Editor’s Note: Fred Wertheimer is president of Democracy 21, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that works to strengthen our democracy. Norman Eisen is a senior fellow at Brookings and a CNN legal analyst. The views expressed in this commentary are their own. Read more opinion articles on CNN.
The House select committee’s January 6 hearings have so far exceeded all of our expectations. They have told the American people a gripping story of Trump’s attempted coup – one packed with new details that seem to have swayed public opinion.
The committee’s task for its next hearing is to continue confronting its toughest obstacle: amassing conclusive evidence of Trump’s intent to overturn the 2020 election on January 6.
As veterans of congressional investigations with over a half-century of experience between us, our expectations were high before these hearings began. After all, the January 6 committee was addressing the country’s first attempted coup led by a president, the first attack on the Capitol since the War of 1812 and the greatest domestic attack on our democracy and country since the Civil War. There could be no more important topic.
We also had high expectations given the exceptional track record of the committee members, including Reps. Adam Schiff and Jamie Raskin, who led the first and second impeachments against Trump; Rep. Zoe Lofgren, whose experience stretches back to Watergate; the incomparable Rep. Liz Cheney; and the decades-long congressional experience of Chairman Bennie Thompson. To that was added a skillful and productive (and large) staff of over 50 people who have spent a year poring over more than 125,000 records and conducting more than 1,000 interviews.
The result has been a blockbuster series of seven hearings – we would argue the most important ones we’ve seen in a half century. Indeed, the content of the January 6 hearings may be even more important than the ones on Watergate, because the focus today strikes at the heart of our democracy: the peaceful transfer of power based upon the vote of the people. What’s more, the attempt to overturn the 2020 election came from within the innermost sanctum of our democracy, the Oval Office.
The hearings opened with the baseline of a federal judge’s findings that Trump was likely involved in at least two potential crimes: conspiracy to defraud the United States and obstruction of Congress.
The hearings have materially advanced the proof of these offenses beyond a reasonable doubt. In the first five hearings, the committee methodically established that Trump knew he lost the election, with the likes of former Attorney General Bill Barr testifying that he told the former president that his claims of election theft were “bulls**t.”
The committee showed that Trump sought to procure nonexistent votes, with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger testifying about Trump’s pressure to get him to “find 11,780 votes.”
The hearings substantiated Trump’s direct involvement in procuring an alternate slate of fraudulent electors through the testimony of live witnesses like Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers and videotaped ones from Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel.
And they documented Trump’s efforts to pressure then-Vice President Mike Pence to refuse to certify the electoral votes through testimony from Republican stalwarts like Pence’s counsel Greg Jacob and his former Chief of Staff Marc Short.
All of that was done through witnesses who were Republicans and former Trump allies.
Throughout the first five hearings, the committee drew a striking road map of the elements of Trump’s potential crimes. To us, it brought to mind the famous Watergate “road map” that laid out the Nixon administration’s transgressions.
Then came the John Dean of these hearings, 26-year old former White House aide, Cassidy Hutchinson. Her blockbuster testimony in the sixth hearing and the evidence that followed in the seventh introduced a new element to the allegations of conspiracy and obstruction: violent intent.
Hutchinson provided context for Trump’s state of mind on January 6, testifying that he wanted to allow armed attendees at his rally at the Ellipse to bypass security and requested that rhetoric calling for supporters to march to the Capitol and effectively fight for Trump be included in his draft speech.
The seventh hearing deepened this story of Trump’s violent intent, explaining its origins in a December 18 Oval Office meeting with his most extreme supporters followed by the now-notorious December 19 “will be wild” tweet, which acted as a “siren” setting us on the path to the conflagration that was January 6.
That brings us to what we can expect from Tuesday’s hearing: Trump’s state of mind when the violence was consummated: the 187 minutes before he responded to the events at the Capitol. We can expect to hear about the way he targeted Pence that day and his negligent inaction while the mob made its way inside the Capitol.
We may also hear more about the member of the White House support staff whom Trump tried to contact, and from Sarah Matthews, a former White House deputy press secretary. They and other witnesses can shed further light on Trump’s state of mind and his refusal to call to stop the violence for several hours, despite numerous Trump allies urging him to do so.
This will build on existing evidence that Trump violated the federal criminal prohibitions on conspiring to defraud the United States and to obstruct Congress by further filling in the intent piece.
Then, it will be in the hands of prosecutors to follow the road map of proof that the committee has laid out – including Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis. Her special grand jury investigation was already moving along, and these hearings have surely advanced it by repeatedly citing proof of Trump’s interactions with Georgia election officials.
While that will be largely out of the committee’s hands, any additional hearings they have and their final report can certainly put a finer point on the superb work they have already done building the foundation for prosecutions. That can take the form of crystallizing the roadmap, compiling the evidence and getting it on paper, or even taking steps to issue a formal analysis of state and federal crimes or a criminal referral.
There’s one other thing the committee should do both with the eighth hearing and its work to follow. That is to point out that, in a sense, the conspiracy they have ably articulated has not ended.
The mob dispersed on January 6 and Trump left the White House, but he and his enablers continue to push the outrageous lie that the 2020 election was stolen. There are over 100 Trump adherents running for federal and state office, over 200 pieces of legislation based on the election fraud lie and the Supreme Court is set to take up a case that could allow state legislators to do the kinds of things that Trump and his allies sought. With all of this, we face not only a constitutional crisis, but also an existential one.
The good news is that a bipartisan coalition came together to beat back Trump’s conspiracy in 2020, and we can do it again. It’s important for the committee to analyze and galvanize this effort. Thankfully, they’ve already begun talking about the ongoing crisis. If they bring the same energy and excellence to expanding on this problem and its solutions as they have to their work thus far, that will be another important contribution. We hope to see it.