Editor’s Note: Norman Eisen is a senior fellow at Brookings and CNN legal analyst. Noah Bookbinder is president of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group, and co-author with Eisen of “Trump on Trial,” a guide to the January 6 hearings. Fred Wertheimer is president of Democracy 21, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that works to strengthen our democracy. The views expressed in this commentary are their own. View more opinion on CNN.
It’s appropriate that on Monday, within a few days of the 50th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, the House select committee investigating the January 6 attack presented a hearing focused on the question “What did President Donald Trump know, and when did he know it?”
This deep dive into the first of what the committee says is a seven-part conspiracy revealed Trump’s choice to disregard the truth and the law. The focus on the former President’s state of mind is critical to building the case for the American people – and for possible prosecutions like those that ensued a half-century ago.
The committee had a tough act to follow. It opened on Thursday with a gut-wrenching hearing meant to jolt Americans and make the case that there had been a conspiracy to overturn the results of a free and fair election that resulted in horrific violence. The message of that hearing was that Trump bore both moral and criminal responsibility for this attack.
On Monday, the committee began the focused – but no less important – work of substantiating each element of its case.
With Rep. Zoe Lofgren joining the panel’s chairman and vice chair, Reps. Bennie Thompson and Liz Cheney, in presenting the case, the committee began with opening statements and one of its patented video montages.
The preliminaries showed that Trump’s efforts to spread disinformation and seed false claims of fraud started months before the election, in the spring of 2020. Trump’s pre-election speeches, statements and screeds attacking mail-in ballots were woven together with video of witnesses from Trump’s orbit. Before the first live witness had spoken, the committee sought to establish that heading into Election Day, Trump and his allies had every intention to claim fraud if they lost – and were planning to do so whether there was any evidence of fraud or not.
After setting the stage of the former President’s intent, the committee moved to in-depth testimony from Trump 2020 campaign manager Bill Stepien and former Attorney General William Barr by video and former Fox News editor Chris Stirewalt in person.
The committee has been known for its thoroughness, and it paid off here, particularly with Stepien. He had been scheduled to appear in person but was unable to do so when his wife went into labor. Instead, his earlier videotaped interview was shown, and the panel used it to devastating effect.
Stepien offered an unusual inside view into the campaign and the White House, including testimony that Trump knew initial returns immediately on and after Election Day would be positive for him because more Democrats vote by mail and therefore their ballots are counted later – and that the campaign and White House advisers all told Trump there was no basis to declare victory on election night based on those early returns.
The only dissenting voice was Rudy Giuliani. Trump chose to listen to the former New York mayor.
Stirewalt’s testimony discussed what happened within Fox News when his team called Arizona on election night for Biden. His overall takeaway was that Trump had lost, and there was no basis to think otherwise by the time the election was called several days later.
The most damning evidence of all came from Barr. He polished off the first panel of Monday’s hearing with extensive video testimony explaining that he told Trump again and again that the allegations of fraud were false after the election. Barr recounted telling Trump that his election fraud claims were “not panning out” and were “crazy.”
Monday was not the typical congressional hearing with long speeches. Despite a delay occasioned by Stepien’s absence, the day’s first panel was a little over an hour long. After a 10-minute break, the committee was back at it, with a one-two punch in an attempt to prove Trump’s malign intent.
Byung “Bjay” Pak, the Trump-appointed former US attorney in Atlanta, and former Philadelphia City Commissioner Al Schmidt, also a Republican, testified that they looked for fraud in their respective jurisdictions but didn’t find it. Their attempts to convey this truth were met with GOP derision and escalating presidential pressure. Schmidt also testified powerfully about the personal threats he faced from Trump supporters, an ominous foreshadowing of the insurrection to come.
The effective presentation continued with Benjamin Ginsberg, a leading Republican election lawyer, testifying that the 62 legal challenges by Trump’s team (all but one lost, and that victory had nothing to do with fraud) offered plentiful opportunities to make its case of a stolen election but, in all instances, the campaign lacked the credible evidence of fraud needed to do so. He and others on Monday’s second panel were bolstered by the frequent reappearances of the former attorney general on video. Barr delivered the same messages based on his conversations with Trump.
Whether in person or on video, the witnesses were credible and convincing. Some observers feared that these proceedings might be overproduced, especially when the committee hired a former senior TV producer to assist. But in fact, the hearings have had an informal quality that has made them accessible and convincing. They are the televised Watergate hearings for the YouTube and TikTok era.
Showing that Trump knew or was willfully blind to the fact that he lost and set out to overturn the election anyway is the most straightforward way to show intent for several of the potential crimes with which Trump may be charged. Proving this intent is crucial both for federal crimes and for state ones, such as those being looked at by Fulton County, Georgia, District Attorney Fani Willis in Atlanta.
Of course, it will be for prosecutors to decide whether to bring those cases, though the committee can be a powerful voice in recommending that charges be brought, or at least providing a road map of the evidence.
The committee’s primary job is to get the truth out to the American people and recommend steps to ensure such an insurrection does not happen again. It has already made great strides in that direction, with much more expected to come. Trump, in pushing a bogus “Stop the Steal” narrative, was tricking and manipulating his supporters and gaming the system to stay in the White House, even though he lost – and he had to know it.
As important as Monday’s presentation was, it was just the first of the alleged seven-part conspiracy the committee has laid out of the attempt to overturn the election, culminating in the January 6 insurrection. Next, the committee will set out to show Trump’s plan to replace the acting attorney general so that the Justice Department would support his false fraud claims.
We are still at the beginning of the story. But the two hearings so far make it clear that in the coming weeks we will receive a voluminously supported and tightly woven story of a carefully planned attack on American democracy – and a potential criminal conspiracy.