There were many more morally and legally damning pieces of evidence presented against Donald Trump during Thursday night’s prime-time hearing of the January 6 committee. But none were more humiliating for Trump’s overblown ego than the outtakes from the taping of his January 7, 2021, speech to the nation when he was under heavy pressure to finally say the right things about the assault on the Capitol.
Even then—threatened by a potential Cabinet rebellion that could invoke the Twenty-Fifth Amendment to remove him from office—Trump couldn’t fully commit. He rebelled at saying, “If you broke the law ...” about the insurrectionists and demanded that the line, “The election is over,” be stricken from his text. He was coached along by his daughter Ivanka as he squinted, struggling to read the teleprompter. The Great and Powerful Trump pounded the podium in frustration when he said “defied” instead of “defiled.” And he admitted, like a reading-challenged third grader, “‘Yesterday’ is a hard word for me.”
The hearing focused on Trump’s 187 minutes of deliberate inaction as the violent mob of his supporters was overrunning the Capitol. But the two live witnesses, former deputy national security adviser Matthew Pottinger and Sarah Matthews, the former deputy White House press secretary, suffered from not being close enough to Trump on January 6, 2021, to tell nearly as many compelling stories as Cassidy Hutchinson did late last month. What has still eluded the committee is a detailed account of exactly what Trump was saying and doing in the dining room off the Oval Office for nearly three hours as the Capitol was under its worst assault since the War of 1812. In a sense, Trump was a modern-day Nero, avidly watching Fox News as American democracy burned.
Virginia Democrat Elaine Luria and retiring Illinois Republican Adam Kinzinger ran the hearing. The pairing was obviously deliberate since they are the two veterans on the committee—Luria as a Navy commander and Kinzinger as an Air Force pilot in Afghanistan and Iraq. While Kinzinger was occasionally bombastic, Luria was a powerful advocate with her understated intensity. In a memorable closing statement, Luria said, “Donald Trump summoned a violent mob and promised to lead that mob to the Capitol.... And when he was thwarted in his effort to lead the armed uprising, he instigated the attackers to target the vice president with violence.” Then Luria added, “In the end, this is not a story of inaction in time of crisis. But instead, it was the final action of Donald Trump’s own plan to usurp the will of the American people and remain in power.”
For the last year, as she prepped for this center-stage moment, Luria has steeped herself in the literature and memoirs coming out of the 1973 Senate Watergate committee. What she certainly learned was a lesson that now governs the January 6 committee—the truth in any high-profile inquiry emerges gradually, with fresh witnesses offering new stories and adding confirmations to the existing narrative.
Thursday night’s hearing was initially supposed to be the last public installment before the committee issues its final report in September. But that schedule has been extended following a torrent of new information. As Representative Liz Cheney, the vice chair of the committee, said in her opening statement, “Doors have opened, new subpoenas have been issued, and the dam has begun to break.” So the hearings will resume in September with undoubtedly more surprise witnesses. Who knows, maybe we’ll get to see Steve Bannon or Supreme Court spouse and election denier Ginni Thomas—or most important of all, former chief of staff Mark Meadows, one of the few people who could best fill in those missing 187 minutes.
Some of the most memorable moments of the hearing centered on buttressing stories that we had already heard. The committee offered chilling footage of Mike Pence’s party, trapped in his Capitol office, as the deadly mob moved closer. Members of the vice president’s Secret Service detail were even reportedly calling loved ones to say goodbye. The footage provided a dramatic illustration of how close a call the threat was to Pence as Trump tweeted new attacks on his vice president.
In prior testimony, Hutchinson had offered a key piece of evidence about Trump’s temper tantrum in his limousine when the Secret Service refused to drive him to the Capitol to cheer on the armed mob. Then, press leaks from within the Secret Service had challenged Hutchinson’s account. But the committee showed with videotaped testimony that Hutchinson’s story had been upheld by an anonymous White House security official and retired District of Columbia police Sgt. Mark Robinson. Both said that they had heard that the motorcade was delayed by a virtually unprecedented commotion in the president’s limousine.
The committee could not resist taking shots at some of Trump’s worst congressional enablers. One telling moment—which in itself may be enough to derail a future presidential campaign—featured Missouri Senator Josh Hawley, who shook his fist in support of the insurrectionists as they arrived at the Capitol. Luria talked about a Capitol Police officer who was angry that Hawley was egging the crowd on from “a safe space, protected by the officers and the barriers.” Just to drive home the point, Luria then showed a video of Hawley later fleeing from the Senate chamber along with his frightened colleagues.
Luria is the only Democrat on the committee in a tough reelection fight in her southeastern Virginia district. About an hour before Thursday night’s hearing began, Luria’s GOP opponent, state Senator Jen Kiggans, tweeted, “Who’s watching the JAN 6 Committee featuring Elaine Luria doing questioning on prime time TV tonight? Dems are spending millions of dollars on this while Americans are paying record breaking prices for gas & groceries & suffering through 9.1% inflation!”
The hearing, which was shown live on every major network other than (surprise) Fox News, was another installment in a TV series that is getting harder and harder for Republicans such as Kiggans to wish away. Trump may not be able to easily utter the word “yesterday.” But the yesterday of January 6 continues to haunt Trump as the most powerful congressional inquiry in more than three decades shows no sign of slowing down.