The Jan. 6 select committee won’t personally tell the story of Donald Trump’s bid to subvert the 2020 election. Instead, they’re letting Trump’s own aides, confidants and family members do it for them.
The panel made clear at its first public hearing Thursday that it would rather let Trump’s own inner circle stitch together the details of the former president’s actions to remain in power — and his inaction as a mob of supporters overran the Capitol. Videos showed Ivanka Trump, former Attorney General William Barr and Trump campaign advisers testify that the former president had really lost the 2020 election, as committee members mostly remained in the background.
“These aren’t partisan voices that are speaking out and saying we don’t like Donald Trump,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), one of dozens of Democratic lawmakers who sat in the audience for the hearing. “This is his own attorney general, the White House counsel, his daughter for Pete’s sake.”
The panel has for 10 months quietly amassed an enormous trove of video depositions, compiled from its more than 1,000 witness interviews. Now, as Republicans accuse the panel of a partisan witch hunt, members are strategically deploying the audio and video to communicate a simple point: Trump’s own allies believe — and told him — his actions were wrong.
“Don’t believe me?” select committee Chair Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) intoned roughly seven minutes into the two-hour primetime hearing. “Hear what his former Attorney General had to say about it.”
The subsequent clip — in which Barr described Trump’s claims of election fraud as “bullshit” — marked the start of a cavalcade of video excerpts, showing the former president’s orbit directly contradicting his false claims of election fraud. In one of them, Ivanka Trump said she agreed with Bill Barr’s assessment.
“I respect Attorney General Barr so I accepted what he was saying,” she told the committee.
The panel hinted that there was much more testimony to come. The witness clips they played only amounted to a few minutes in length, serving as more of a table-setter for the five remaining hearings in the next two weeks. The committee’s vice chair, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), summarized in her opening statement what some of the more explosive clips would show.
“You will hear testimony, live and on video, from more than a half dozen former Trump White House staff, all of whom were in the West Wing of the White House that day,” she said.
“You will hear that President Trump was yelling, and ‘really angry at advisers who told him he needed to be doing something more,’” she continued. “And, aware of the rioters’ chants to ‘hang Mike Pence,’ the president responded with this sentiment: ‘maybe our supporters have the right idea.’ Mike Pence ‘deserves’ it.”
Trump aides featured in deposition clips Thursday also included campaign advisers Jason Miller and Alex Cannon, who told the select committee they had pointed out to Trump that there was not enough evidence of fraud to overturn the election results. Miller, according to a previously released excerpt of his transcript, said Trump responded to their arguments by saying they had underestimated the likelihood of prevailing in court.
And in a previously unreported interview, Gen. Mark Milley, the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the select committee that during the violence on Jan. 6, Trump’s chief of staff Mark Meadows urged him to “establish the narrative that the president is still in charge and that things are steady or stable.”
“I immediately interpreted that as politics, politics, politics,” he said.
The panel also displayed previously released text messages from Fox News anchor Sean Hannity to Trump White House officials after Jan. 6, urging them to help guide Trump out of office without further chaos.
“Key now, no more crazy people,” Hannity wrote. “No more stolen election talk.”
The multimedia-heavy strategy is a direct acknowledgment that Congress’ previous efforts to unfurl high-profile investigative findings have often failed to connect with the broader public. The committee made clear that it intends to deploy powerful visuals to showcase the vast amount of evidence they had obtained. It’s an extension of the strategy they used during the second impeachment trial of Donald Trump, when they aired early videos of the Jan. 6 violence.
Committee members are hoping that leaning on former Trump officials and allies would stand a better chance of influencing persuadable voters, who might have tuned out the panel’s investigation as it mainly focused on behind-the-scenes interviews for months.
“I think it’s very important,” Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), a committee member, said in a brief interview about using the clips. “These are people appointed by the president … and it shows the president’s, the former president’s, culpability.”
The panel closed its first hearing with a video montage of a half dozen members of the Jan. 6 mob, all of whom pleaded guilty to crimes for their actions that day. Those defendants, who cooperated with the select committee, all claimed that they went to the Capitol for one reason: because Trump asked them to.
The committee also aired Trump’s own words to hammer their point home, using his September 2020 debate-stage comment urging the right-wing extremist Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” — a comment the group interpreted as a call to action. The Proud Boys would later respond to Trump’s call for a “wild” protest in D.C. on Jan. 6 and become some of the key instigators of the day’s most devastating violence, congressional and Justice Department investigators say.
The committee also showed how Trump’s tweet attack on his own vice president, Mike Pence — just minutes after rioters smashed their way into the Capitol — was quickly digested by the swelling crowd and exacerbated the violence. Pence’s centrality to Trump’s plan will be the focus of an entire hearing next week, featuring the former vice president’s former counsel, Greg Jacob. The committee teased his importance on Thursday night by making Pence’s break from Trump — when he refused to embrace Trump’s push to disrupt or delay the counting of electoral votes —the subject of yet another video excerpt.
“I think he ultimately knew that his fidelity to the Constitution was his first and foremost oath,” Pence’s chief of staff, Marc Short, told the committee.
“His fidelity to the Constitution was more important than his fidelity to President Trump,” one of the investigators responded.
Short replied, “The oath he took, yes.”