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The Jan. 6 Hearings Are Really An Inquest Into The ‘Big Lie’

Former President Donald Trump thinks the House select committee investigating the deadly Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol shouldn’t be investigating the attack, but instead investigating the claims of voter fraud that spurred the attack. But Trump must not be watching the hearings, because they are about those claims.

So far, the hearings are less about the specific acts committed on that day, and more about the disinformation campaign Trump waged before and after the 2020 election. This campaign told millions of Americans a lie, convinced them it was true and inspired hundreds to attempt to violently disrupt the country’s democratic process. The hearings have shown how Trump continued to promote the “Big Lie” even as his advisers told him it was nonsense, dozens of court cases attempting to prove fraud were dismissed, and investigators failed to find any evidence of fraud. The hearings have centered on the systemic rot of Trump’s denialism, and how that culminated in the Jan. 6 attack. The focus of the hearings is twofold: the disease of misinformation, not just the symptoms of its malignancy, and how that disease, when left unchecked, can devolve into a violently destructive force.

On Monday, the committee used recorded and live testimony from people in Trump’s inner circle to demonstrate that the claims of election fraud being raised by Trump and his supporters were investigated and that they repeatedly turned out to be bunk. Taped testimony from Bill Stepien, Trump’s campaign manager for 2020 and former Trump Attorney General Bill Barr, as well as live testimony from Benjamin Ginsberg, a Republican election lawyer and BJay Pak, a former Trump-appointed U.S. attorney in Georgia, told stories of various claims being chased down to no avail.

Stepien recalled a claim, for example, that noncitizens had cast illegal ballots in Arizona. “And with the margins being as close as they were, as previously described, that could potentially matter,” Stepien said. So he asked Trump campaign attorney Alex Cannon to look into it. “I recall that the response to that, the reality of that, was not illegal citizens voting in the election, I think it was like overseas voters voting in the election. So obviously, people who were eligible to vote.”

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Another example was covered in Barr’s testimony — a claim that more mail-in ballots were returned in Pennsylvania than were sent out. This claim was promoted by Pennsylvania state Sen. Doug Mastriano, who is now the Republican nominee for governor in the state. Mastriano tweeted in November 2020 that the state mailed out 1.8 million ballots yet received 2.6 million mail-in votes back. But that’s not true: Mastriano was comparing the number of mail-in ballots sent out for the primary election to the number returned in the general election. In fact, more than 3 million Pennsylvania voters requested mail-in ballots for the general.

These allegations were investigated by the Justice Department as well as by Trump’s campaign team, according to testimony, and were repeatedly proven false. But those bringing this information to the then-president encountered the same problem that fact-checkers have since the election: With so many false claims of fraud, every time one was disproved, a stack of hundreds of other false claims remained.

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“There was an avalanche of all these allegations of fraud that built up over a number of days,” Barr said in recorded testimony. “And it was like playing Whac-A-Mole, because something would come out one day and then the next day it would be another issue.”

During Thursday’s hearing, the focus was on another inaccurate claim of Trump’s, that former Vice President Mike Pence could and should act to prevent the certification of the election results. Though the hearing at times turned into a dissection of constitutional language, the committee revealed that many of Trump’s legal advisers — excluding John Eastman, who concocted the Pence plan originally — had determined long before Jan. 6 that Pence could not actually stop the certification, and they made that clear to the president. Yet Trump continued to publicly suggest that Pence ought to act and that, if he didn’t, Trump was “going to be very disappointed” in Pence.

The committee tried to make the case that the continued insistence from Trump and his team that Pence had the power and responsibility to stop the vote made Pence a target: It shared video from the attack of rioters calling Pence a “traitor” who had “betrayed the United States,” and saying he “deserves to burn.” They punctuated this with never-before-seen images of Pence in the secure underground location where the secret service had escorted him after the mob breached the Capitol building.

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As the hearings move forward through the rest of the information the committee has found, lies will almost certainly continue to be a focus. The attack was the manifestation of the underlying disease of misinformation, and the hearings help demonstrate how sick the nation has become.

Kaleigh Rogers is FiveThirtyEight’s technology and politics reporter.


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