If I’m honest — and I try to be even when not under oath — I was afraid that the January 6 committee would blow its big prime-time opportunity Thursday night.
I thought the members may have overpromised — new revelations, never-before-seen video of the assault on the Capitol, damning testimony from inside the Trump crime family. Was this the lead-up to a congressional hearing or to a WWE smackdown? Had we already forgotten that the House impeached Donald Trump twice — and, in each case, to no measurable effect?
If there’s anything we’ve learned in the Trump era, it’s his surpassing talent — going back decades — for breaking all the rules and never having to pay a price. How could this time possibly be different?
The answer was shockingly simple. I hadn’t counted on Rep. Liz Cheney — who has probably sacrificed her promising political career in choosing to take on Trump and every seditious orange hair on his head — to save the day.
She had made her stand months ago, as soon as the Big Lie became evident. She was basically exiled from the party for it. She’s being primaried in Wyoming and is polling well behind her Trump-backed challenger.
But it was on Thursday that Cheney, as one of two Republicans on the select committee, made the brilliant presentation of facts that even the most diehard Trump supporter would have difficulty refuting. She and committee chair Rep. Bennie Thompson, who called the riot part of Trump’s attempted coup, shared the lead role on the committee. But Thompson is a Democrat. Cheney is not only a Republican defector, but one born to a Republican dynasty, a conservative’s conservative whose politics are even to the right of Trump’s. And certainly way right of mine. All she did was represent what remains of the party’s conscience. Who would have ever expected that of Dick Cheney’s daughter?
And in doing so, Cheney, in her measured voice, demanded that we pay attention not only to Thursday’s dramatic opening night, as she laid out what she called Trump’s seven-stage plan to overturn the election, but also to the rest of the January 6 hearings that will play out over the month, with the next one scheduled for Monday morning.
Trump may be the villain here. No, I take that back, Trump is clearly the villain here. And Rudy Giuliani, or is it the MyPillow guy, may be the court jesters. But as the committee laid out the obvious — that Trump had been repeatedly told by his closest associates that he had lost the election — it showed that he knew all along that the Big Lie was, in fact, a lie, no matter how often or how loudly he repeated it.
The committee offered even more — the promise they would show Trump resisting pleas from his aides and from lawmakers to stop the violence. We saw the rioters threatening to hang Mike Pence, whom Trump had tried, but failed, to bring into his plot to overturn the election. And we heard there was testimony that Trump had offered, while watching the riot play out on TV from the White House, that hanging Pence might not be the worst idea.
Meanwhile, Cheney said, Trump never called the Army, never called the National Guard, for reinforcements. But guess who did — yes, Pence, after being led away to an undisclosed location beneath the Capitol.
As the video of the riot played on our screens, we heard Trump’s superimposed voice taken from an interview a year or so later, saying, “The crowd was unbelievable and I mentioned the word ‘love,’ the love in the air, I’ve never seen anything like it. Too much spirit and faith and love, there was such love at that rally ….”
That wasn’t Trump’s biggest lie, but it’s big enough. And, for that matter, we heard Trump’s former attorney general, the otherwise odious Bill Barr, testify that he had repeatedly told Trump that his rantings of a rigged election were so much, well, “bullshit.” We heard Ivanka Trump say that she believed Barr.
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But what will be remembered as the line of the night — in a night full of memorable moments — was how Cheney finished her presentation:
“ Tonight, I say this to my Republican colleagues who are defending the indefensible. There will come a day when Donald Trump is gone, but your dishonor will remain.”
Assuming we’re still allowed to have history books, Cheney has assured her place and also assured the place of every Trump enabler, from Ted Cruz to Kevin McCarthy to even Lauren Boebert, although I figure she’ll just be in the footnotes.
We know what Cheney has potentially sacrificed. It was the theme of the night — those who stood for truth and justice versus those who stood for Trump and injustice. There were only two witnesses — a documentarian who had been embedded with the Proud Boys and a cop who had been seriously injured in trying to hold the line against the violent rioters.
The U.S. Capitol cop, Caroline Edwards, was likely the first officer injured. There’s video, of course. She was knocked unconscious by the rioters, but when she recovered, she got back up and returned to the line. That’s the key point. In a hopeless and dangerous situation, she stayed true to her task — unlike all those Republican lawmakers who still defend Trump and some of whom, we learned, had asked Trump for a post-January 6 pardon. We are left to wonder for which crimes they needed pardoning.
“What I saw was just a war scene,” Edwards said, in moving testimony. “It was something like I had seen out of the movies. I could not believe my eyes. There were officers on the ground. They were bleeding. They were throwing up. I saw friends with blood all over their faces. I was slipping in people’s blood. I was catching people as they fell. It was carnage. It was chaos.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think that as a police officer and as a law enforcement officer, I would find myself in the middle of a battle,” she continued. “I am trained to detain a couple of subjects and handle a crowd, but I’m not combat trained. And that day, it was just hours of hand-to-hand combat.”
The videos showed just how involved the Proud Boys and other far-right groups were in the assault. We learned the Proud Boys had left the Trump rally even before Trump spoke. The suggestion was raised that they may have been casing the Capitol, looking for weak spots, before Trump would send the rally crowd there. Was that all part of the plan?
“On Dec. 18, 2020, a group including Gen. Michael Flynn, Sidney Powell, Rudy Giuliani, and others visited the White House. They stayed late into the evening. We know that the group discussed a number of dramatic steps, including having the military seize voting machines and potentially rerun elections. … President Trump met with that group alone for a period of time before White House lawyers and other staff discovered the group was there and rushed to intervene.
“A little more than an hour after Ms. Powell, Mr. Giuliani, General Flynn and the others finally left the White House, President Trump sent the tweet on the screen now, telling people to come to Washington on January 6th. ‘Be there,’ he instructed them. ‘Will be wild!’
“As you will see, this was a pivotal moment. This tweet initiated a chain of events. The tweet led to the planning for what occurred on January 6th, including by the Proud Boys who ultimately led the invasion of the Capitol and the violence that day.”
I’m not so naive to think these hearings, no matter how damning, will change many minds. The polarization in our country is too deeply entrenched. And we’ve known much of the story for many months, although it seems we’re going to learn a lot more.
But, whatever else happens, it will all be on the record. And for Trump defenders, they’ll continue to be reminded that the dishonor will never fade.
Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.
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