WWho is the January 6th committee speaking to? Over the past week, the committee has held three public hearings that offer a clear, compelling, and thorough account of Donald Trump’s attempts to overthrow the 2020 election and the events leading up to the violent riot in the Capitol. The hearings were choreographed and meticulously written to the word, providing a clear argument that Trump intentionally broke the law in his quest for eternal power. The hearings, compelling as an argument and surprisingly successful as televised, betray a vision and discipline rare in congressional proceedings that would have been impossible had not nearly all Republicans been absent from the panel.
And yet, over the course of the committee’s three hearings, viewers have heard almost exclusively from Republicans. The public presentation of the committee’s findings relies heavily on videotaped testimonies from members of the Trump campaign and the Trump administration. During the opening night of the hearings last week, we heard from a montage of figures from the Trump world testifying under oath that they knew the 2020 election had been conducted fairly, despite Trump telling the public they were stolen. There were two eyewitnesses to the violence at the scene, a Capitol Police officer and a British documentary filmmaker, who spoke about how brutal and chaotic the Capitol scene was. When it was the committee’s turn to characterize their findings, it was Liz Cheney — a Wyoming right-wing ideologue — who did most of the talking.
On Tuesday, the committee’s presentation focused on how Trump loyalists searched for evidence of voter fraud, with campaign attorneys and Justice Department staff investigating every implausible report of irregularities that passed the president’s desk — from tales of a leaky pipe to mysterious suitcases in Atlanta – to darker conspiracies about nefarious officials in Philadelphia. These allegations have all been investigated with surprising seriousness, and they have all been found unfounded, even by inquisitors sympathetic to Trump’s authoritarian cause. Trump and his allies nonetheless pressed the false allegations of fraud. Again, the committee used only Republican testimony, giving Trump and his insurgent faction just enough rope to hang themselves.
In the story the January 6 Committee is telling about the attempted coup and its violent climax, Republicans are the bad guys and Republicans are also the good guys. The Republicans are the ones who planned a coup, looked for a legal justification, made up lies about fraud and wasted taxpayer dollars investigating them, and then descended on the Capitol in a mob. But it was also the Republicans who privately said the election was fair, who told the President the allegations of voter fraud were lies, and who frantically texted the White House as violence erupted and people were killed, calling on Trump to cancel the whole thing.
It’s not a plausible story: the idea that the Republican Party are both the heroes and villains of January 6th; that their private, whispered uneasiness and hasty condemnations of violence should excuse their cooperation and complicity until January 5th. It’s particularly implausible now, a year and a half after the attack, as Republicans who once distanced themselves from the January 6 Mafia have come to embrace it. But that’s the story the committee is telling.
They broke the story Thursday as they presented ample and troubling evidence of increasingly ominous attempts by Trump and his campaign attorney, John Eastman, to persuade Pence to refuse to confirm the election results. The committee heard from two right-wing legal experts: Pence’s in-house counsel, Greg Jacob, who was with the vice president at the Capitol on January 6 and advised him in the weeks that followed; and former federal judge John Michael Luttig, a lawyer of high standing in the right-wing legal community, for whom John Eastman was once a clerk.
The two men clearly enjoyed hearing themselves talk, and their testimony included some lengthy and indulgent arguments about the alleged “unartificialness” or “perfection” of the 12th Amendment language. But together they told the story of an alarming campaign of pressure on the vice president to either reject voting votes for Biden outright or to suspend the joint session of Congress to allow time for the votes to be “recertified” (i.e., changed) by state legislatures.
It was Eastman who invented this vague scheme, claiming without precedent or legal basis that the vice president had the power to unilaterally alter the results of an election. The Pence camp desperately searched for a way to make the plan legal, only to find none. For weeks, Pence and his advisers found themselves in a quandary — unwilling to admit the election or disappoint Trump, but also too scared to become involved in a treacherously cunning scheme. The Pence camp told Trump and Eastman that the plan was illegal. According to witnesses, so did the White House Attorney. Everyone did. According to Jacob, both Eastman and Giuliani admitted at certain points that the program had no legal basis. They kept pushing anyway.
Things escalated. Trump began publicly attacking Pence on Twitter. The vice president’s office spoke to the Secret Service before Jan. 6 and was concerned that Trump’s hostility would mean Pence would need more security. In a phone call the morning of the attack, Trump called Pence a “wimp” and a “pussy.” White House officials testified that even after being alerted to the violence at the Capitol, Trump sent out another tweet attacking Pence. This unleashed a surge of intensity and passion from the angry crowd, who rushed into the Capitol building and chanted “Hang Mike Pence.” After the crowd cleared and congressmen returned to the looted Capitol to complete their work, Eastman sent another email: Would Pence consider dumping the election now?
A person of conscientiousness and integrity would never have found himself in the position in which Mike Pence found himself on January 6th. A brave man would have been more likely to stand up to Trump; a morally committed man would not have worked for him at all. Still, the committee’s argument that Pence did something honorable in refusing to carry out the illegal plan put forward by Eastman might hold some Weight, in the sense that Pence was under tremendous, life-threatening pressure to do the wrong thing, and he wasn’t doing it. But perhaps this is the real charge against the American system of government: If we were a functioning democracy, the rule of law would not depend on something as feeble as Mike Pence’s honor.
But as a symbol of a good Republican, Pence hardly seems to fit the image of sincerity and dignity the committee is trying to ascribe to him. The members of the January 6th Committee want to be very clear about addressing these “good” Republicans, showing them that their party doesn’t need to be defined by Trump, bringing them back into the open. But the people they talk to no longer exist.