(CNN) –– Stay tuned. The second season of the compelling and highly produced television saga of the January 6 House hearings on Donald Trump’s role in the storming of the Capitol is upon us.
This month’s final prime-time hearing on Thursday presented a horror show about presidential dereliction of duty and the suspenseful promise of returning in September with even more damaging evidence against former President Trump.
Early in hearings this summer, the Select Commission faced critical questions about its credibility and the prospect of being one of the few investigative processes to hold Trump accountable.
- Did the commission have anything new to add to the already well-known events of January 6, 2021: an infamous day in American history in which its citizens watched a coup attempt unfold in real time?
- Could it penetrate Trump’s West Wing and thwart attempts by the former president and House Republicans to cover up his attack on the American tradition of free elections and peaceful transfers of power?
- Could he prove that the events following the 2020 election and subsequent riots in the US Capitol were knowingly orchestrated by Trump?
- And could he then use that evidence to show criminal intent that might lead the Justice Department to prosecute the former president?
- With Trump eager to launch a new campaign that would test American institutions like never before, could the commission further shift public opinion against a lawless and autocratic former president who continues to pose a threat to democracy?
The commission has exhaustively answered at least the first three questions and has made progress on the other two.
It has also reinforced the larger narrative of a runaway president who imposed his own fantastical belief that he won the election over more than two centuries of democratic tradition and the national interest. And what is more chilling: the case advances that, in the words of key witness J. Michael Luttig, a conservative judge, Trump continues to represent “a clear and present danger” to American democracy.
As the committee’s vice chair, Republican Liz Cheney, said after Thursday’s extraordinary hearing: “Every American must consider this: Can a president who made Donald Trump’s decisions be trusted again with any position of authority?” during the January 6th violence in our great nation?”
Audiences have painted a much more detailed and horrific picture of the Capitol insurrection than ever before. The commission obtained the key testimony of the former White House adviser Pat Cipollone. Some of Trump’s younger aides, like Cassidy Hutchinson, who worked for former White House Secretary General Mark Meadows, exhibited great courage to tell the truth, which contrasted with the long appeasement that much more important Republicans maintained for years against the aberrant former president. They also prompted others to come forward with evidence.
That evidence exposed Trump’s direct and dominant role in discrediting the 2020 election, making the false case that he had won it, and the cascade of events that led to the worst attack on the US Capitol in more than 200 years.
What the January 6 Commission has established on Trump and the assault on Capitol Hill
The hearings could best be compared to a criminal court trial, as they have presented evidence from multiple documentary sources interspersed with video testimony and live statements from the most compelling witnesses.
Cheney frequently opened hearings with a summary for the public in “You’ll hear how former President Trump…” language, as if she were a lawyer addressing a jury, in this case the one at home.
This is what the commission has established so far.
- The insurrection was carnage, not the riotous protest Trump allies have described. Never-before-seen footage from outside and inside the Capitol showed Trump’s mob smashing windows, battling security and seeking revenge on then-Vice President Mike Pence for failing to block Trump’s election victory. President Joe Biden. Capitol Police officer Caroline Edwards spoke in her testimony of a “war scene.” And she added: “I was slipping in people’s blood.”
- Trump was repeatedly told by campaign aides, officials and lawyers that he had lost the election. But he persisted in his lies and attempts to steal power.
- Those fraud claims were “stupid” and lacking in evidence, according to multiple witnesses, including former Trump Attorney General William Barr.
- Trump put extreme pressure on Republican officials in key swing states to nullify the election. Among them, the speaker of the Arizona House of Representatives, Rusty Bowers, who testified that he chose the Constitution over politics. Georgia election officials, Wandrea “Shaye” Moss and her mother, Ruby FreemanThey said Trump’s campaign of intimidation left them afraid to leave their homes.
- Trump was personally involved in schemes to get Pence to nullify congressional elections — a power the vice president did not have — and to create fake voter lists to steal Biden’s state victories.
