The last lesson of the Jan. 6 committee
By The Editorial Board
The hearings of the House select committee on the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol presented a careful, convincing and disturbing account of Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election. They provided an abundance of detail about what we’ve long known: that Trump and his allies engaged in an assault not only on Congress but also on democracy itself.
The work done by the committee over the past 18 months may be even more important than its report, which was released Thursday. The months of scouring investigation and the carefully staged hearings, in which the evidence of Trump’s malfeasance was presented to the public, were critical elements in the nation’s full understanding of the attack on the Capitol. Through the work of these hearings, Congress showed that the best possible answer to political violence lay in the tools that were right at hand: the rule of law, checks and balances, testimony given under oath and the careful process of bureaucracy.
Like a slow-motion replay, the committee’s work also gave Americans a second chance to comprehend the enormity of what transpired on Jan. 6. It seems plausible, as some members of the panel have asserted, that the hearings made protecting democracy a significant issue in the midterm elections and helped persuade voters to reject some election deniers who ran for state offices. The sustained attention on Trump’s conduct in his final days in office is also valuable as he mounts a renewed campaign for the presidency. And the hearings focused the attention of the public and policymakers on the extremist groups that participated in the attack on the Capitol and that pose a threat of renewed violence.
Congressional hearings are often filled with the distraction of partisan squabbling, grandstanding and detours into tangential subjects. The Jan. 6 committee was different, and the American people were better off for it. Trump and others refused to answer subpoenas from the committee, which would have given them an opportunity to answer questions and make their case. Their refusal is unfortunate; they deserve the chance to defend themselves and present their account of the facts, and Americans deserve the chance to hear from them. They’re still due that chance, and Trump may still have his say in a court of law.
The seven Democrats and two Republicans who served on the committee captured the attention of Americans who may not have been sufficiently informed or alarmed about Trump’s role in the events of Jan. 6 to take notice. The two Republicans, Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, deserve particular credit for defying their party to participate. Their presence and the damning testimony delivered by Trump’s aides and allies conveyed the message that some things are necessarily more important than loyalty to a political party.
Americans have also learned, thanks to these hearings, exactly how close this country came to even greater tragedies. Rioters came within 40 feet of Vice President Mike Pence. A Justice Department official, Jeffrey Clark, in late December 2020 sought to send a letter — based on lies — to officials in Georgia and potentially several other key states that warned of election irregularities and called for a special legislative session to select alternate slates of presidential electors.
The lesson, in part, is that our democracy is inescapably fragile. It requires Americans and those who serve them as elected officials and in law enforcement to act in good faith. The committee rightly spent many hours of its work documenting the actions of all those local, state and federal officials who defied Trump’s demands and acted in many different ways to protect democracy.
The dangers remain clear and present, so this work is not complete. House Republicans will be in the majority come January, including many who sought to overturn President Joe Biden’s victory and some who encouraged the rioters.
Political violence is on the rise, especially among right-wing extremists.
And Trump is running for president again on a platform of his grievances, still insistent that he did not lose the last election, still refusing to accept the rule of law. He is, in fact, escalating his rhetoric.
The nation needs to respond to these threats. Congress needs to pass the reforms to the electoral process that are included in the year-end omnibus spending bill. Law enforcement can do more to crack down on extremist violence. Voters should reject Trump at the polls.
As the select committee’s chair, Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., emphasized at its final hearing on Monday, the government should continue to pursue those responsible for the Jan. 6 attack and to hold them accountable.
More than 900 people already have been charged with crimes related to the attack on the Capitol, and several hundred of those have been convicted or pleaded guilty. Stewart Rhodes, the founder of the extremist Oath Keepers group, was convicted of seditious conspiracy in November. Jury selection has begun in the federal trial of Enrique Tarrio, a former leader of the Proud Boys, another extremist group, who faces similar charges.
The committee called on the Justice Department to also bring criminal charges against Trump and the lawyer John Eastman for their efforts to overturn the 2020 election, including Trump’s role in the Jan. 6 attack. The Justice Department is still engaged in its own investigation. As we wrote in August, if there is sufficient evidence to establish Trump’s guilt on a serious charge in a court of law, then he should be charged and tried; the same goes for all of the others whom the committee referred to the Justice Department.
Thompson, urging action on all these fronts, said that as a nation, “we remain in strange and uncharted waters.” Yet the hearings also underscored that the country is better off with clarity and truth.