Democrats eager to convince the public of President Trump’s guilt in provoking the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol staged a prime-time hearing Thursday to lay out a case that he tried to overturn the presidential election, resulting in the violent attack.
It was the first of several prime-time hearings conducted by a committee created last year by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, to investigate the cause of the Capitol attack. Republicans have denounced the inquiry as a political witch hunt.
“Tonight and over the next few weeks we are going to remind you of the reality of what happened that day,” said Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, Mississippi Democrat and the panel chair.
Mr. Thompson opened the hearing with a video of Mr. Trump’s attorney general, William Barr, who told the committee he did not believe the president’s claim that voting irregularities and fraud caused him to lose the election and that he should take steps to stay in office.
Mr. Barr called Mr. Trump’s claim “b———t,” “complete nonsense” and “crazy stuff,” according to clips of his interviews with the panel to accompany Mr. Thompson’s statement.
Pursuing legal challenges to the election would do a “great, great disservice to the country,” Mr. Barr said he told him.
Mr. Thompson said that, despite the warnings from Mr. Barr, Mr. Trump then began “a sprawling, multistep conspiracy aimed at overturning the presidential election, aimed at throwing out the votes of millions of Americans. Your votes. Your voice in our democracy, and replacing the will of the American people with the will to remain in power after his turn.”
“Donald Trump … spurred a mob of domestic enemies of the Constitution. To march down to the Capitol and subvert American democracy,” Mr. Thompson said.
Rep. Liz Cheney, Wyoming Republican and vice chair of the committee, said in her statement that the panel will show Mr. Trump was to blame for the riot.
“President Trump summoned the mob, assembled the mob, and lit the flame of this attack,” she said. She accused Mr. Trump of spreading false information about the election and his fraud claims.
“This misinformation campaign provoked the violence on Jan. 6,” Ms. Cheney said.
Thursday night’s hearing also featured “previously unseen material” of hundreds of rioters violently breaking into the Capitol, shoving past the police and forcing their way through doors and windows.
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U.S. Capitol Police Officer Caroline Edwards, who was among the officers trying to protect the building and was injured by the rioters at the base of the Capitol, was one of two witnesses.
“I was an American, standing face to face with other Americans asking myself, many, many times, how had we gotten here?” she said in her opening statements.
A second witness, British director Nick Quested, testified about filming the Proud Boys extremist group in the days leading up to and including the far-right group’s involvement in the attack. He showed clips of some of his footage to the panel.
Committee members used the hearing to showcase the first summary of findings of what they called “the coordinated, multi-step effort to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election and prevent the transfer of power.”
Democrats have long argued Mr. Trump directly told the rioters at a rally several blocks from the Capitol to march to the building, where lawmakers were meeting to certify Joseph R. Biden’s Electoral College victory.
Ms. Cheney delivered lengthy testimony in which she accused Mr. Trump of acting criminally by trying to prevent a peaceful transition of power. She displayed a tweet from Mr. Trump, posted Dec. 19, 2020, calling his followers to come to Washington for a rally. “Be there. Will be wild.”
The Wyoming Republican, who lost her GOP leadership position due to her opposition to Mr. Trump and effort to eject him from party politics, said the tweet began the incitement by the president that resulted in the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6.
“As you will see, this was a pivotal moment,” Ms. Cheney said. “The tweet initiated a chain of events. The tweet led to the planning for what occurred on Jan. 6, including by the Proud Boys, who ultimately led the invasion of the Capitol and the violence of that day.”
Ms. Cheney also noted that some footage, shown at the hearing, has rioters yelling “hang Mike Pence.” She noted Mr. Trump, when reportedly told of this, replied that maybe the chanters had the right idea and that his vice president “deserves it.”
The panel’s seven Democrats and two Republicans, all hand-picked by Mrs. Pelosi, have mostly met behind closed doors. They have heard testimony and collected information from dozens of witnesses.
