WASHINGTON (AP) — The Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol — and on democracy itself — returns in sharp focus this week as a special House committee opens televised public hearings on the insurrection and then-President Donald Trump’s role in it. But will Americans care?
Americans are processing the nightmare of the slaughter of children in Texas, racist murders in Buffalo, New York, and other numbingly repeated scenes of carnage in the United States. They’re also contending with what feels like highway robbery at gas pumps and stores, nagged by a virus the world can’t seem to shake and split into two hostile camps over politics and culture.
But Dartmouth College historian Matthew Delmont said he expects Americans, despite all of their preoccupations, to be drawn to the inquiry: “They want to understand how our democracy reached this precipice,” he said.
Beginning in prime time Thursday — after issuing more than 100 subpoenas, conducting over 1,000 interviews and analyzing more than 100,000 documents — the House of Representative’s Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol is setting out to establish the historical record of an event damaging not only to a community or to individual families, but to the collective idea of democracy itself.
Dozens of the insurrectionists have been brought to justice. But the committee’s goal is larger: Who in positions of power should also be held to account?
There are many layers of inquiry, but one aim is to establish whether Trump’s acts before and during Jan. 6, 2021, were criminal, and whether they might warrant prosecution of an ex-president.
More broadly, the effort addresses who might be culpable in the large circle of Trump supporters. Some of them are lawmakers who sided with his efforts to overturn the Nov. 3, 2020, election — only to huddle in fear when rioters swarmed the Capitol in service of that goal.
Committee member Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., has tried to renew interest in the insurrection: “The hearings will tell a story that will really blow the roof off the House because it is a story of the most heinous and dastardly political offense ever organized by a president and his followers and his entourage in the history of the United States,” Raskin said in April. That offense? “An inside coup” coupled with a violent attack by “neo-fascists,” he said.
The panel, free from the burden of the “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” standard, is likely to try to show that the riot was not a spontaneous gathering but part of a broader conspiracy.
“In quieter times, the hearings would have a stronger hold on public attention,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the Annenberg Public Policy Center. “But, as is, they will be competing for attention with topics with greater immediate relevance in our lives,” such as soaring prices, rising COVID-19 hospitalizations, mass shootings and the threat that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will escalate.
“If the hearings are to do anything other than reinforce our existing political biases,” Jamieson said, “they will have to reveal previously covered-up goings-on that threatened something that Democrats, independents and most Republicans can agree should be sacrosanct.”
Seven Democrats and two Republicans make up the panel. Among them is Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., who is practically alone in the GOP in assailing Trump while also seeking re-election to Congress.
Trump-friendly Republicans have downplayed what happened on Jan. 6, once the shock that nearly all felt subsided. Some compared the riot to the 1773 Boston Tea Party. And in measurements of public opinion, Republican voters in the main have said they believe the 2020 election was rigged, while the courts, state officials including Republicans, and the Trump administration’s own election monitors have said the election was fair.
Trump won the 2016 election with a minority of the popular vote, lost the House to the Democrats in 2018 and lost to Joe Biden in 2020 by more than 7 million votes. Still, he holds sway over his party, thanks to supporters whose loyalty likely won’t be easily dislodged by whatever the Jan. 6 panel reveals.