The slaughter was impossible to deny. When the House Special Committee investigating the January 6 attack on the US Capitol presented its evidence that former President Donald Trump was the catalyst behind the attack on American democracy, a 12 minute video showed the full consequences of Trump’s willful lie that the election was stolen. It was perhaps the committee’s most compelling argument.
The video — which included images taken by participants in the attack, security footage, news footage, audio from police radio and footage from police cameras — followed the unfolding of the day’s violence from an agitated crowd gathering on the outskirts of the Capitol, by the bloody, violent invasion of the building. Much of the footage was raw and played long; the violence was visceral. In one clip, a first-person body camera view of a fallen US Capitol Police officer, you can see the mob descend and mercilessly beat the officer.
You can watch as many clips of Jan. 6 attendees strolling quietly through the rotunda as you like, but the footage shared during the hearing makes it undeniable that this was no “ordinary tourist visit” as the GOP Rep. Andrew Clyde claimed four months after the attack.
Past blockbuster congressional hearings have had blockbuster testimonies—and so did this hearing. But what made the start of the committee’s hearing series Thursday night different was the frequent and effective use of media to bolster the narrative presented by the committee.
The task before the committee is important. In a country so polarized that it cannot agree on what happened during a historical event that we all witnessed together in real time, facts count. The committee is asked to present these facts for a clear account of what happened that day, the democratic threat it posed, and the President’s role in the provocation. This does not serve to prosecute those involved (that is the task of the Ministry of Justice), but to protect against further erosion of democracy. Because without a shared understanding of how insidious the January 6 attack was, it could easily happen again and the country risks sliding towards authoritarianism.
Whether the public will accept these accounts is a major challenge, but one the committee is attempting to meet in part by emphasizing the bipartisan work being done. Rep. Liz Cheney, one of only two Republicans on the committee, chaired most of the first hearing, a clear attempt to emphasize that this was not a “political mock witch hunt‘ as GOP MP Elise Stefanik has claimed. According to Dannagal Young, a communications professor at the University of Delaware, the committee also seeks to limit partiality by going through the process methodically and calmly, while letting testimonies and video footage speak for themselves.
“Politics is achievement. It’s always been like that,” she said. “But that doesn’t change the content of the investigation. It doesn’t change what happened that day.”
Videos — some previously released, others aired for the first time — were carefully distributed throughout the hearing, underscoring the information shared by Cheney and committee chairman Rep. Bennie Thompson. Even in his opening remarks, Thompson included video to underscore the fact that the 2020 election was not stolen by Trump and signaled the big role the media would play in the upcoming hearings. Thompson warned that the clip contained “strong language” and broke off his remarks to play a clip from former Trump Attorney General Bill Barr’s testimony before the committee, where Barr said he recalled at least three discussions with the president , in which “I made it clear that I didn’t agree with the idea of saying the election was stolen and putting out this stuff that I told the President was bullshit.”
Later, clips of testimony from Trump’s daughter and senior adviser Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner, another senior White House adviser, showed those closest to the former president were aware that his allegations of fraud were unfounded. Video testimony from defendants charged with their alleged involvement in the attack, saying they were in Washington, DC that day because Trump had subpoenaed them, underscored the president’s role in inspiring the attack. Footage of Caroline Edwards, a police officer with the U.S. Capitol Police, who was on the front line that day and was beaten unconscious after mobs plowed past a barricade toward her, underscored her live testimony of just how violent January 6 was was.
“Politically, it’s pretty powerful to hear people like Bill Barr and Ivanka Trump say they knew there was no cheating and that the election wasn’t stolen, because these are people who are very strong in Donald Trump’s inner circle and admit that they knew the election wasn’t stolen,” said Steven Webster, a professor of political science at Indiana University Bloomington. “When you have people who are so close to the president, even his own children, saying there is no cheating here, that’s a very powerful image.”
For those who have been following the news closely, there was little that was revealing at that first hearing. But even for those of us who consume this news religiously, the asynchronous discovery of each new piece of information can make it difficult to keep track of timelines and details. That’s why methodical retelling is still valuable in the quiet, bureaucratic setting of a congressional hearing, even without bombastic revelations.
Before the hearing began, Majority Committee member Rep. Adam Schiff told FiveThirtyEight the committee plans to “present the evidence that we have gathered, both through live testimony and through a variety of media, in a way that is both very compelling.” as well as being deeply informative. These media — video, audio, and social media posts — have been the committee’s tool of choice in trying to meet its many challenges in creating a consensus understanding of January 6, 2021. In a country as polarized as the US, where confidence in the other party is so low, the committee hopes that seeing with our own eyes and hearing with our own ears will make the truth undeniable.
CORRECTION (June 10, 2022 10:32 am): This article was updated to correct a misspelling of Rep. Bennie Thompson’s first name.