The Jan. 6 revelations that analysts say might stick
No consensus on whether hearings helped prosecution chances, but testimony made for memorable sound bites
They'll be back. That's what members of the House select committee investigating former U.S. president Donald Trump's effort to overturn the 2020 election promised at the conclusion on Thursday of their last public hearing of the summer.
The tease for the resumption of hearings in September was in line with the tenor of the proceedings that have unfolded over the last six weeks, which the committee — made up of five Democrats and two renegade Republicans — has tried to bill as must-see TV.
In the end, the carefully choreographed testimony was less about wowing viewers with new details of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol than fleshing out what was already known in a way that would get their attention and stick.
"I think that they did an extraordinary job in kind of bringing all of us inside the tick-tock of the president's inner circle," said John Della Volpe, director of polling at the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics.
"They painted an incredibly vivid picture of just how close the president was to pulling off what would have amounted to a coup."
Here are some of the key ways in which the committee buttressed its narrative that Trump had a clear, deliberate intent to overturn the election at any cost.
Multi-pronged strategy to overturn election
Shooting down the various ways that Trump and some of his allies wanted to overturn the election became "like playing Whac-a-Mole," former attorney general William Barr said in a deposition played at one of the hearings.
Getting state officials to decertify electors.
Asking state officials to put up fake electors.
Seizing voting machines on the pretext they were hacked.
Getting Vice-President Mike Pence to refuse to certify electoral votes in the joint session of Congress on Jan. 6, as he was constitutionally obliged to do, and either send them back to states for a recount or declare Trump the winner based on a fake slate of electors.
Two camps emerged among the lawyers and aides in Trump's orbit: "Team Normal," as former campaign adviser Bill Stepien described it, which included Barr and White House lawyers Pat Cipollone and Eric Herschman; and the group of rogue lawyers trying to overturn the vote, including Sidney Powell, Rudy Giuliani and John Eastman.
The latter group, Cipollone testified, had "a general disregard for the importance of actually backing up what you say with facts."
Some of the most vivid detail to come out of the hearings related to a late-night meeting in the Oval Office on Dec. 18, 2020, at which the two sides clashed, screaming and hurling insults at each other to the point that White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson texted a colleague "the west wing is UNHINGED."
Here's the Hutchinson-Ornato text chain with more clarity. <a href="https://t.co/9YEOw8FGp0">pic.twitter.com/9YEOw8FGp0</a>—@kyledcheney
Pressure campaign extended to DOJ
Multiple witnesses described the fallout of a relentless pressure campaign to discredit the election results. Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who received a call from Trump himself, and Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers detailed threats against their families while Atlanta election worker Wandrea "Shaye" Moss told the committee that the harassment she and her mother, also an election worker, were subjected to turned their lives "upside down."
We also heard details from Department of Justice (DOJ) officials of Trump's attempts to get them to back his discredited claims of election fraud, including by ousting his own acting attorney general and replacing him with Jeffrey Clark, an assistant attorney general who was willing to promote false claims about election irregularities.
"Just say that the election was corrupt [and] leave the rest to me and the [Republican] congressmen," acting deputy attorney general Richard Donoghue said Trump told him.
Trump knew there was no evidence of election fraud
One of the most consistent refrains to emerge out of the hearings was that Trump was told — on multiple occasions and as early as late November 2020 — by his closest aides and the Justice Department that no evidence of election fraud had been found, but he continued to publicly advance the claims.
"Now, we have clear evidence from all of his top officials, including Bill Barr and so many others, that the president was made very well aware that he lost the election and was shown all the evidence to demonstrate so," said Ravi Perry, chair of the political science department at Howard University in Washington, D.C. "Before then, you could argue that maybe Trump didn't know."
Some of those who helped hatch the plans knew as well. A lawyer for Pence testified that John Eastman, who suggested Pence could certify an alternate slate of electors and declare Trump the winner, knew it was illegal and is one of several members of Trump's inner circle who sought pardons, the committee heard. He and Clark were both served warrants while the hearings were going on as part of a separate DOJ investigation into the attempt to overturn the election.
Trump was determined to join march on Capitol
Some of the most colourful testimony came on Day 6, when former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson described staffers' efforts to prevent the president from accompanying supporters to the Capitol.
Hutchinson set off a whole new line of inquiry when she testified that she was told by Trump's deputy chief of staff that the president had tried to grab the steering wheel of the presidential vehicle, known as the Beast, and force the Secret Service to drive him to the Capitol.
Speculation emerged after the hearing that members of the Secret Service were denying the account, prompting the committee to subpoena their text messages, all but one of which had been deleted. The Department of Homeland Security's inspector general has since launched an investigation into the missing texts.
