On Thursday the House committee investigating the January 6 attack on the US Capitol will open the first of eight hearings, marking the turning point when “one of the single most important congressional investigations in history”, as the Republican congresswoman Liz Cheney billed it, will finally go public.
It will be the culmination of almost a year of intensive activity that, aside from a succession of leaks, has largely been conducted in private. More than 1,000 people have been called for depositions and interviews to cast light on the events of January 6, 2021, when hundreds of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol in answer to Donald Trump’s call to “fight like hell” to prevent Congress certifying Joe Biden’s presidential victory.
The committee has collected 125,000 documents, pursued almost 500 leads through its confidential tip line. It has examined text messages between Trump’s closest advisers and family members discussing how to keep the defeated president in power; reviewed memos from conservative lawyers laying out a roadmap to an electoral coup; and listened to recorded conversations in which top Republicans revealed their true feelings about Trump’s actions “inciting people” to attack the heart of US democracy.
Now the nine-member committee, Cheney included, have a different – and arguably more difficult – job to do. They must let the American people into their deliberations, share with them key facts and exhibits, grill witnesses in front of them, and through it all begin to build a compelling narrative of how ferociously Trump attempted to subvert the 2020 election – and how close he came to succeeding.
“It’s important that we tell the American public, to the best we are able, exactly what happened,” said Zoe Lofgren, a congresswoman from California who is among the seven Democratic members of the committee. “The public need to understand the stakes for our system of government, and we need to devise potential changes in legislation or procedures to protect ourselves in future.”
In an interview with the Guardian, Lofgren was hesitant to get into details of the investigation. But asked whether she has been surprised by the breadth and depth of the plot to overturn the 2020 election and the extent to which it was organized, she replied: “The short answer is yes.”
Lofgren brings to Thursday’s opening session her deep personal understanding of the dynamic role played by congressional hearings in recent American history. She has had a ringside seat, initially as a staff observer and then as an elected participant, in many of the most significant hearings stretching back to Watergate.
At the time of the Watergate hearings in May 1973, when she was still a young law student, Lofgren worked as an intern for Don Edwards, a Democrat on the judiciary committee. She sees similarities between today’s January 6 investigation and the way Nixon’s cover-up of the Watergate break-in was teased out by Congress, starting with inquiries behind closed doors and then bursting out into explosive televised Senate proceedings.
“Much of what the judiciary committee did in Watergate – like January 6 – was behind closed doors,” Lofgren said. “I remember various Nixon functionaries being deposed in the committee back rooms.”
Once sufficient intelligence was amassed, it was time to let the public in. “Ultimately, you have to let people know what you have found.”
The Watergate hearings became a national obsession, with millions of Americans tuning in to ABC, CBS or NBC which scrapped normal scheduling to broadcast the deliberations live. The New York Times called them “the biggest daytime spectacular in years”.
There was so much viewer demand that the networks ran replays at night. It was worth it, to experience such spine-tingling moments as the former White House counsel John Dean being asked: “What did the president know and when did he know it?”, or to be present when another assistant, Alexander Butterfield, revealed the existence of the Oval Office tapes.
Lofgren does not expect the January 6 hearings to grip the nation to the all-encompassing extent that Watergate did. Times have changed, not least the media.
“During Watergate there were three TV channels and that’s how everybody got their news – if Walter Cronkite said it was true, it must be true, right?” Lofgren said. “Today people are getting their information from a multiplicity of sources, and we need to deal with that and make sure we are finding people where they are.”
It’s not just how media is consumed that has changed, it’s also how media itself approaches public hearings. During Watergate, TV anchors responded to Nixon’s jibes that they were peddlers of “elitist gossip” – a foreshadow of Trump’s “fake news” – by keeping their commentary to a bare minimum.
In today’s universe, by contrast, the January 6 hearings are likely to be subjected to heavy spin that will leave individual Americans with drastically different impressions according to which media bubble they are in.
Kathryn Cramer Brownell, associate professor of history at Purdue University, has studied the measured way television handled the Watergate hearings. She said it stands starkly apart from, say, how Robert Mueller’s testimony before the House judiciary committee on his Russia investigation was transmitted to the American people in 2019.
“Fox News tried to spin the information as it was coming out of the Mueller proceedings, so people were receiving the information as it was filtered through that instant spin. That can change their understanding,” she said.
Brownell has highlighted how the advent of the TV age elevated congressional hearings to another level. Before television, hearings such as those into the Titanic disaster in 1912 or the 1923 Teapot Dome scandal could still command the nation’s attention, but it was the small screen that supercharged them into major political events.
By being beamed into millions of Americans’ living rooms, they had the power to turn individual Congress members into superstars. Ironically the beneficiaries included Nixon who came to prominence in the 1948 Red Scare investigation against Alger Hiss; he was followed soon after by Estes Kefauver in the 1950 investigation against organized crime.
Oliver North became a bogey figure for progressives and a darling of the right after his appearance in the 1987 Iran-Contra hearings.