The committee has voted to issue subpoenas to many former Trump aides. In an unprecedented move, it has subpoenaed nearly a half-dozen Republican lawmakers, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, in a bid to compel them to testify about the events of Jan. 6.
The panel voted to hold a handful of people in contempt of Congress for failing to cooperate with its investigation.
A federal grand jury indicted former Trump adviser Peter Navarro on contempt of Congress charges last week after he refused to answer the panel’s questions.
Rep. Adam B. Schiff, California Democrat and a member of the panel who is also chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, promised that the hearing would “demonstrate the multi-pronged effort to overturn a presidential election, how one strategy to subvert the election led to another, culminating in a violent attack on our democracy.”
Democrats and the two Republicans on the committee, Ms. Cheney and Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, hope to show that the attack on the Capitol was far more than a riot. They said it was an attempt to commit an anti-democratic coup d’etat that could happen again if Mr. Trump and his followers are not held accountable and kept in check.
Mr. Thompson began the hearing at an immediate rhetorical high point, comparing the defense of the rioters to a defense of the Ku Klux Klan.
“I’m from a part of the country where people justify the actions of slavery Ku Klux Klan and lynching and remain reminded of that dark history as I hear voices to try and justify the actions of the insurrection is on Jan. 6, 2021,” the Mississippi Democrat said.
Mr. Thompson decried those in Congress who have tried to “whitewash” the riot and warned that American democracy remains threatened by those “who thirst for power.”
The committee hired James Goldston, a former ABC News president, to help produce a hearing compelling enough to keep prime-time TV viewers tuned in.
House Democrats held the hearing as they anticipated a November shellacking from voters.
Poor approval ratings for Mr. Biden, high inflation and skyrocketing gasoline prices have led many analysts to predict Republicans will retake the majority in the midterm elections, perhaps by dozens of House seats.
Republicans, who nearly unanimously oppose the committee, accuse Democrats of staging the hearing to try to recast the election and distract the public from the party’s failure to address the issues that matter most to voters.
Party members tweeted during the hearing that the panel should focus on security failures that allowed the rioters into the Capitol that day, and mocked the party for re-airing an event that was repeatedly litigated during then-President Trump’s second impeachment trial in January 2021.
Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee tweeted, “RT if you’d rather Democrats focus on tackling $5 per gallon gas than Schiff’s Sham January 6th Charade!”
Republicans say they are conducting their own investigation into the riot, led by Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana, and want to know why officials did not have a sufficient plan to defend the Capitol against the throngs of angry protesters who pushed their way past police and metal barricades.
“We’d like to get to the bottom of why this Capitol was so ill-prepared,” Mr. McCarthy said.
Mr. Trump issued a statement on his Truth Social media site ahead of the hearing, repeating his argument that election irregularities and fraud gave Mr. Biden an unfair win.
“The Unselect Committee of political Thugs, essentially the same group who brought you the now fully debunked and discredited RUSSIA, RUSSIA, RUSSIA HOAX (and many others!), refused to study and report on the massive amount of irrefutable evidence, much of it recently produced, that shows the 2020 election was Rigged and Stolen,” he said.
Mrs. Pelosi took aim Thursday at conservative states’ new election-security laws that Democrats say amount to racist voter suppression.
“It’s about our democracy. That is on the ballot. They assaulted the Capitol. They are undermining the elections by voter suppression and nullification of elections and the rest. And people expect us to take care of that,” she told reporters.
The American Conservative Union set up a website to counter the committee’s legitimacy and claims about Jan. 6, including the speaker’s unprecedented decision to reject Mr. McCarthy’s picks for Republican panel members.
Instead, Mrs. Pelosi installed Mr. Kinzinger and Ms. Cheney, who have vocally opposed Mr. Trump and called him complicit in the riot.
“It’s a place to go and get the facts,” about the Jan. 6 riots, American Conservative Union Chairman Matt Schlapp told The Washington Times.