The Morning: Why the hearings matter

Even if the Jan. 6 attack will not become a unifying moment for the country.

Good morning. The Jan. 6 hearings have begun. Here's why they matter.

The panel investigating the Jan. 6 attack showed testimony from Bill Barr.Doug Mills/The New York Times

'An attempted coup'

The opportunity for the Jan. 6 attack to serve as a unifying moment for the country has already been lost.

The initial bipartisan condemnation of it has given way to a partisan argument in which many congressional Republicans play down the attack. The Republican Party's official organization described the riot as "legitimate political discourse," and Republican leaders like Representative Kevin McCarthy quickly softened their initial denunciation. About half of Republicans voters say it was a patriotic attempt to defend freedom.

But the facts about Jan. 6 still matter. On that day, a mob violently attacked the Capitol — smashing windows, punching police officers, threatening members of Congress and Vice President Mike Pence — to try to prevent the certification of a presidential election. The rioters justified their attack with lies about voter fraud, and they received encouragement from top Republicans, including President Donald Trump and the wife of a Supreme Court justice.

Last night, a House committee investigating the attack held its first public hearing, and today's newsletter covers the highlights. These hearings are not going to transform the politics of Jan. 6, yet they do have the potential to affect public opinion on the margins. And the margins can matter.

Caroline Edwards, a Capitol Police officer, and Nick Quested, a documentary filmmaker.Kenny Holston for The New York Times

There are still many Republican voters disgusted by what happened on Jan. 6. Nearly half say that finding out what happened that day is important. Almost 20 percent consider the attack to have been an attempt to overthrow the government, according to a recent CBS News poll. About 40 percent believe, accurately, that voter fraud was not widespread in the 2020 election.

"I actually think that there is an opportunity," Sarah Longwell, an anti-Trump Republican strategist, said this week on our colleague Kara Swisher's podcast. The hearings, Longwell added, can help prosecute the case for how extreme some Republican politicians have become.

If Republican voters are divided over the attack and Democrats are almost uniformly horrified by it, the politicians making excuses for it remain in the minority. Candidates who base their campaigns on lies about voter fraud — as some are now doing in Arizona, Pennsylvania and elsewhere — will have a harder time winning elections. Future efforts to overturn an election will be less likely to succeed.

For the same reason, any Republicans who have consistently denounced the attacks — like Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, the only two Republicans serving on the Jan. 6 committee — are especially important. They are demonstrating that it's possible to hold very conservative views and nonetheless believe in honoring election results. Until very recently, that combination wasn't even unusual: Ronald Reagan and many other Republicans won elections by earning more votes.

The Jan. 6 hearings are part of a larger struggle over the future of American democracy. Americans will probably never come to a consensus on many polarizing political issues, like abortion, guns, immigration and religion. That's part of living in a democracy.

But if Americans cannot agree that the legitimate winner of an election should take office and if losing candidates refuse to participate in a peaceful transfer of power, the country has much bigger problems than any policy disagreement.

Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the committee's vice chairwoman.Doug Mills/The New York Times

The hearing:

  • The committee, led by Cheney and Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat, cast the Capitol attack as part of Trump's "sprawling, multi-step conspiracy" to overturn the 2020 election. "Jan. 6 was the culmination of an attempted coup," Thompson said.
  • Lawmakers interspersed their presentation with videos of former Trump aides testifying that they had told the president that his claims of voter fraud were false. The committee also played never-before-aired footage of rioters attacking police officers.
  • Caroline Edwards, a Capitol Police officer whom the mob knocked unconscious and pepper sprayed, testified in person about the attack: "It was carnage. It was chaos."
  • Cheney addressed members of her party who remain loyal to Trump: "There will come a day when Donald Trump is gone, but your dishonor will remain."

What we learned:

  • Trump believed the rioters were "doing what they should be doing," Cheney said, and yelled at advisers who said that he should call them off. He said that rioters who chanted about hanging Pence "maybe" had "the right idea."
  • The committee played video of Bill Barr, the former attorney general, saying that he had called Trump's fraud claims "bullshit" and "crazy stuff." Ivanka Trump, the president's daughter, testified that she "accepted" what Barr said.
  • Footage shot by a documentary filmmaker showed members of the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, two far-right groups who stormed the Capitol, meeting on the evening before the attack.
  • In video testimonies, several rioters said that they had stormed the Capitol in response to Trump's summons. "He asked me for my vote and he asked me to come on Jan. 6," one said.
  • Cheney said that Pence, not Trump, ordered the National Guard to the Capitol during the attack, and that "multiple" House Republicans sought pardons over their efforts to overturn the election.

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Natasha Frost, Claire Moses, Tom Wright-Piersanti and Ashley Wu contributed to The Morning. You can reach the team at themorning@nytimes.com.

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