- According to a witness, Trump believed that Pence – who had been taken to safety by the Secret Service while rioters stormed the Capitol – deserved the calls to hang him. And the danger to Pence was real: the mob came within 40 feet of him. A commission witness, whose identity was not released, testified in a recording Thursday that members of Pence’s task force actually feared they would be killed.
- The agitators testified that they came to the city of Washington because Trump asked them to. The former president stirred up the crowd at a rally and knew that some of the people were armed. Still, he urged them to march on the Capitol. In fact, he would have gone with them himself if the Secret Service had let him.
- Trump not only watched the chaos unfold on television, he also expressly refused to do his duty as president to protect Capitol Hill and democracy. In fact, he further incited the crowd with a tweet.
The commission’s strategies
It stands to reason that a president who came to office due in part to the image he created on a television show and whose government ran like a reality show unhinged finds his demeanor dissected in a new kind of congressional investigation that feels more like a broadcast-worthy drama than a sulky audience on Capitol Hill.
The commission recruited experienced television producers to shape its audiences, two of which were broadcast in prime time. The panel members who led each session worked from a script, as videos of witness statements were interspersed with other evidence such as Capitol Police radio traffic, images of the violence, texts from former White House officials. and live testimonials.
Although key figures like Meadows and other close advisers to Trump tried to obstruct the commission’s work, it used classic investigative techniques to piece together the story. People within Trump’s inner circle reluctant to speak were required to give sworn statements, including his daughter Ivanka, his son-in-law Jared Kushner and senior White House officials. Week after week, the shocking video took effect. More people inside the West Wing on January 6, 2021 were willing to speak.
Hutchinson’s courage unleashed a flurry of personal attacks from the Trump world. But that may have just opened a faucet to more testimony and evidence. Cipollone seemed to balance his responsibilities as advisor to the president and the doctrine of executive privilege with his duty to history and his own sense of right and wrong. In a compelling example of his statement Thursday, he left the damning impression that everyone in the White House that day wanted the rioters gone, except for Trump.
In another effective technique, the commission — which pro-Trump Republicans denounce as a partisan fraud — often used GOP insiders to argue its case against the former president. Members of the mob said they believed they were carrying out Trump’s wishes because of what he said. Republican officials including Bowers and Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger have testified about the former president’s abuses of power. On Thursday, the commission played Fox footage showing the carnage Trump observed in real time.
What’s next for Trump and the audiences
At the start of these hearings, it seemed like a stretch that the commission could build a case with criminal implications for Trump. But that could be changing. Some experienced lawyers believe that the panel has, in fact, established evidence of the former president’s intent to precipitate the horrendous events leading up to January 6. Precisely, an important component for any judicial case.
However, it is important to remember that effective as it is, the commission’s case is presented solely from the prosecution perspective. The panel can select pieces of information that are most advantageous to your case. There has been no cross-examination of witnesses. Weaknesses or contradictions in his recollection or testimony have not been cleared up by a defense attorney.
Then there is the question of whether a possible criminal prosecution against Trump, as a former president, would be in the national interest. Because it could drive even deeper partisan divisions in a nation that is already alienated internally. Setting the precedent that a former president could be subject to criminal prosecution would be dangerous, as future leaders could misuse it to persecute his predecessors. This issue could become even more explosive also because Trump could soon launch a presidential campaign that would make it easier for him to claim that the investigation against him is politically motivated.
However, the weight of evidence already unearthed by the commission raises an equally serious question. What message is sent to future generations if Trump shirks political and criminal responsibility for trying to incite a coup against the US government he was sworn to protect?
Attorney General Merrick Garland insisted this week that no one is above the law. Which sparked new speculation about the possibility of a Justice Department investigation and possible prosecution of Trump.
Laurence Trib, a Harvard constitutional scholar, believes the commission’s hearings have made that outcome more likely.
“The commission, through witnesses like Cassidy Hutchinson and through the testimony she recorded under oath, has painted an extremely strong picture of someone who…was forced to go to great lengths to stay in power,” he told Wolf Blitzer, on CNN this Thursday.
“I think the panel has made the prosecution a lot easier in part because the people of the United States have had more information. You have to prepare people for something as unusual as the prosecution of a former president,” he added.