The carnage was impossible to deny. As the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol laid out its evidence that former President Donald Trump was the catalyst of the assault on American democracy, a 12-minute video showed the full consequences of Trump’s willful lie that the election was stolen. It was perhaps the committee’s most compelling argument.
The video — which included images recorded by participants in the attack, security footage, news footage, audio recordings from police radio communication and police body-camera recordings — tracked the evolution of the violence on that day, from an agitated crowd gathering at the outskirts of the Capitol, through the bloody, forceful invasion of the building. Much of the footage was raw and played at length; the violence was visceral. In one clip, a first-person view from a fallen U.S. Capitol Police officer’s body camera, you can see the mob bearing down, beating the officer mercilessly.
You can watch as many clips of Jan. 6 participants calmly strolling through the rotunda as you like, but the footage shared during the hearing make it inarguable that this was no “normal tourist visit,” as GOP Rep. Andrew Clyde claimed four months after the attack.
Past blockbuster congressional hearings have had blockbuster testimony — and this hearing had that too. But what made Thursday night’s opener of the committee’s series of hearings different was the frequent and effective use of media to bolster the narrative the committee presented.
The task before the committee is significant. In a country so polarized that it cannot agree on what took place during a historic event we all witnessed collectively in real time, the facts matter. The committee is challenged to lay out those facts for a clear accounting of what happened that day, the democratic threat it represented, and the president’s role in provoking it. This is not to prosecute those involved (that’s the job of the Department of Justice) but to protect against further erosion of democracy. Because without a common understanding of just how insidious the attack on Jan. 6 was, it could easily happen again, and the country risks sliding toward authoritarianism.
Whether the public will accept that accounting is a greater challenge, but one the committee is attempting to meet, in part, by emphasizing the bipartisan work being done. Rep. Liz Cheney, one of just two Republicans on the committee, led the majority of the first hearing, a clear attempt to highlight that this was not a “political sham witch hunt,” as GOP Rep. Elise Stefanik has claimed. The committee is also attempting to limit partisan grandstanding, instead moving through the process in a methodical, calm manner while allowing testimony and video footage to speak for itself, according to Dannagal Young, a communications professor at the University of Delaware.
“Politics is performance. It always has been,” she said. “But that doesn’t change the content of the investigation. It doesn’t change what happened on that day.”
Videos — some previously released, others being aired for the first time — were carefully sprinkled throughout the hearing, punctuating information shared by Cheney and committee chair Rep. Bennie Thompson. Even in his opening remarks, Thompson included video to underscore the fact that the 2020 election was not stolen from Trump, signaling how big a role media would play in the hearings to come. Warning that the clip contained “strong language,” Thompson paused his remarks to play a clip from former Trump Attorney General Bill Barr’s testimony to the committee, where Barr said he remembers at least three discussions with the president where “I made it clear I did not agree with the idea of saying the election was stolen and putting out this stuff, which I told the president was bullshit.”
Later, clips of testimony from Trump’s daughter and senior adviser, Ivanka Trump, and her husband, Jared Kushner, another senior White House adviser, demonstrated that those closest to the former president were aware that his claims of fraud were baseless. Video testimony of defendants charged for their alleged involvement in the attack saying that they were in Washington, D.C., that day because Trump had summoned them underscored the president’s role in inspiring the attack. Footage of Caroline Edwards, a U.S. Capitol Police officer on the front lines that day, being knocked unconscious after the mob plowed past a barricade toward her punctuated her live testimony on how violent Jan. 6 was.
“Politically speaking, hearing people like Bill Barr and Ivanka Trump say that they knew that there was no fraud and that the election wasn’t stolen is quite powerful because these are people who are very much in Donald Trump’s inner circle admitting that they knew the election was not stolen,” said Steven Webster, a professor of political science at Indiana University Bloomington. “When you have people that close to the president, even his own children, saying there’s no fraud here, that’s a very powerful image.”
For those who have kept a close eye on the news, there was little revelatory in this first hearing. But even for those of us who consume this news religiously, the asynchronous discovery of each new piece of information can make it difficult to keep the timeline and details straight. That’s why the methodological retelling in the calm, bureaucratic setting of a congressional hearing is still valuable, even without any bombshell revelations.
Prior to the start of the hearing, majority committee member Rep. Adam Schiff told FiveThirtyEight the committee was planning to “present the evidence we have gathered through both live testimony and a variety of media, so as to be both highly engaging and deeply informative.” That media — video, audio and social media posts — was the committee’s preferred tool to try to overcome its many challenges in creating a consensus understanding of Jan. 6, 2021. In a country as polarized as the U.S., where trust of the opposite party is so low, the committee is hoping that seeing with our own eyes and hearing with our own ears will make the truth undeniable.
CORRECTION (June 10, 2022, 10:32 a.m.): This article has been updated to correct a misspelling of Rep. Bennie Thompson’s first name.