Hearings also have the reverse power to tear down politicians who go too far, as the Republican senator Joe McCarthy discovered to his cost in his 1954 televised hearings into alleged communist infiltration of the US army. McCarthy’s reign of terror was abruptly brought to a close when the army’s lawyer Joseph Welch challenged him with the now legendary refrain: “Have you no sense of decency?”
In the end, congressional hearings are likely only to be as compelling as the matter they are addressing – whether anti-communism, organized crime or presidential misconduct. That should play to the January 6 committee’s advantage: it would be hard to imagine more essential subject material than an assault on democracy itself.
“If we believe in the rule of law and democratic norms, then we have to make this effort,” said Jeannie Rhee, a partner in the law firm Paul, Weiss who frequently represents witnesses in congressional hearings. “What we do in this moment, how we proceed – that is imperative.”
Rhee led the team investigating Russian cyber and social media interference in the 2016 presidential election within the Mueller investigation. She now represents the attorney general of Washington DC in the prosecution of far-right Proud Boys and Oath Keepers for their part in the January 6 insurrection.
As an immigrant, Rhee said, for her, the upcoming hearings are deeply personal. Her father was a student protester in the 1960s fighting for democratic reforms in South Korea, and it was America’s free and fair elections and peaceful transition of presidential power that led him to relocate their family to the US.
“I came to the US with my parents in 1977 and it was my father’s greatest dream to be able to stay here. I remember my mother dressing me up in my Sunday church clothes to pay respects to the nation’s Capitol. I live here now, and my father has passed away. I think about him often in relation to what is unfolding, and whether this is the country he knew.”
Rhee sees the challenge facing the January 6 committee as bridging the growing political divide by laying out facts around which most Americans can coalesce. She thinks the best way to conduct the hearings is to let what happened on that fateful day speak for itself.
“The less the members talk and the more the witnesses and victims and people who were there tell their own truth, the more powerful that will be,” she said.
The job of letting the facts do the talking will be complicated, though, by the fact that the Republican leadership in the House is effectively boycotting the hearings. Kevin McCarthy, the minority leader, decided not to appoint members to the panel after the Democratic speaker, Nancy Pelosi, rejected two of his choices.
The two participating Republican members – Cheney and Adam Kinzinger – have both been censured by the Republican National Committee. The official view of the Republican House leadership is that January 6 – which led to the deaths of seven people and injured more than 140 police officers – was “legitimate political discourse”.
Many of the most important witnesses around Trump have refused to play ball with the investigation. Steve Bannon, Mark Meadows, Peter Navarro and Dan Scavino have all been held in criminal contempt of Congress for failing to respond to subpoenas, and Bannon and Navarro have been indicted by a federal grand jury (the justice department said on Friday it would not charge Scavino and Meadows).
Many other top Republicans have invoked their fifth amendment right to silence in answer to every question they were posed. Those resisting testifying include five members of Congress, McCarthy among them.
That’s a sign of how far the canker of political discord has spread within Congress, and how far the Republican party has shifted in a fundamentally anti-democratic direction. Consider by contrast the fact that the lethal Watergate question about what the president knew and when he knew it was asked by a senator from Nixon’s own Republican party, Howard Baker from Tennessee.
“Congressional hearings have become increasingly partisan-driven,” said Stanley Brand, a former general counsel to the House who has legally represented numerous people called to testify before Congress spanning decades. “From the Clinton administration, through the Republican House’s investigation of the IRS and Benghazi, political lines are being drawn quicker and harder, and now there’s much more effort put on political point scoring.”
Brand, who is representing Scavino in his battle to resist the January 6 committee, thinks that by opting out over the hearings the Republicans have fundamentally changed their nature. “Every party has to decide how much it wants to participate, but I’ve never known a big hearing like this with only one side represented – that’s a major difference.”
Brand, a Democrat, thinks that partisanship is also being displayed by the Democratic leadership. He accuses the January 6 committee of straying well beyond its official remit as laid down by the US supreme court – an oversight role in which Congress informs itself for the purpose of writing legislation.
He interprets the committee’s aggressive pursuit of witnesses as an attempt to push the justice department into bringing charges against key Trump individuals. “This committee has acted more like a prosecutorial agency than a legislative agency of any congressional investigation in which I’ve been involved in 50 years,” Brand said.
Lofgren disputes the claim. “We’ve made it very clear that we are a legislative committee and the Department of Justice are the prosecutors,” she said.
Any consideration of bringing prosecutions after the hearings have concluded, she added, “is beyond our purview”.
As she prepares for the momentous start of the public hearings, Lofgren had some tough words for the Republican holdouts. She noted that in Watergate Republican leaders were also initially resistant, disputing claims that Nixon had acted improperly. But as soon as he admitted key details, they changed tack.
“The difference with the Republican leadership today is that they know they are lying. It’s pretty clear that some of my Republican colleagues – not all – are willing to lie for power,” Lofgren said.
What does she hope the hearings will achieve?
“I hope they will tell the complete truth about what happened in a way that can be accepted and understood by the broad spectrum of American society, leading to a reinvigorated love of our democratic republic and system of elections.”
That is a tall order.
“You know, you don’t get anywhere by thinking small,” she said. “We’ll do the best we can, that’s all we can do, and hope this will be an important moment for America.”