the mob and lit the flame of this attack”.
In a dramatic capstone on Thursday, the panel argued that Trump betrayed his oath of office and was derelict in his duty when he refused to act for 187 minutes on 6 January as rioters carrying poles, bear spray and the banners of his campaign, led a bloody assault on the US Capitol.
The primetime presentation recounted in harrowing, minute-by-minute detail the siege of the Capitol, while simultaneously showing the actions Trump did – but mostly did not – take during those excruciating hours when “lives and our democracy hung in the balance”.
The panel presented chilling video and audio of the violence in the Capitol as Trump loyalists in body armor battled law enforcement in their quest to keep him in power. As the mob encroached, members of then-vice president Mike Pence’s Secret Service detail that day made calls to say goodbye to relatives, the panel revealed in a wrenching disclosure.
Amid the chaos, Trump was idle in the White House, watching it all unfold on a television tuned to Fox News. From a small dining room near the Oval Office, he resisted pleas from his closest aides, congressional Republicans and even his own children to intervene and call off the violence, only changing his mind and consenting, the committee said, after it was clear the coup had failed. Even 24 hours later, according to never-before-seen outtakes from a taped address, Trump refused to say the election was over.
Trump’s abdication of leadership on 6 January was a “stain on our history” and “dishonor to all those who have sacrificed and died in service of our democracy”, the panel forcefully argued.
But were his actions illegal? It’s a question at the heart of the committee’s yearlong investigation.
Over the course of eight public hearings, the panel has sought to lay out the case that Trump orchestrated a multilayered plot to seize another term in office despite being told repeatedly and in no uncertain terms that his myth of a stolen election was baseless.
Culling from hundreds of thousands of documents and hundreds of interviews, the committee showed that Trump, having been turned back by the courts at every level, became increasingly desperate in his bid to overturn the results of an election his own attorney general deemed free and fair.
It documented the pressure campaign Trump waged against state and local officials in areas Biden won, pushing them to reverse their electoral votes. It detailed his efforts to lean on the Department of Justice officials to support his scheme. And it showed how, as the day drew nearer for Congress to count the electoral votes, Trump began to publicly and privately push his vice president to reject or delay the proceedings, an unprecedented act that one witness told the panel in June would have been “tantamount to a revolution within a constitutional crisis.”
Taken together, the panel has sought to offer a full public accounting of the events of 6 January for the American people and for the historical record.
Its work, however, is not done. The committee continues to receive new information and said on Thursday that it would resume public hearings in September.
But already, the committee has presented evidence that lawmakers and aides have suggested could be used as a foundation for bringing a criminal case against the former president. Among the possible charges that have been discussed are conspiracy to defraud the American people and obstructing an official proceeding of Congress. The committee has also raised the prospect of witness tampering, announcing at its last hearing that Trump had attempted to contact a witness cooperating with its investigation.
“The facts are clear and unambiguous,” Congressman Bennie Thompson, Democrat of Mississippi and the chair of the committee, said on Thursday.
The Justice Department is pursuing a separate investigation into the events of 6 January that has resulted in hundreds of arrests, including rare seditious conspiracy charges against the leaders of violent far-right extremist groups involved in the breach of the Capitol.
“No person is above the law in this country,” said attorney general Merrick Garland on Wednesday. “I can’t say it any more clearly than that.”
Trump has dismissed the panel’s inquiry as politically motivated and a witch hunt. He remains the most popular figure in the Republican party and a clear favorite to win the nomination in 2024.
But there are nevertheless signs that the committee’s work is having an impact. Half of Americans say Trump should be charged with a crime for his role in the attack, and nearly 6 in 10 say the former president bears a “great deal” or “quite a bit of responsibility” for the violence carried out in his name.
Shaping the public narrative about 6 January – and Trump – was another major goal of the hearing, particularly as he contemplates a fourth run for the White House.
“Every American must consider this: can a president who is willing to make the choices Donald Trump made during the violence of January 6 ever be trusted with any position of authority in our great nation again?” said vice chair Liz Cheney, a Republican of Wyoming.
Perhaps its most urgent work was to show Americans that the “forces Donald Trump ignited that day have not gone away”, as congressman Adam Kinzinger, Republican of Illinois, said on Thursday. “The militant, intolerant ideologies. The militias. The alienation and the disaffection. The weird fantasies and disinformation. They’re all still out there, ready to go.”
Millions of voters still believe the conspiracy that Trump was the rightful winner of the 2020 election. It has galvanized a new wave of Republican candidates, who have openly embraced the lie that the 2020 election was illegitimate. Many are now their party’s nominee for critical positions such as governor and secretary of state.
Trump was impeached for actions on 6 January, but the Senate acquitted. Cheney said on Thursday that much more is known about his tangled, brazen plot, and suggested there may have been enough support to convict him in the Senate if that vote were held today. But the opportunity for political accountability is no longer available – Trump is out of office, for now.
That is why many, including some on the committee, believe Trump must face legal consequences for his actions.
“If there’s no accountability for January 6, for every part of this scheme, I fear we will not overcome the ongoing threat to our democracy,” Thompson warned. “There must be stiff consequences for those responsible.”