Hutchinson also had one of the more memorable quotes of the hearing when she revealed that Trump knew some attending his rally were armed.
Cassidy Hutchinson: "I overheard the president say something to the effect of, 'I don't effing care that they have weapons. They're not here to hurt me. Take the effing mags away. Let my people in, they can march to the Capitol from here.'" <a href="https://t.co/42RRdO7dNh">pic.twitter.com/42RRdO7dNh</a>—@cspan
That detail, argues former federal prosecutor Glenn Kirschner, makes Trump's failure to intervene more serious once the rioters he egged on breached the Capitol.
"Donald Trump launched this attack, and we now know that he knew it was an armed attack," he said. "So it's not a dereliction of duty to [not] call off an attack you launch. It is a determination that the attack you launched should succeed."
What we didn't hear
"We have a lot more questions about the Secret Service," committee member Rep. Elaine Luria said Friday on the ABC talk show The View, where she questioned why some of the agents had hired private lawyers.
Finding out what the deleted texts said and why they were purged could shed more light on Trump's movements and state of mind, said Perry.
"I do think that will be central to what happened, because obviously, they were, you know, in closer contact with President Trump than probably anyone else interviewed so far."
It's also crucial, says Frank Bowman, a professor emeritus at the University of Missouri School of Law and an expert on impeachment, to verify their loyalty was to the office, not to Trump.
"Their fidelity to the constitutional order as opposed to the person has to be absolute," Bowman said. "The suggestion that it might not have been during this period is something that needs to be explored."
He would also like to see Pence testify before the committee. Although we heard over the course of the eight hearings the extent to which Trump tried to put pressure on the vice-president not to certify the results and vilified him when he did, Pence himself has yet to give a full account.
"What were his contacts with the president, people around the president; what was being suggested to him; what were his responses; what happened on the day?" Bowman said.
"It seems to me his ... patriotic duty is to come forward and tell the country what he knows."
Bowman said he doesn't expect the committee to subpoena Pence since he would likely try to invoke executive privilege, which could drag out the process.
Will it lead to prosecution?
Analysts disagree on whether what we've heard at the hearings will factor into any potential criminal prosecution.
Kirschner said he thinks the committee presented more than enough evidence to show Trump had corrupt intent even if there is no paper trail, for example, showing he co-ordinated with the extremist groups that tried to stop the certification of the election results by storming the Capitol.
"It's a fallacy to suggest that unless Donald Trump, you know, wrote in an oath of blood, 'I corruptly intended to overthrow our democracy or overturn the results of that election,' we can't prosecute him," Kirschner said.
John Yoo, a professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley, and others have argued that the evidence so far is not enough to show Trump incited violence or took part in a seditious conspiracy.
"He spoke recklessly, but not criminally, at least not as defined by the Supreme Court," Yoo argued in the Boston Globe. "Trump made legal arguments to try to persuade Pence to suspend the vote count. But he did not actually coerce Pence — who, in any event, ignored him."
- AnalysisHow Cassidy Hutchinson's testimony could lead to a seditious conspiracy charge against Trump
The dereliction of duty that the committee tried to demonstrate by painstakingly laying out Trump's failure to intervene as the riot was unfolding "is not a federal crime," Yoo wrote. "It is a political failure for which the remedy is impeachment."
Trump has already been impeached in the House and acquitted in the Senate.
Even if there are valid legal reasons to prosecute, there are also risks, said Bowman, such as alienating the president's supporters even more than they already are.
"If you indict him, I think it's quite likely that you're going to get some form of civil unrest," he said.
It also sets a dangerous precedent.
"Once you're in office in a culture in which it is not uncommon for former leaders to be prosecuted, then the idea of losing a re-election contest becomes existential peril," he said. "And that, of course, leads people in power to take extraordinary measures to stay there."
Did committee achieve what it set out to do?
Committee members have said their intent was not to present a criminal case but to lay out the facts and show Americans why Trump is not fit to stand for office again.
Whether the voters in November's midterm elections or those most pivotal in convincing the Republican Party to reject him as their nominee in 2024 were convinced is unclear.
The hearings averaged 13 million viewers, with 18 million tuning in for the last session. A recent Marist poll found that 80 per cent of Democrats said they were paying a lot of attention to the hearings, compared with 44 per cent of Republicans and 50 per cent of Independents, and that perceptions of how voters viewed the Jan, 6 attack had not changed much.
"For Republican primary voters, which you may consider the base of the party. I don't think it matters at all," Perry said. "However, the base of the party is not the party that can win a general election. In order to win general elections in the United States, you've got to be able to pull from some independents and ... from some conservative Democrats in certain locales."